The Guinness Book of World Records says that Clearwater is the most consistently sunny place on our planet, and if writer-director Charles Martin Smith’s sequel to 2011’s Dolphin Tale is to be believed, its people have the stiffest of upper lips. Just as the ups and downs of saving Winter, the famous bottlenose dolphin with the prosthetic fin that resides at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, are a constant source of top-of-the-hour reportage from the local TV station, they leave the denizens of the Florida city in a perpetual state of alternately cheery and reverent rapture. Come for more shenanigans from Rufus the wacky pelican, but stay for the circus show of intense human compassion toward marine life.
Dolphin Tale 2’s drama revolves around Winter—following the death of her surrogate mother—being threatened with a one-way ticket to Texas by the USDA after the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) deems her potential new roommate, Mandy, fit to return to sea (according to regulations, dolphins cannot be housed alone). This causes Clay’s daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), much distress, as she feels she has no voice in Winter’s well-being, while also stranding his acolyte, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), between a rock and a hard place: to accept a full scholarship to a prestigious marine biology program or stay behind in the hopes of finding a female dolphin capable of sharing the same tank with Winter.
Like its predecessor, the film is in no small part a showcase for Smith’s less-than-acute ear for dialogue and contrived symbolism. Venting to Sawyer’s mother, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), about her father, a petulant Hazel likens herself to a plate-glass window because, natch, “he doesn’t even see me.” Of course, she may as well be speaking about Sawyer, who doesn’t seem to register her admittedly subtle puppy-doggish signs of affection for him, perhaps because he’s too busy seeking guidance for his own troubles, which
magical negro Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) happily obliges with both an allegorical hand-me-down stopwatch and words of hackneyed wisdom about one door closing and another opening.
But Smith’s tin ear is as unmistakable as his enormous heart. Both Dolphin Tale 2 and its predecessor feature scenes of humans without limbs finding kinship in Winter’s loss of her dorsal fin—scenes that might have been intolerably mawkish if not for the sincerity of Smith’s quizzical vision, an aesthetic register that intuits with lucid simplicity the sense of fear, joy, and sadness animals such as Winter no doubt feel. A dolphin’s eye view is a recurring visual motif throughout, testifying to how the survival of so much marine life hinges on an open flow of empathy. It’s the kind of message only a SeaWorld stockholder would dare to begrudge.