Problem: The roaring success of last week's "Lion King" 3-D re-release underscored the scarcity of family-friendly films in the current marketplace.
Solution: "Dolphin Tale," a swell yarn about a boy and his bond with an injured bottlenose. Sometimes inspirational films have no craftsmanship to accompany their uplift. Not so here. Children don't have to apologize for taking their parents to this one. The cast is delightful, the story corny without being cloyingly high-fructose, the direction first-rate. Its awkward, immature stumbles are few and even those are redeemed by the project's sunny sincerity.
"Dolphin Tale" is inspired by the real-life story of Winter, a south Florida dolphin who lost her tail to a crab trap. Sawyer (winningly played by wide-eyed Nathan Gamble) comforts the beached cetacean until the marine animal rescue unit can arrive, creating a powerful bond of affection that runs both ways.
The lonely middle-schooler begins cutting class to visit the aquarium where the handicapped dolphin is brought to recover. His mother (Ashley Judd) is incensed until she realizes that Sawyer's attachment to Winter has turned her failing student into a responsible, hardworking and studious young would-be marine biologist. Winter's recuperation is fraught with setbacks, but with the aid of a cantankerous prosthetics specialist (Morgan Freeman), Sawyer learns never to lose faith.
The film has a warm web of human relationships, as well, with Cozi Zuehlsdorff as the aquarium's resident preteen chatterbox; Harry Connick Jr. as her father, the kindly but cash-strapped aquarium chief; and Kris Kristofferson as Connick's old-salt dad, who is always good for straight talk and a crinkly smile.
Charlie Martin Smith, a longtime actor who starred in the outdoors classic "Never Cry Wolf," directs this film with a sure and steady hand. The sun-kissed Florida locations are attractive without being prettified. When the boy and his aquatic friend are threatened by a hurricane and the aquarium's financial woes, Smith milks the suspense but doesn't inflict undue anxiety.
The film takes a sentimental turn concerning Sawyer's cousin, a swimming star injured in combat, but never slides into sanctimony or schmaltz. Well, not too deeply, anyway. Freeman is a droll delight as the crotchety reconstructive engineer who tirelessly works on a mechanical tail for Winter, complaining all the way.
Playing herself, Winter is a breakthrough star. For those who loathe saccharine kiddie movies but can still shed an honest tear at the story of a child and a beloved pet, "Dolphin Tale" is a perfect fit.