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Dolphin Tale

Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 Reels

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild thematic elements

Released in Theaters: Sept. 23, 2011 (2D & 3D)

Genre: Family, Drama, Comedy

Runtime: 113 minutes

Directed by: Charles Martin Smith

Cast: Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Morgan Freeman, Austin Stowell

Sex/Nudity: Two adults have a mildly flirtatious first meeting. A pool party shows brief shots of shirtless and swimsuit-clad teens.

Violence/Gore: A dolphin entangled in a crab trap is washed ashore with her tale bruised and bloody. When her tail is amputated, she’s shown in the water with the remaining stump, which upsets the kids. Sawyer's cousin returns from deployment in a wheelchair; his injury isn’t discussed in detail, but he’s able to get around with a leg brace. A hurricane destroys parts of the marine sanctuary, but no humans or animals are shown hurt.  

Profanity: Mild language includes "shoot,” “stupid,” “crappy," and "holy smokes.”

Drugs/Alcohol: None.

Which Kids Will Like It? Kids 7 and older who like dolphins, marine life, or movies about saving animals/mammals.

Will Parents Like It? Yes, it’s a relatively tame movie about how one person – or dolphin — can make a difference in the world. Bonus points that it’s based on a true story and shows pictures of Winter and her real-life team over the end credits.

Review: You kind of know what you’re going to get with a movie like Dolphin Tale. Sweet kids who aren’t weighed down by the realities of life and, thus, think that miracles can happen with the right amount of time and energy. Skeptical adults who ARE weighed down by life, but still have an inkling that miracles can happen. And damaged animals – or in this case, a dolphin – who doesn’t know the difference and just works with what she has.

Dolphin Tale delivers all of that, along with a healthy dose of cuteness. It’s not the best movie of the year. Sometimes the dialogue is contrived and you can practically hear the director off-screen telling the kids what to say and where to stand in some scenes. But it’s still a nice addition to the family movie genre, and who doesn’t love dolphins?

The story begins with young Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) having a not-so-great summer, thanks to summer school and his loner status. But things take an interesting turn when he finds a dolphin washed ashore on the Florida coastline and untangles the mammal from a crab trap.

Experts from a local marine sanctuary arrive and promptly transport the dolphin to their facility for rehab. The Clearwater Marine Hospital is run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and a team of staff and volunteers. But it’s struggling financially, and the board, helmed by Gloria Forrest (Frances Sternhagen), are trying to keep it from being sold off to a developer.

But Clay and crew have other things on their mind – saving Winter, the dolphin. Her tail is so infected that it has to be amputated. With the remaining stump, she manages to swim around her tank, but it’s taxing her other muscles, to the point where she’ll probably die.

Enter a prosthetics specialist (Morgan Freeman), whom Sawyer meets at the VA Hospital while visiting his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), who’s returned from deployment in a wheelchair. Bring along some Kleenex for the scenes where disabled folks journey to meet Winter.

The story is endearing, but there are other reasons why I love this movie. It’s nice to go to a movie where the animals don’t talk. Look, I love Finding Nemo and the Air Bud movies as much as the next girl, but I’d classify Dolphin Tale as a “grownup family movie,” partly because Winter actually plays herself.

The story is also refreshingly free of all the crude humor of other “family” movies. If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you know how much I abhor jokes focused on bodily functions. Just because kids of a certain age love those jokes doesn’t mean they have to be in every single kids’ movie. There’s also no awkward pre-teen romance between the two kids, Sawyer and Hazel. It’s nice to see a movie where kids act like kids.

The supporting players turn in top-notch performances, including Connick (who graces us with an impromptu saxophone solo), Kris Kristofferson as the wise grandfather with saltwater running through his veins, Judd as the hardworking single mom who trusts her son enough to know what’s best for him, and Freeman, who always makes me smile.

A compelling storyline, adorable kids, veteran actors, and, of course, the star of the show – Winter – makes Dolphin Tale a sweet movie for kids and adults of all ages.

Jane Boursaw is a family entertainment writer specializing in movies and TV. Visit her at Reel Life With Jane; follow her on Twitter; become a friend on Facebook; email jboursaw@charter.net.