In late 2005, a bottlenose dolphin was caught in a crab trap. Taken in by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the badly injured Winter was eventually fitted with a prosthetic tail in place of the one she lost. Dolphin Tale is a dramatisation of Winter's story, but it's a loose one at that.
Written as a family drama and caring little about touching on true events, its fictional protagonist is Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a quiet, shy young boy who one day finds the dolphin washed up on a beach. He grows attached to Winter, and regularly visits the marine hospital where Dr Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr) and his team are tending to her. Winter's tail is soon amputated, leading to Sawyer to seek the help of Dr Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) to give her a prosthetic replacement.
One of the main problems is that there is a ridiculous amount of filler which contributes to a slow, plodding pace. Much of it comes from unfunny and blunt 'comedy', from a protracted scene where Sawyer and Clay's similarly-aged daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) goof around with a toy helicopter to a recurring joke with an intimidating stalker-ish pelican - which isn't amusing the first time, let alone the third or fourth. Then there are the numerous times when attempts are made to create a convincing bond between Sawyer and Winter. Gamble rarely looks comfortable as the boy, compounded by the downright poor writing.
Even if you take away these scenes, there is little emotional payoff to speak of. Throughout, the film tries to tug at your heartstrings, starting by emphasising Winter's unfortunate plight and culminating in a happy, rousing finale. But the scenes are so clichéd and the leading kid duo are at times insufferable that they rarely if ever work.
A minor subplot involving Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) is only ever-so-slightly less intolerable. At the start, he leaves to join the army, but comes back worse for wear and has to deal with his own disability. Naturally, the film is not shy to shove the parallels between Kyle and Winter right into the audience's face. Speaking more literally, the 3D adds absolutely nothing to the experience, only used for a few pointless so-called money shots.
Out of the senior stars, Connick Jr probably comes off best. He is helped by the fact that Clay isn't subject to terrible humour nor is he portrayed as a caricature, and his problems he has to contend with regarding the dire financial situation of the marine hospital, though mostly underplayed, make his character somewhat sympathetic. In addition, Freeman's presence is welcome if wasted, but it's not until the halfway point - such is the dull, turtle-like speed at which the events unfold - when he has his first scene.
But the tiny number of positives is quickly forgotten when we get a good look at actual scenes of Winter right at the end. The brief glimpse of the real story is far more inspirational and affecting than everything that preceded it combined. And that's perhaps the most egregious disappointment about Dolphin Tale, that it did not come anywhere near to doing the subject matter justice.