Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) and Winter © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

It feels wrong to criticize a well intentioned children’s movie too harshly, especially one with a positive message. And although Dolphin Tale’s “inspired by a true story” claim is stretched to the point of insult, considering that nearly all of the main characters and their situations are total fabrications, it’s not as if the simplistic screenplay seems cynical or insincere. The movie is more amateurish and uninvolving than outright offensive — but as far as kiddie flicks go, at least it’s not about costumed characters beating each other up.

Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) is a mopey kid living with his single mom (Ashley Judd) in Florida. His departed dad is an incommunicado deadbeat, and the swimming-champion cousin he idolizes has enlisted and is being sent to war. That entire family is fictional.

Sawyer’s mind is taken off his miseries when he helps rehabilitate an injured dolphin called Winter (at last, a character that actually exists). The bond Sawyer forms with the bottlenose dolphin is supposed to be the basis of a coming-of-age story about the love that grows from dedication and responsibility, but the story is so flat it’s hard to empathize with anyone onscreen.

Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) and Kyle Connellan (Austin Stowell) © 2011 Alcon Film Fund

Sawyer is a boring wet blanket who always takes too long to respond, a flaw that may have been alleviated by better editing. As the sleepily passionless composite character Dr Clay Haskett, Harry Connick Jr doesn’t seem nearly upset enough that his money-losing marine hospital is about to be shut down. His chipper chatterbox fictional daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) simply isn’t much of an actress (and yes, I do feel like a monster for saying that about a pre-teen). Kris Kristofferson is crusty and corny as Hazel’s fictional granddad. Later, Sawyer’s fictional cousin Kyle (Austin Sowell) seems more miffed than angry or indignant about ending up in a wheelchair from a battle injury.

It’s bad news when Winter loses her injured tailfin to infection, because no dolphin had been known to survive that trauma. Sawyer gets the idea that twinkly Dr McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), who makes prosthetics at the hospital where Kyle is a patient, may be able to fashion a new fin for Winter. McCarthy’s real-life counterpart was a prosthetics designer named Kevin Carroll.

Except for a brief mention of a “green” internet search engine, the movie avoids anything resembling a political agenda. That timidity is inappropriate in a story about overcoming harsh realities, because it makes everyone seem content to deal with the aftereffects of preventable tragedies instead of their causes.

There’s no criticism of the fishing methods that resulted in Winter’s injuries, much less a suggestion that eating living creatures from the sea might be a bad idea in general. Swimmer Kyle joined the Army to make money for training that he hoped would get him into the Olympics, but nobody expresses sadness, disgust or outrage over living in an economic system that doesn’t offer Kyle a less life-and-limb-risking career option. And forget about anyone reflecting on whether Kyle’s sacrifice was worth whatever he was told he was fighting for, in whatever unspecified country he was deployed.

In today’s world, a better lesson for kids than “ingenuity may be able to replace your missing tail” would be “watch your ass.”

[Rating:2 stars]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson