Once filmmakers have recounted the true story of an injured dolphin learning to survive and thrive with a prosthetic tail, you wouldn’t think they’d have anywhere as compelling left to go. A sequel would inevitably feel forced. Or not. The kiddie-pool-gentle “Dolphin Tale 2” mines a couple more solid dramatic dilemmas encountered by its aquatic star, Winter, and the humans who care for her. Some angst away from the dolphin tank feels like padding, but there’s enough bona fide narrative to please tomorrow’s marine biologists and their parents.
The situation at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium has steadied considerably in the three years since we last checked in on junior dolphin whisperer Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), facility honcho Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), and Clay’s spunky daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). Business is good, and the kids teach courses on ocean life, emcee Winter’s pool shows, and pitch in to help beached animals with “ER”-worthy urgency.
Winter and the team all feel the loss when Winter’s ancient swimming buddy, Panama, finally passes away. But that just makes their latest rescue, a scraped-up dolphin named Mandy, seem downright heaven-sent. No need to worry about Winter being left in the tank without a companion, a federally regulated no-no. Except that Clay does worry, because he’s always adhered to a policy of “rescue, rehab, release” – and there’s no physical reason why Mandy can’t return to the sea. There’s legit family-movie tension in the conflicts that ensue among Clay, the kids, the aquarium’s anxious business partners, and a persnickety government inspector (returning director Charles Martin Smith). Even Winter acts out, in a scene soberly acknowledging that this is, after all, wildlife.
The gang gets a reprieve with the arrival of Hope (what else?), a lost baby dolphin who’ll never be able to live in the wild. But will Winter and Hope instinctively accept each other, and bond as they need to? Is Hope spooked by Winter’s unusual tail? Again, there’s some strong narrative thorniness in it all, not to mention some of the movie’s best aquatic scenes. We’ll take the nature study bits over a scene with inspirational “Soul Surfer” Bethany Hamilton frolicking with Winter. It’s a nice thought to include Hamilton, but the film could give her more to do.
Martin, who also assumes writing duties this time, could trust moments like Winter and Hope’s introduction to do more of the lifting. There’s already plenty of drama without Sawyer and his mom (Ashley Judd) again struggling to figure out his place. (Should he take that scholarship to Boston University’s SEA Semester program?) And there’s already plenty of cuteness without Rufus, a hangabout worrywart pelican. Same for Morgan Freeman’s prosthetics doc, in a fleeting encore appearance, cueing the audience on when to say, “Awww!” We’ll get there readily enough, thanks.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.