The crowd-pleasing new interspecies buddy drama Dolphin Tale reunites Ashley Judd with Bug costar Harry Connick Jr., but, animal-themed titles aside, it would be difficult to imagine two more different films. Bug is a punishingly intense psychodrama; Dolphin Tale is as casual as a pleasant afternoon nap and about as substantive. For extra verisimilitude and heartwarming effect, the film even stars Winter, the dolphin whose tale it chronicles. Who could possibly hate a film built from such a disgustingly wholesome foundation?
Dolphin Tale casts Nathan Gamble as a directionless boy who discovers his life’s calling when he finds a dolphin whose tail has become so infected that it must be amputated. Since dolphins rely on their tails to swim, the infection puts the dolphin’s life in danger until an eccentric prosthetics designer (Morgan Freeman) takes an interest in the case and decides to create the world’s first prosthetic dolphin tail. But can Gamble and kindly veterinarian Connick Jr. save Winter before the cash-strapped marine hospital that has become her sanctuary is closed by the real-estate developer who has bought the land on which it sits?
It’s always a treat seeing Morgan Freeman cast off the lofty righteousness that has become his signature. Here he delivers a delightful performance as a bowtie-sporting eccentric with an impish gleam in his eyes. Freeman is clearly enjoying himself, but his mega-watt presence and some unnecessary 3D are just about the only things separating Dolphin Tale from an Animal Planet original movie. Actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith gives the film the flat look of a TV movie and the broad-but-agreeable performances are all pitched firmly toward younger viewers. Dolphin Tale is unobjectionable to a fault, a bland but cheery tribute to one spirited dolphin and the stubborn animal-lovers who refused to give up on her.