“You must concede that movies like this follow a very specific formula, and that they’ve done so for a very long time, and that they will continue to do so, not only because that’s what audiences have come to expect from them, but also because they actually demand it of them.” These words were part of my closing thoughts for my review of “Dolphin Tale,” a 2011 film that dramatized the true story of Winter, an injured dolphin that was rescued off the coast of Florida and eventually fitted with a specially-made prosthetic tail. We now have “Dolphin Tale 2,” and if you trust my cinematic judgment, you will find that my words ring just as true now as they did then. Just like its predecessor, the film flies in the face of cynicism and is intentionally designed to be a feel-good experience for families.
One thing I made note of three years ago was the fact that, because Winter was cast as herself, we could go into “Dolphin Tale” knowing everything would turn out okay for her. Some may call this approach anticlimactic, but for me – and, apparently, for the critics and audiences that made the film a success – it felt reassuring. It would seem that the makers of “Dolphin Tale 2” have stuck to what works best, pairing Winter with another real-life rescued dolphin cast to play herself. This would be Hope, who, as a two-month-old calf in December of 2010, was discovered trying to nurse on the beached body of her mother. Upon her rescue and transfer to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, it was decided that she would have to remain a permanent resident, for she had not learned the necessary skills to survive in the wild. She currently resides in the same tank as Winter.
As was the case in 2011, the true stories of the dolphins are interwoven with fictionalized subplots, each and every one built upon what I referred to in my last review as “of course” moments. These are the moments we fully expect but don’t necessarily disapprove of, for there are times when we actively seek out that which is cinematically familiar and comforting. Of course a now teenage Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) would now be a full-time employee at the thriving aquarium, having long since formed a bond with Winter. Of course he would be presented with an opportunity to join a prestigious maritime program, and that he would feel torn over taking the opportunity, since it’s in direct conflict with his love of and duty to Winter. And of course Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), who’s designing a new and improved prosthetic tail for Winter, would give Sawyer a symbolic gift and a piece of elderly advice.
As for Winter, of course she would sink into a depression upon the death of the aquarium’s oldest dolphin. Of course this would put her future at the aquarium in question, since the rules clearly state that she must occupy a tank with another female dolphin. Of course the remaining female dolphin, who was rescued and treated for sunburns and eye and respiratory infections, made a complete recovery and had to be released back into the wild, because there’s no moral justification for keeping a healthy dolphin in captivity. Of course a recent inspection of the aquarium has exposed several code violations, putting owner Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) in a very awkward position. Of course this simultaneously puts him at odds with his teenage daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) – who, incidentally, can’t help but turn just slightly green with envy whenever a girl innocently approaches Sawyer.
Of course Hope would be found just when Winter needs to be paired with a female dolphin. Of course Hope and Winter don’t immediately hit it off, in great part because the former is completely thrown off by the latter propelling herself with her stump. Of course the film includes a small subplot about the rescue of a sea turtle, which is, for reasons not explicitly stated to the audience, followed everywhere by a rambunctious pelican. And of course Winter and her story repeatedly attracts customers who have themselves been amputated or physically disabled. Topping that list is champion surfer Bethany Hamilton, who makes two cameo appearances as herself. Hamilton, if you recall, had her left arm bitten off by a shark when she was only thirteen – and incidentally, she too was the subject of a family-friendly biopic, 2011’s “Soul Surfer.”
One of the more inexplicable artistic choices of the original “Dolphin Tale” was its release in 3D. Given the sentimental nature of the story, and given the fact that it featured no significant special effects or grand, creative immersive environments, there were so few scenes that necessitated the use of 3D. It’s said that hindsight is perfection, and indeed, the fact that “Dolphin Tale 2” has been shot and released in 2D demonstrates that the filmmakers not only understood the phrase but actually took it to heart. Apart from this, the film is narratively, emotionally, characteristically, and thematically the equal of its predecessor, which in this case isn’t a put-down so much a declaration of acceptance. If you don’t know what I mean, simply reread the quote that opens this review.