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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Dolphin Tale is an inspiring family drama with themes of courage and survival. It's based on the true story of an injured dolphin named Winter. There's very little content that isn't age appropriate for kids of all ages, but younger viewers may be sensitive to a few mildly upsetting scenes: the opening shot of Winter stuck on the beach with a bloody, tied-up tail; the news of an injured character returning home from his deployment; and a sequence showing a hurricane hitting central Florida. Many school-aged children may actually already be familiar with the story, since the book about Winter's rescue is included in some middle-grade lesson plans.
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What's the story?
In DOLPHIN TALE, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) isn't having a great summer; his favorite cousin (Austin Stowell) is being deployed overseas, and he's stuck going to summer school. On his way to school, Sawyer hears a fisherman calling for help and discovers an injured beached dolphin. Before the marine sanctuary picks up the dolphin, Sawyer shares a tender moment with her; later, he heads to the sanctuary and finds a girl his age, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), willing to show him where "Winter" the dolphin is convalescing. Even Hazel's occasionally gruff father, Dr. Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), notices how Winter reacts to Sawyer, so Sawyer starts skipping school to help with Winter's rehabilitation. When Winter's injured tail fin is amputated, Sawyer asks a doctor specializing in prosthetics (Morgan Freeman) to help fit the dolphin with a prosthetic tail, while the Hasketts try to save the sanctuary from being turned into a condo development.
Is it any good?
This film is a reminder of why movies that feature non-talking animals are so much more entertaining than the gimmicky comedies centering on talking pets. Winter, who is in fact "played by" Winter, is hard to resist, as are the two adorable up-and-comers who play the lead kids. The friendship between Hazel and Sawyer is refreshingly free of preteen romance or cooties; it's completely focused on their kindred interest in Winter and the other rescued animals. All of the supporting actors are on top form -- broody Connick, who treats audiences to an impromptu sax solo; the always kind and wise Freeman; and Ashley Judd, who plays Sawyer's hardworking single mother. Kris Kristofferson also pops up as Connick's sage, sea-loving father.
Thanks to its sweet young stars, seasoned veterans, and compelling storyline, Dolphin Tale is, in the tradition of The Black Stallion and Secretariat, the sort of animal-themed film that's about the genuine love and friendship that can exist between animals and humans. By the time the credits roll and you see documentary footage of Winter's real crew of rescuers, you'll feel just as genuinely touched by the story of a remarkable dolphin who's a true survivor. Winter's an inspiration to both the able-bodied and people with disabilities, who make pilgrimages to see the dolphin swim with her prosthetic tail.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Winter's story of survival in Dolphin Tale. How is the dolphin the "hero" of the story? Who helps her beat the odds? What are some other movies about animals that defy expectations?
What's the movie's message about the difference between school work and life experience?
How does the movie portray "handicap"? Why does Winter become a symbol to people with various disabilities?
- In theaters: September 23, 2011
- On DVD or streaming: December 20, 2011
- Cast: Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman
- Director: Charles Martin Smith
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Friendship, Ocean Creatures, Wild Animals
- Character Strengths: Compassion, Curiosity, Empathy, Integrity, Teamwork
- Run time: 113 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: mild thematic elements
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