Charles Martin Smith’s Dolphin Tale is not the kind of film that will invite aesthetic scrutiny or critical assessments. It’s a family film, pure and simple. Boy meets dolphin. Boy loses dolphin. Boy saves dolphin. Kids cry, dads roll their eyes, moms punch dads in the shoulder.
But should you take your young kids—and you should, because they’ll love it—and watch closely, you’ll notice that the film is up to something a bit more. I don’t mean that it has a special “message,” though of course it has several (Be courageous. Be creative. Embrace self-sacrifice. Family is forever.) I mean that Dolphin Tale is delivered in an interesting cinematic form—a light and surprising magic realism—that Smith gets just right.
The films that I loved as a child embodied a slight mystical quality. The Swiss Family Robinson and The Love Bug were fun because they were set in a world just to the side of reality—families survived on stray islands because they could build physics-defying tree houses, and couples fell in love because a car willed them together.
Mary Poppins was exciting when Mary and the children leapt into a painting and danced with penguins, but I was more fascinated by Mr. and Mrs. Banks’ next-door neighbor, Admiral Boom, who believed his rooftop was a boat. I loved seeing real events married to fantastic events, and the ordinary world teem with possibility and promise. These were the kinds of stories I told myself as a child, and the kinds of stories my eight-year-old daughter tells now. They were rooted in the world, but were better than the world. They weren’t outright fantasies—I had, when I was younger, little patience for Tolkein-esque universes of lavish imagination—but were tales of realty touched by magic and then re-grounded in reality.
Dolphin Tale is that kind of story. Its magic is slight but palpable, and Smith achieves this subtle affect by running a magic thread throughout a story that is otherwise forged in a world with real threats: fathers leave, family members go off to war, animals are endangered, businesses fail. The movie is based on a true event—in December 2005, a dolphin was discovered near Clearwater, Florida, and taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. His tale eventually sloughed off (in the film, it has to be surgically removed), but Winter, as the dolphin is named, is equipped with a prosthetic tail, and the technological insight used to make the tail work has gone on to improve human prosthetics. Lots of feel-good material here, and it does indeed feel good to watch. The movie is at times sappy, but my kids won’t see it that way (at least, not until teenagerdom). They’ll see it as I saw the Herbie movies—they’ll see the world they live in, a world pregnant with possibility.
I had a chance to talk to Smith last week, and he spoke of his search for a special style that would achieve this childlike tone, yet not slip into fantasy and draw us away from the true elements of the story. Working from a script by Karen Janszen, Smith added magical elements in an attempt to root the story in a child’s perspective. He opens the film in a dolphin pod and establishes a dolphin’s point-of-view shot style that shows up a handful of times. He gives the lead girl character, Hazel, a houseboat with a crow’s nest. He gives the marine aquarium a guard dog in the form of a pelican. He gives Winter the ability to blow bubble rings—something that some dolphins actually can do, though not bottlenose dolphins like Winter. “I wanted to bring a sense of fantasy, of heightened reality,” Smith said. These elements of plot and characterization and film style, all products of Smith’s imagination, take a movie that could have had a point of view from nowhere and give it a childlike point of view.
About 2/3 of the way into the film, a hurricane brings ruin to the aquarium where much of the story is set. The place may not survive—the storm is the final threat against Winter and our human heroes, and for a few moments it feels like a successful threat. But then an angel arrives—not a mystical being, but the “angels unawares” kind, a young handicap girl who heard about Winter and wanted to meet this mammal who resembles her in the most important way. Her presence brings perspective to the main characters and helps them realize how much Winter matters—and that people will pay good money to see this special dolphin, and so save the aquarium and its inhabitants, human and marine mammal alike. This scene is delivered in a straightforward way—Smith doesn’t actually make the handicap girl look and feel angelic. She’s just a real girl who shows up, unannounced and unexpected, and performs the work of the angels.
What I appreciate about Charles Martin Smith’s efforts is that when I take my kids to see Dolphin Tale, we’ll have a chance to talk about how stories work–what they do to us, and how they do it. My daughter will be drawn to these elements of heightened reality—the crow’s nest, the pelican guard dog, the handicapped angel–and that’ll give us a chance to talk about how and why such things fit into a story like this. How does unreality work its way into a story that is rooted in reality? I’ve learned a lot about myself and my world by asking that question again and again over the years, and I’m grateful for a chance to help my kids ask it, too.
In my family, and in many others I suspect, Dolphin Tale will produce dinnertime conversations about the importance of courage and sacrifice and all the other more obvious messages of the film. But it will also produce a conversation about how stories are made and how they work on us, and how a deliberate artist can imbue a story with special grace and fantasy and magic–and why we might want to understand that magic as real.