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Movie Review

Sawyer Nelson is one of those kids who's so shy he has a hard time stringing more than a couple of words together around others. Which doesn't help him much when it comes to friends. Or school for that matter. So the 12-year-old Floridian is currently spending a lonely summer trying to make up a failed class or two.

One morning while reluctantly slumping his way to school, though, Sawyer is pulled in to help free a young dolphin that's washed up on the beach, its tail wrapped up in a crab trap line.

Within moments his summer takes a dramatic turn.

Perhaps it's the creature's intelligent eyes or the sad whistling sounds it makes. Maybe it's some kind of special connection they share as the young boy tries to comfort the wounded animal. Whatever the case, after the local marine hospital volunteers take her away, Sawyer can't stop thinking about the dolphin on the beach.

After class that day, Sawyer quickly heads over to try to see her again. And that's how he meets Hazel, the 11-year-old daughter of the hospital's head marine biologist. She tells him they've nicknamed the little dolphin Winter, and that they're trying to nurse her back to health. With uncharacteristic persistence, Sawyer keeps coming back, day after day, begging to help. And even though Hazel's dad is reluctant, he gives in when he sees how the dolphin perks up when Sawyer's around. Winter even begins taking food from him, something no one else has been able to get her to do.

Positive Elements

Ever since his dad abandoned their family when he was little, Sawyer has had a father-figure relationship with his older cousin Kyle. Unfortunately for Sawyer, the twentysomething role model is now heading off to join the armed service. But Kyle stresses that he isn't abandoning his young pal and gives him a Swiss Army Knife, the declaration "Family Is Forever" etched on the side.

That credo comes to have even more meaning for Kyle when, later, he returns from overseas, injured. He's obviously depressed. And so Sawyer and his family rally around him in love. When Kyle laments losing his ability to swim—a hard-earned skill that won him state championships, prosthetics specialist Dr. McCarthy encourages him that just because he's lost one ability doesn't mean he can't find something new to excel at. "Just because you're hurt doesn't mean you're broken," McCarthy says. It's a sentiment that whistles through Dolphin Tale over and over as people are prompted to pull together with their loved ones to make it past physical, emotional and financial injuries. In fact, as people work together to find a way to save Winter, it becomes a symbolic effort that hints at the victory all of them can share.

Sawyer's mom corrects him for skipping out on summer school. But after his apology, she comes to appreciate his passion for Winter and all the marine science he's learned while at the hospital. She even takes his case to his teacher in an effort to get him credit for his work. "He's so engaged. And it's not with a Game Boy," she says. Sawyer is indeed engaged with his desire to help save the injured Winter, and it effectively draws him out of his self-made shell.

Dr. McCarthy volunteers his time to try to design a new tail for Winter.

Spiritual Content

A worried Hazel prays, hoping her deceased mom might somehow hear her and help their effort to save Winter. Hazel's dad, Dr. Clay, tells a fabled story of an ancient tribal goddess who was said to have magically turned a group of playful children into the first dolphins.

Sexual Content

Sawyer's mom wears a cleavage-baring nightgown. Teen guys and girls are shown in swimsuits and bikinis at a pool party and swim meet. Two young women at the marine hospital wear close-fitting spandex swim shirts.

Violent Content

When Winter washes up on the beach, she's tangled from head to tail in a heavy and abrasive rope. Her tail is obviously broken and small patches of flesh have been stripped away leaving bloodied spots on her mouth and body. Later, after it's determined that the dead tail must be amputated, the dolphin is left with a covered stump. We see an X-ray of a large tortoise with a hook buried beneath its shell.

We're told that Kyle is hurt in a massive battlefield explosion. Later we see a roomful of soldiers with missing or prosthetic limbs.

Crude or Profane Language

At worst, exclamations of "holy smoke," "crappy," "shoot" and "darn."

Drug and Alcohol Content


Other Negative Elements


Dolphin Tale is one of those simple stories that's more than you might expect. This satisfying, sometimes teary tale—based on and starring the real Winter—is comfortably delivered by a handful of seasoned actors and a couple of young fresh faces. It's full of lightly anthropomorphized charm. It praises family love and support while encouraging young viewers to nurture a never-give-up determination in the face of all the rusty barbs and tangling refuse that life can splash at them. And it's one of those rare movies families can have fun wading through without fear of stepping on some sharp junk hidden just beneath the surface.

Gabe and Brandon, two young boys sitting next to me at our early screening, certainly soaked everything up with appreciation. In fact, these tweenage critics-in-training asked politely if I might include their well-considered and precisely worded opinion in this review.

So here it is: "Cool."

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett; Ashley Judd as Lorraine Nelson; Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson; Kris Kristofferson as Reed Haskett; Morgan Freeman as Dr. McCarthy; Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett


Charles Martin Smith ( )


Warner Bros.



Record Label



In Theaters

September 23, 2011

On Video

December 20, 2011

Year Published



Bob Hoose

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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