"Dolphin Tale," a severe case of inspiration overload from 2011, told the story of Winter, a rescued bottlenose who survives the amputation of her tail thanks to an ingenious prosthetic device. With Morgan Freeman as the lovably gruff designer, Dr. McCarthy, plus a heart-tugging cast of Iraq War amputees, "Dolphin Tale" was a true story that nevertheless felt like a false fantasy.
The sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2," follows in the first movie's wake. It reunites its entire main cast at Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter -- once again playing herself -- is in trouble. The death of a companion has left the plucky dolphin alone in her tank, a violation of USDA rules. A nitpicky bureaucrat (Charles Martin Smith, who also wrote and directed) gives the staff an ultimatum: Find a companion for Winter in 30 days or the government will claim her.
That's barely a story, so "Dolphin Tale 2" pads its running time with subplots involving two young aquarium staffers. Hazel (an appealing Cozi Zuehlsdorff) is developing a crush on Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), but he's just been offered a spot on an exciting ocean voyage. A bland Harry Connick Jr. plays Hazel's father and the aquarium's founder, Clay Haskett; Ashley Judd is Sawyer's single mom; Kris Kristofferson dispenses folksy wisdom. Freeman is sidelined as Dr. McCarthy, which means the interesting science experiments that enlivened the first movie are missing here.
"Dolphin Tale 2" is both uneventful and predictable, but it deserves credit for treating its nonhuman characters with respect. The movie repeatedly reminds us that Winter is a wild animal, not a pet. At one point, Clay must decide whether to release a rehabilitated dolphin back into the sea or keep her captive as a companion to Winter -- a difficult choice that young Hazel initially cannot understand. Her tearful scene is the closest this movie comes to something like drama.
Otherwise, "Dolphin Tale 2" is basically a cinematic kiddie pool: shallow, tepid and safe.
PLOT A Florida aquarium's beloved dolphin is in danger of being forcibly relocated.
RATING PG (mild thematic elements)
CAST Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Nathan Gamble
BOTTOM LINE Bland and predictable, but the wildlife antics and mild suspense will entertain very young viewers.
DOLPHIN'S MEMORY NO FLUKE TO KID STARS
It had been three long years since Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, the two kids who befriended Winter the injured dolphin, made "Dolphin Tale" with the world's first dolphin with a prosthetic tail.
Would Winter remember them for the sequel? You really don't know for sure, Cozi says. But she and Nathan want to believe.
"There was a time when we were filming a pool scene where me and Winter were just chilling, between takes, in the water with a trainer," says Nathan, already a veteran child actor (The Dark Knight) when he was cast in the original film. "I tilted my head to the left, and Winter bubbled and let herself sink way down in the pool. I thought that was weird, but her trainer said, 'Oh my gosh, Nathan, that was one of the commands we taught you to give her in the first film! You tilt your head, she bubbles and sinks to the bottom.' So she remembered this thing we'd had her do in the first film, years before. Isn't that cool?"
The two young players -- just 12 when they made the first film, 16 now as Dolphin Tale 2 comes out -- sound perfectly sincere when talking about Clearwater Aquarium's little disabled dolphin and how the movie they made about her changed their lives.
"After the first film, we signed on as spokespeople for the aquarium," Cozi says. "We get to come back there three times a year and meet a lot of the kids that Winter and 'Dolphin Tale' inspired. I think it's made me more mature and more empathetic, hopefully."
-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service