Even the most inspiration-averse will have eyes as moist as blowholes by the end credits of Dolphin Tale 2, a good-hearted kids' drama whose earnestness and surprising moral complexity put to shame other sunny-weepy sea-mammal flicks. After the story wraps up, the filmmakers work a trick that has become common in movies purporting to have something to do with real events: Here's video footage of the real-world inspiration for the onscreen heroes, in this case the actual dolphin Winter, whose rescue and rehabilitation were recounted in the first Dolphin Tale.
To appreciate these scenes, you have to know Winter's story, which is a beaut. Winter got tangled up in a crab trap and almost drowned, damaging her tail so badly that the marine doctors who treated her had no choice but to amputate it. In the movie version, Winter benefits from the love and perseverance of bright-eyed moppets Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who hit upon the idea of enlisting a doctor at the VA hospital to whip up a dolphin prosthetic. The doc (Morgan Freeman) outfits Winter, the kids keep believing, and that not-a-fish trouper grits it through rehab and soon is back to making like Flipper.
The end credits of Dolphin Tale 2, then, highlight that VA connection: Witness real amputees, vets and kids beaming at Winter, whom it is more moving to regard in this incidental footage than in the main movie's fictionalized scenes. Writer-director Charles Martin Smith knows better than to anthropomorphize his animal cast too much, but between close-ups and CGI and inspirational music, the movie often shows us what the filmmakers want. Winter to look like. Here's Winter just being, which is a different animal altogether: She's sleek and unknowable, with eyes like black gemstones. What's behind them? Does she know that she thrives in collaboration with us? Does she feel that she's worked her way back? Does she comprehend that her story stirs such feeling in the land apes around her — even kinship? Does it bug her that, because she cannot face the hardships of ocean life, she'll spend the rest of her days in captivity?
The movie's wise rather than wised-up. Winter plays herself, with the aid of computers and animatronics and probably buckets of fish. Like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit II, she's tasked with doing lots of the same things she did in the first movie — wearing the tail, cavorting with the kids — while also spending a lot of the sequel too depressed to get back into the game. This time, Winter is slumped glumly in her pool at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, refusing to swim, even swiping at Sawyer, the boy who loves her. That's sad, but it's taken from Winter's real life, which offers another question to contemplate: How many concepts would you have to explain to a dolphin to get her to understand she's acting the story of a funk she actually suffered?
Winter's malaise settles in once a dolphin pal of hers dies. (Smith handles the upsetting scenes with matter-of-fact tastefulness: There's no missing the carcass on the bottom of the pool, but there's no dwelling on it, either.) Since they're profoundly social animals, dolphins in captivity need to be paired. Because it's cruel to keep a dolphin captive, and there are few wounded dolphins around, the aquarium staff faces tough choices that make for interesting drama.
The film opens with the rescue of Mandy, a sunburnt dolphin that has washed up on a beach. By the time Winter needs a friend, Mandy is healthy enough for release back into the wild — and young Hazel, whose family runs the aquarium, campaigns hard to pair up Mandy and Winter anyway. She loves Winter so much that she's willing to sacrifice Mandy's freedom to save her.
Her father — played by Harry Connick Jr.! — reminds her that the mission of the aquarium's staff is to rescue and release animals. His own father — Kris Kristofferson! — agrees, but stubborn Hazel fights on, all as the feds threaten to take Winter away if she isn't paired up soon.
Smith structures his story so that it's Hazel herself who discovers that she's wrong — that wild animals are not pets. (Both kids are strong, naturalistic performers, but Zuehlsdorff, a ginger cut-up with smile enough for two, gets all the best scenes.) Hazel's pal Sawyer learns something of the same lesson, still loving Winter even after Winter cold-cocks him one. Occasionally, Winter and the kids glide about together in glorious swim-dance, but the movie's heart and energy are in the less fantastic but much more moving scenes of animal rescue — and animal release.
There is a miracle, of sorts, toward the end of the movie, but it's one that really happened — we glimpse real footage of it over the credits. There's also a sassy pelican with a crush on a rehabbing sea turtle, but anyone who has ever typed “animal friendships” into YouTube can swing with that. (Is it any odder a pairing than Connick and Kristofferson?) There's no attempt, though, to paint the inner lives of animals as anything we can comprehend. The kids love Winter, and Winter trusts the kids, but Dolphin Tale 2 is a singularly honest animal film: It never insists that Winter wouldn't prefer to be elsewhere … or that what she feels for them has anything to do with what we think of as love.