Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
When Dolphin Tale was released back in 2011, the based-on-a-true-story film got generally favorable reviews that led to a moderate box office success. It was a modestly budgeted film that made almost $100 million worldwide, triggering immediate production on a sequel. I wasn’t a particular fan of the first entry, since I thought it was exploitative and simplistic in its approach to wounded animals and made the audience feel bad rather than care about the people at the heart of the story. More of the same ensues in Dolphin Tale 2, only that it feels cheaper, more rudimentary, and aggressively dumber than its predecessor. As a children’s film, it delivers occasional chuckles from the silly actions of the animals, but for parents it’s a mind-numbingly repetitive and basic children’s story without a semblance of how narrative momentum works. The made-for-television feel only accents how thin and cardboard-like the story and characters are.
The film tells the story of Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a boy who works at the aquarium that features Winter, the dolphin from the first film. Sawyer works with Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), both of whom want the best for the animals and hope to make Winter happy. But when her longtime companion in sanctuary dies, she becomes depressed and aggressive, retaliating against the trainers and appearing unhinged. Because dolphins must have a companion and they seemingly cannot find another to go along with Winter, the USDA (not the one that monitors meat products, mind you) threatens to move Winter to another aquarium in 30 days if a replacement is not found. Sawyer’s also been offered a position to go on a Boston whale program for 12 weeks through the city’s university, an opportunity for him to advance his education. But that would mean leaving his post, which further complicates matters.
Having a kid as the protagonist and heart of the film makes for a woefully underdeveloped emotional core. Gamble isn’t a terrible actor, but when he’s given cheesy lines to deliver during every exchange, it feels forced and insincere. If anyone has an allergy to milk products, they might want to avoid the film due to all of the cheese coming from the story and characters. Nonetheless, the narrative does have some merits: the advocation of releasing animals back into the wild if they are self-sufficient is a strong message, and the address of animals in captivity still being wild represents a cautionary, important declaration. Yet the film never takes chances and plays the story safe, particularly during laborious montages that should sum up a scene in thirty seconds but last four to five minutes. The editing for the film wants to bring together every character reaction and leave nothing to the imagination. It’s exhausting.
Director Charles Martin Smith gives the film a woefully melodramatic feel, creating hyper-drama from scenes that should be underplayed. A musical score dominates every dramatic moment in the film, telling the audience to FEEL rather than feel. There’s also a dreadfully induced product placement scene in the middle of the film, with a MUG Root Beer can in every shot that a character speaks, only for them to end the scene by saying, “Thanks for the root beer.” Shots of Pepsi products later in the film only accent the amount of money the company must have spent to obviously advertise. It’s frustrating that there’s probably a strong story somewhere within all of this mess; maybe a tale of companionship and loneliness for animals in captivity and the way we, as humans, must protect them only when necessary. Dolphin Tale 2 doesn’t concern itself with that, only reminding audiences that some children’s films have the feel of ABC Family or Disney Channel rather than Disney or Pixar.
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)