Not every film has to be The Lego Movie or Frozen. Sometimes it’s okay for a children’s film to be limited in aim and scope. Over the years, we’ve gotten so used to outfits like Pixar and Disney wowing us with ostensible kiddie fare that blows up into something greater — turning cute fables into dazzling metaphors, lending cosmic significance to stories about magic toys, or robots, or whatever — that a movie of modest ambitions seems like a letdown. Dolphin Tale 2, Lord knows, won’t rearrange anyone’s notion of childhood; you could probably recite most of the movie without having seen it. But there’s room in the cinematic universe for all of these films, and this one is appropriately heartwarming, a well-crafted family flick that gets the job done, then gets out of the way.
The first Dolphin Tale recounted the friendship that developed between our preteen hero Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Winter, a tailless dolphin rescued and rehabilitated by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a Tampa hospital for sick and injured animals run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his family. The new film opens with the rescue of another dolphin named Mandy, found beached in shallow water with severe lesions and sunburn, but it quickly settles back into a tale about Sawyer and Winter. The boy, now in high school, has been invited to join a 12-week college-level educational cruise called Sea Semester; he has his whole life ahead of him and a world waiting with open arms. The increasingly depressed Winter, however, can never leave the aquarium. Although Clearwater, unlike places like SeaWorld, has a strict policy of returning the animals it rehabilitates to the wild (its motto is “Rescue, rehab, release”), this dolphin will always need to remain under supervision thanks to her prosthetic tail; she has to watch as other animals (and now, humans like Sawyer) come and go. The dilemma is simple, yet poetic.
Along the way, there’s enough room in the episodic tale for a subplot about an injured sea turtle, an annoying pelican (played by what must be the most talented bird in movie history), and some political back and forth about the future of the aquarium. It’s all pretty simple stuff, but director Charles Martin Smith (who used to be a fairly busy and pretty good actor) treats it all with care; the film is certainly sentimental, but never cheaply so. A shot of divers approaching a dying dolphin at the bottom of a pool, for example, is heartbreaking, in part because we realize that this is something that happens, and that this is probably what it looks like when it does.
Similarly, in a film that posits that dolphins feel emotions just as complex as humans do, Smith has the wisdom to try and show us what the dolphins might be feeling: At one point, as a sling is mechanically brought down to pick a wary Winter out of the pool so she can be fitted for a new prosthesis, we see this ominous machine on the other side of the water through the animal’s eyes. The approach not only makes thematic sense, it also conveys more suspense. Likewise, a later scene where we watch two dolphins make contact for the first time, one sniffing out the other to decide whether it’s a potential friend or rival, benefits from Smith’s willingness to try to show us what the dolphins themselves are seeing and feeling.
Dolphin Tale 2 may seem like a slender, unremarkable movie, but I suspect it was harder to make than a lot of other films that get more attention; it surely can’t be easy shooting a movie with this many kids and animals. And in a world full of cheapened, bombastic entertainment aimed at children, this modest, honest little movie feels special in its own way.