In many ways, 'Dolphin Tale' is a lot like last year's 'Secretariat' - they're both true stories of amazing animals that do spectacular, unprecedented, and unmatched things. The screenplay for 'Secretariat' focuses on the less-interesting extraneous stories than the noteworthy "true stories" that it's based on - but it had to. There was no other option. The horse's victorious and historical moment was brief. They had to do something to stretch the one major moment into a feature-length film, so they focused on the woman training the unlikely horse that ends up racing in a way that hadn't been seen before and hasn't been seen since. The historic record-setting moment is a great climax to a film, but everything before is astoundingly boring. 'Dolphin Tale' is based on another amazing animal, but falls victim to the same sub-plot problem as the other film.
Here's the reality of the story: a dolphin (given the name of Winter) was found ensnared in the ropes of a crab trap on a Florida beach. The rope was rapped around her tail, body, and mouth. After being reported to animal officials, she was taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where veterinarians did everything they could to keep two-month-old Winter alive. When the skin on her tail began to peel up and flake off, it became evident that the ropes had cut off the blood supply to her tail for so long that it had severely damaged the tissue. Before long, her tail fell off on its own (gross, right?) and she couldn't swim. Again, acting like a resilient bugger, Winter taught herself to swim by waving her stumpy back end from side to side – not up and down like normal. Teaching herself to swim another way seemed like a miracle until it was noticed that this abnormal motion was damaging her spine. If she kept it up, she would eventually die.
When a local prosthetic doctor heard of Winter's dire case on the radio, he and his team went to work on creating a prosthetic tail for the wounded animal. designing the tail itself was relatively simple, but creating a new material that would hold it on and not damage the thin and fragile slippery dolphin skin was the difficult task. Eventually, they created a new gel-like sock that not only stopped her from having any skin damage, but was also comfortable for her to wear. This same gel (nicknamed Winter's Gel) is now used on many amputees - humans and animals alike. It makes the painful task of wearing prosthetics comfortable and easy. Finding her story inspiring, many limb-less and wounded war vets have visited Winter in her new home. Whenever Winter meets a new handicapped human, she seems to take to them immediately, sensing the similarity and the pain. Because of her and the new technology created for her, countless lives have been changed for the better. Interesting story, right? Too bad the movie strays from it with a predictable, fabricated family story.
Here's how the movie goes: a loner kid is failing school. He has no passions, no dreams, no drive, and no ambition. The only family he has is his single mom (Ashley Judd) and his older cousin who's fighting in the armed forced overseas. One day, while riding his bike down a small beach, he sees a dolphin wrapped up in ropes and cuts it free. As a team of veterinarians shows up to rescue her, the kid follows them back to their facility. The moment the dolphin sees him again, she recognizes him as the one who cut her free and starts cooperating with the doctors. Before long, the conflict with her spinal damage is put on the back burner and it becomes a generic "we gotta raise money to save the aquatic hospital or we're going to have to put the dolphin down" type of story.
Had the movie followed to true story at hand and not embodied it in a cheesy, predictable, all too familiar, seen-it-on-'Saved by the Bell' plot, it would have been fantastic. The fabricated story they use to weave it all together is manipulative and unoriginal, distracting us from the truly great story that makes Winter worth talking about.
Having said that, 'Dolphin Tale' is a perfect feel-good Blu-ray for the family this holiday season. It's not often that clean movies with inspirational messages roll around for the whole family to enjoy, but this is one of them. Even if you find it fairly corny, your kids will be entertained. What else could you ask for?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. has given 'Dolphin Tale' a two-disc Blu-ray release – one disc is a BD-50 containing the film and special features in HD, the other disc is a DVD copy of the movie. Also included is a code that unlocks an annoying Ultraviolet Digital Copy of the main feature (Please! Give us back our standard digital copies!). This two-disc set arrives in an eco-friendly blue keepcase that slides into a glossy and reflective slipcase. When playing the disc, you can skip right through all of the pre-menu videos – the FBI warning, the firmware disclaimer, the trailer for 'Joyful Noise' and a VisitFlorida.com ad.
'Dolphin Tale' has gone Blu with a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As with many other low budget movies that have received highly-detailed transfers, this Blu-ray makes great footage look amazing, the mediocre footage better, and the bad CG effects look downright awful.
My first beef with this Blu-ray's video quality may not pertain to the transfer itself, but it's still worth mentioning. If hair and make-up designers have to step up their work for the release of movies in HD, why don't special effects artists have to do the same? 'Dolphin Tale' begins with a wide open shot of the clear blue water in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. As the camera plunges beneath the surface, we see amazing shots coral reefs and the tropical fish that inhabit them - we're talking 'Planet Earth' quality footage. Unfortunately, we also see a family of fake dolphins swimming around. While the reef and the fish look fantastic, the CG dolphins are atrocious. They're rubbery, they have robotic motion and the bad lighting composition doesn't match the realistic surrounding. They might as well have pushed around a few swimming pool blow-up dolphin toys. If you're going to make a near-perfect Blu-ray, why not make the effects near-perfect too? The bad CG effects only show up during the "tail designing" montage (the wire-frame CG effects show off a small amount of aliasing) and in the beginning and end of the film when you see CG Winter in either her natural habitat (the open sea) or doing tricks with her new tail (jumping over swimmers, speeding through a lagoon, flipping through the air etc.).
The only complaint I have with the actual transfer itself is the high amount of crushing that frequently occurs. No matter where the shot is taking place, there's almost always a high amount of crushing. Not only does this happen in the dark nighttime shots, but in the mid-day shots within a bright, well-lit house. The shadowed side of a character's face is a featureless dark mass. This same problem also taints the colors where the shadows lie, turning Ashley Judd's brown hair to black. Unless the actors are standing under direct sunlight, this is a problem.
But aside from that, this Blu-ray is fantastic. It is 100 percent clean, crisp, and clear. The amount of detail is literally top-notch, it doesn't get any better than this. During underwater shots you'll notice every single tiny rising air bubble – and sometimes there are hundreds or thousands of them in a single frame. You see every pebble on the beach around injured Winter and each grain of sand stuck to her drying body. Colors are vibrant and alive (except for the hair color inconsistencies), fleshtones are natural, meaning "tanned" for the Florida sun. There's not a trace of edge enhancement, digital noise reduction, banding, artifacts or noise from compression.
'Dolphin Tale' is presented with an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. The lossless track is wonderful, but could have been more efficient.
'Dolphin Tale' features a great dynamic use of sound. Things are happening all around you, different sounds coming from different channels. Water splashes all around you, seagulls are cawing everywhere, and the sounds of the natural beach environment are brought to life. But unless we're in an environment filled with these sounds, it doesn't go above and beyond. Only when it's obvious does it make great use of the channels - music, ocean sounds, and the pitter-patter of footstep entering or exiting the picture.
Aside from at times coming across as lazy, the audio quality is great. Clear, crisp music and effects never trump the dialog - it's all very well balanced. The mixed volume levels are great. When it needs to be quiet, you can still hear everything, and when it's loud, it sounds fantastic.
Although 'Dolphin Tale' won't win over all adults, it's still a movie that kids will love. Personally, I'd rather have them watching something of quality that I love too, but just as we teach our kids, you can't always have things your way. There are plenty of awful family shows that they could be watching, so it's not worth complaining about 'Dolphin Tale.' It's clean and full of content that kids will love - which is a rarity these days. Aside from a crushing flaw, the picture quality reveals every detail – the good and the bad. When an occasion rises for the audio to show off and create a realistic environment, it does – but during the down times, it's mediocre. If you're looking for a new Blu-ray to get the family for the holiday season, look no further.