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'Dolphin Tale 2' Is a Wholesome, Heartwarming Treat

Dolphin Tales is one instance where, despite the famous words of W.C. Fields, working with children and animals actually pays off.

Dolphin Tale 2

Director: Charles Martin Smith
Cast: Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Morgan Freeman
Rated: PG
Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 2014
US release date: 2014-09-12

W.C. Fields said it best: "Never work with children or animals." The legendary comedian, who built his entire commercial reputation on a cranky, curmudgeon persona doused generously in various inebriations, understood implicitly that, once you bring a kid or a critter into the mix, you're no longer the center of attention. Instead, our worship of youth and nature surpasses any desire to pay attention to an adult, or more mature subject matter.

Brats and beasts are scene stealers, and this is clearly the driving force behind the family film Dolphin Tale 2. Granted, this obvious sequel was spurred on by the success of the original 2011 effort, getting a great deal out mileage (and wholesome entertainment) out of Fields' admonishments. The movie's desire to confront the darker aspects of the story's situation makes it more than just another cynical cash grab.

Indeed, in the years since Winter the dolphin became the talk of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the prosthetic-tailed mammal has become something of a celebrity. This means more work for staff doctor Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his now teen daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). Along with friend and fellow dolphin aficionado, Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), they've come to see the creature as a member of the family.

Tragedy strikes, however, when Winter's companion, Panama, dies of old age. The USDA requires the all captive dolphins to have a companion, and has lucky would have it, the Aquarium takes in Hope, a young calf whose just lost its parent. Then Sawyer is stuck making a decision for the Summer - stay in Clearwater and help out, or accept a position as part of an exclusive sea research program.

There is something inherently noble about what Charles Martin Smith is doing with the Dolphin Tale franchise. Family films are a tough sell in today's market. Cable bombards the young ones with a myriad of amusement options, so the cinema has to deliver something unique, lest it caught up in the meaningless maelstrom of the mainstream.

Indeed, kids films are almost always tolerance tests, passable pop culture references dished out by pseudo-famous actors hoping to add their voice to a soon to be established franchise. But here, Smith lets the material do the manipulating, relying on Fields' warning to work its magic. And it does. We become concerned about Winter, the fate of this friendly critter, and how Hope will play her part. We even get a giggle or two out of obvious comic relief Rufus the "Rude" Pelican.

But there is a subtext of seriousness that can't be denied, an environmentalist's call that considers something other than the storyline. Haskett's character has a mantra—rescue, rehabilitate, release—that comes into play once Panama is gone and Winter is threatened. Hope also has a part in such considerations. There is also the growing problem of puberty, though Smith (who also wrote the script) wisely skirts any real romance between Hazel and Sawyer for more of a friendly flirtation.

There's also the concept of loss, which is something few family films want to deal with. Dolphin Tale 2 deals with some harsh realities, but never in a way that would disturb its demo. Instead, it offers up a matter of fact strategy that's both effective and educational.

In fact, one of the best things about this film is that it doesn't devolve into lengthy pro-PETA preaching. Instead, it weighs both sides, and then outlines a response that's both genuine and genial. Some who only want to see lyrical visions of dolphins swimming gracefully underwater will have that particular need met, but so will those who see something like this as an opportunity to influence young minds.

Indeed, Smith seems to be channeling '50s/'60s live action Disney, by design. Those too young to remember Sunday evenings with the House of Mouse's Wonderful World will also not recall those overly dramatic animals in danger efforts Walt's workers specialized in. Dolphin Tale 2 has a lot of the same sentiments, only delivered in more parent-friendly 2014 designs.

As for the cast, they continue to do their best in light of being overlooked for more cuddly creature moments. Connick Jr. is specifically good at the whole science struggle, delivering both technological and bureaucratic doublespeak effortlessly. He is matched by his young co-stars, though they both seem to be suffering from that always anxious awkward stage of adolescence.

Sadly, previous standouts like Ashley Judd (as Sawyer's mom), Kris Kristofferson (as Clay's father) and Morgan Freeman (as the designer of Winter's plastic appendage) are given short shrift this time around, carted out to remind us they were in the first film as well, but never given much to do.

Smith and cinematographer Daryn Okada also deserve credit for painting a portrait of Florida that only a tourist guide can match. They take the Sunshine State's radiance and turn it into a character unto itself. The first film did manage to reconfigure the Clearwater Aquarium from a mostly research facility to a viable vacation destination, and this follow-up fulfills that purpose as well.

Smith's direction is clean and efficient, never getting overly bogged down in hero moments (though there are a lot of underwater montages - we're just saying). Instead, he integrates the typical cliches we expect from this kind of film into a more serious strategy, the result being a real sense of place and purpose.

Of course, all that matters to the studio is that Winter and Company reconnect with audiences once again to drive the slow pre-Awards season box office away from September's obvious doldrums - and for once, it should. Like Dolphin Tale before it, Dolphin Tale 2 manages that rarity amongst age-appropriate entertainment. It doesn't talk down to or around the kids. Instead, it asks them to experience something a bit more somber while still providing a nice level of pintsize pandering. In this case, Fields' thinking is flawed. This is one instance where working with children and animals actually pays off.


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