Dolphin Tale is as squishy as the ocean is deep, yet as far as feel-good family films go, Charles Martin Smith's inspired-by-true-events saga exhibits a general refusal to unduly manipulate. The titular aquatic creature is Winter, a dolphin who washes ashore tangled up in a crab net, and is saved by Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and his trusty pocketknife, which is inscribed with one of the story's many messages: "Family Is Forever." A lousy student stuck in summer school, and still despondent about both his father's abandonment years earlier and his beloved cousin Kyle's (Austin Stowell) recent departure for military service, Sawyer discovers purpose and inspiration via Winter, whose "Tweety Bird" chirps whenever the boy is near indicate immediate affection. For Sawyer, Winter fills a cousin/father void; for Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), who runs the hospital where Winter is cared for, and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), the mammal does likewise for their deceased wife/mother; and for prosthetics specialist Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), Winter is another patient in need of a new limb. What ensues is a veritable smorgasbord of healing, all of it bathed in a Florida sunshiny glow and set to music that's as mechanically uplifting as is the wise advice of Hazel's grandfather (Kris Kristofferson).
That Sawyer's mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd) doesn't eventually pair off with single Clay is Dolphin Tale's sole surprise, as otherwise, its raft of dilemmas, including a scary hurricane and a wounded-in-action Kyle's efforts to walk again, are as standard as they come. And as with Sawyer's paternal hang-ups and the potential sale and closure of the financially struggling hospital, these predicaments are dealt with via shorthand dramatics that negate a good deal of suspense. Still, if its plotting can be slight, the film's restraint and earnestness help prevent it from ever tipping over into outright mawkishness, and its performances similarly avoid over-the-top histrionics. Sporting a polka-dotted bowtie and a scruffy white beard, Freeman is the competent cast's stand-out, his kind-old-soul routine rarely straying from the expected and yet delivered with just enough cantankerousness to feel moderately lively. That it never convincingly places its happily-ever-after in jeopardy means that Dolphin Tale often feels far more static than it should, but its sincere celebration of perseverance, believing in one's self and others, and people's capacity for kindness and selflessness is hardly something on which to throw cold water.