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"Dolphin Tale" attracts top talent

09-28-2011 08:56 BJT

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VANCOUVER — This movie could have fallen into the deep end of slop and sentiment at any given moment. And yet, thanks to a smiley-faced cetacean and some truly subtle turns from a veteran cast, Dolphin Tale clears every hoop of cliché before making a big emotional splash.

Any kids’ movie that doesn’t rely on computer-generated effects or pyrotechnic action sequences is actually an anomaly in itself, all of which makes Charles Martin Smith’s story of a boy and his dolphin all the more special.

This movie could have fallen into the deep end of slop and sentiment at any given moment.

A throwback to a different era of cinema, this fact-based movie tells the story of Winter, a bottle-nosed dolphin who ended up snagged in fishing line and drifting ashore. Half-dead and riddled with infection, the animal was brought to a marine rehabilitation facility in Clearwater, Florida, where she ended up charming the staff into taking extraordinary measures to save her.

Winter lost her tail from a lack of circulation, and while she managed to live without her rear fluke, she couldn’t swim properly. She needed a prosthetic to keep her spine in alignment, and so the two-legged mammals decided to help their marine cousin with a little old-fashioned ingenuity and plain old pluck.

Yes, it’s sweet and it could have been saccharine, but this is the beauty of a kids’ movie when it’s done right: It takes you to the very edge of the teary-eyed cliff, but allows the viewer to surrender at the moment of his or her own choosing.

This movie could have fallen into the deep end
of slop and sentiment at any given moment.

This notion of privacy and personal autonomy is central to the success of Dolphin Tale, because it reflects and affirms the themes of the film itself.

After all, this is not just the story of Winter; it’s a tale of the humans who found themselves transformed through her recovery.

In this case, we’re treated to the not-so-true story of Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a kid who’s been a loner ever since his dad walked out, never to be seen again.

Sawyer prefers to spend time in the garage, fiddling with his remote-control helicopters, than he does playing outside with the rest of the local kids.

His only real buddy is older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), but when Kyle is shipped to the Middle East for a combat mission, Sawyer has no one.

Making matters worse, he’s stuck in summer school with a rather traditional teacher who thinks he’s just lazy and disengaged.

Fortunately for us, neither Sawyer nor director Smith waste any time foreshadowing the plot, because, once the kid and the dolphin share the same frame in a rescue sequence, we’re already on board.

Dolphins are easy to love. Smart and playful, they also exude a profound intelligence that registers on screen. From their ability to find the lens, to their uncanny talent for performance, they seem to know exactly what to do at any given moment.

And because Winter plays herself, the whole movie feels legitimate and poignant, because, who wouldn’t be moved by a dolphin amputee?

No matter how old you are, this movie is guaranteed to prompt a tear, since Smith finds just the right fulcrum for the weighty, and often slippery, material.

Not only does he inject genuine humour into the mix with some standard devices, he finds just the right notes on the dramatic side.

He accomplishes this in a few ways. First, he does not belabour the points we can predict with throwaway dialogue. Things happen, and they happen fast without a whole lot of fuss.

Second, while he frequently has them in water, he never lets the cast get wet. Every grown-up character marches forward with all the grace and composure of a real adult faced with a difficult decision.

They cry, they talk and they grieve, but we can always sense a latent strength — which gives the kid actors a lot more room for transformation, because they don’t have to pick up the grown-up slack.

Newcomers Gamble (Sawyer) and Cozi Zuehlsdorff (Hazel) play their parts without pandering or playing on cuteness, which only adds to the movie’s stripped-down sincerity.

Without a pure heart, this movie could have been awful — even offensive — because it includes references to real-world loss, such as Iraq War amputees coping with their “new normal,” as well as children who’ve survived cancer but lost a limb to the disease.

These are undeniably moving pieces to play with, but Smith’s pure heart ensures every single beat feels clean and crisp, and the outlines of the drama never get soggy.

A sweet and simple movie that speaks timeless truths, Dolphin Tale has what it takes to become a kids’ classic.

Editor:James |Source: CNTV

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