Dolphin Tale 2 will no doubt be a delightful experience for animal-loving tots. But for the adults who bring them, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a surreal experience, due to the at-times bizarrely clunky dramatics and the realization that will hit about twenty minutes in: “Wait—is this a lesbian dolphin dating movie?” Yes. Yes, it is. And I haven’t even gotten to the pelican that lovingly (or perhaps just obsessively) stalks a sea turtle. What will Fox News say about these clear endorsements of “alternative” lifestyles? I kid Dolphin Tale 2, which retains the bright, sunny, colorful tone of its predecessor, also directed by Charles Martin Smith. For the sequel, Smith wrote the screenplay as well, inspired by true events in the life of Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Dolphin Tale—which, unlike the sequel, screened in 3D—told the uplifting story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin that loses her tail but gets rescue and rehabilitation from the good folks of Clearwater’s Marine Animal Rescue Team, including Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), his precocious daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and aspiring marine biologist Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble). Now those kids Sawyer and Hazel are teens (who start to make goo-good eyes to each other), but little else has changed: Connick returns, as do Ashley Judd as Sawyer’s mom, Kris Kristofferson as Clay’s dad, and Morgan Freeman as the handy designer of dolphin prosthetics and purveyor of homespun wisdom.
This time, the team rescues a dolphin nicknamed Mandy and another named Hope, both of whom are candidates to become Winter’s new longtime companion. This much is apparently essentially true. The rest is all bathos (an unfortunate event prompts the teary line “Why do these things have to happen?”), hooey like the kid-friendly but frankly weird pelican-sea turtle romance, and life lessons so conspicuous that one comes with the apologetic bit of screenwriting “I’m about to get a lesson, aren’t I?” The message for Sawyer, having to do with embracing change, proves much more relevant to teens making young adult choices than to kids lacking independence, but most teens are too cool for (this) school (of dolphins).
If you look very closely, you’ll be able to see Judd and Freeman and Kristofferson counting the digits in their paychecks as they play their undernourished characters. The sluggish pacing includes demonstrably extraneous scenes and what at least feels like a five-minute, slo-mo-heavy montage of swimming with dolphins, while Smith (who also plays the small role of a USDA inspector) sets a new record for cutting in awkward reaction shots, his own included. Product placement further distracts, with none bigger than the excusable one: that giant advertisement for Clearwater that is Dolphin Tale 2.
But there’s the rub: the sequel’s (admittedly redundant) endorsement of “recue, rehab, release” work and community outreach to the amputee community (champion surfer Bethany Hamilton has a cameo) prove again that this franchise is just plain nice, and it’s hard to get too cranky about nice. Still, maybe just watch the preferable first film again, and skip the unnecessary sequel.