Back in 2005, troubled, fatherless, 11 year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) was walking down South Beach in Florida, when he saw a young dolphin caught in a crab trap. Determined to help, he cuts the ropes, comforts the stranded animal and summons a marine rescue team who deliver her to a dedicated marine biologist, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), at Clearwater Marine Hospital.
Named Winter by Haskett’s chattering daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), she is suffering critical damage to her tail, requiring amputation. As the odds against her survival mount, along with the aquarium’s debts, Sawyer devotes himself 24/7 to Winter’s care, ditching summer school, much to the initial chagrin of his hard-working single mom, Lorraine (Ashley Judd). And when Sawyer discovers that the military is developing prosthetics, he convinces ingenious Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) at the VA Hospital to take a look at Winter.
“No one in his right mind would try to put a tail on a fish,” McCarthy mutters. “Which, luckily, I’m not.”
Combining fact with fiction, screenwriters Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi delineate courage, dedication and persistence in overcoming adversity, dovetailing with a subplot involving Sawyer’s swimming champion cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), who returns home injured after his Army deployment in the Middle East.
In addition to assembling a remarkable acting ensemble, including Kris Kirstofferson and Frances Sternhagen, director Charles Martin Smith (“Air Bud”), working with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and production designer Michael Corenblith, relates this heart-warming, real-life story which led to the development of a sticky, super-soft, flexible prosthetic material, dubbed “Winter’s Gel,” that has changed the lives of physically challenged people everywhere.
Filmed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium – made famous at www.seewinter.com – indomitable Winter plays herself in the movie – plus there’s fascinating documentary footage of her swimming and interacting with children and other amputees, and a second aquarium building is opening that will display the movie props.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Dolphin Tale” is a feel-good, family-friendly, inspiring 8 – with a special appeal to youngsters who love animals.