**1/2 (out of four)
Shy 11-year-old Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) comes out of his shell when working with Winter, an injured dolphin who has her tail amputated. So it’s pretty shocking when Winter eats Sawyer in one bite.
Kidding, kidding—I’m just making sure you’re paying attention.
This family flick is based on a true story, and Winter even plays herself—because, of course, it would have been unthinkable to hire a different dolphin actor. There’s big inspiration in the way efforts to help Winter swim again led to developments in prosthetics and made Winter a role model for anyone who has lost a limb. But the power behind including footage of real people interacting with Winter reiterates how much better “Dolphin Tale” would have worked as a documentary or, say, a “Dateline” special. As is, the dramatized film loses points by spelling out absolutely everything, like when a young girl in a wheelchair sees Winter and says, “Mommy, she’s just like me,” while utilizing Stock Plot No. 3 about a marine hospital that might need to be sold so a hotel can be built and so forth.
The mostly corny performances also hamper a sweet movie that works too hard to be goofy: Seeing Sawyer’s mom (Ashley Judd) delight in her son’s newfound enthusiasm is much more valuable than watching a pelican chase mom through a parking lot.
Note: Because I didn’t see the movie in its surprising 3-D presentation, I can only imagine how gloriously the heart-to-heart chats between characters played by Harry Connick, Jr., Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman will pop off the screen.
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