Dolphin Tale

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Dolphin Tale
Dolphin Tale Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Charles Martin Smith
Produced by Richard Ingber
Broderick Johnson
Andrew A. Kosove
Written by Karen Janszen
Noam Dromi
Starring Harry Connick, Jr
Ashley Judd
Nathan Gamble
Kris Kristofferson
Cozi Zuehlsdorff
Morgan Freeman
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Edited by Harvey Rosenstock
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • September 23, 2011 (2011-09-23)
Running time 113 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $37 million[2]
Box office $95.4 million[3]

Dolphin Tale is a 2011 family drama film directed by Charles Martin Smith (his first directed film since 2008) from a screenplay by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi and a book of the same name. It stars Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman.[4]

The book and film are inspired by the true story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin that was rescued in December 2005 off the Florida coast and taken in by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter lost her tail after becoming entangled with a rope attached to a crab trap and was fitted with a prosthetic one.[5] A sequel, Dolphin Tale 2 was released on September 12, 2014. It has been announced that a Dolphin Tale 3 is possible.[6]


The initial scenes of the movie show a pod of dolphins in their natural habitat followed by crab fishermen returning a crab trap to the ocean after emptying the trap of its contents.

Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a lonely 11 year old boy with no friends except his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a champion swimmer and now following his father's footsteps by enrolling in the military to earn money for the Olympics.

One day Sawyer is biking along the beach when a fisherman (Richard Libertini), calls for help after finding an injured bottlenose dolphin tangled in a crab trap. The two call for assistance, and rescue workers from the Clearwater Marine Hospital, run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), take the injured dolphin for treatment. Clay's daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) names the dolphin Winter, as two prior dolphins, Summer and Autumn, were successfully returned to the ocean, and thinks that using seasons as names will continue the streak. Soon afterwards, Sawyer sneaks into the hospital and bumps into Hazel where she allows Sawyer to see Winter. Clay initially does not approve of the arrangement since Sawyer is not trained or experienced in marine animal care, but after noticing that Winter responds well whenever Sawyer is around, he is permitted to visit. Soon Sawyer, who was enrolled in summer school due to his failing or nearly failing all his classes during the year, starts skipping classes daily to visit Winter. Sawyer's mother Lorraine (Ashley Judd) finds out about Sawyer skipping classes, but after seeing that Sawyer's interaction with Winter has improved his moods and well-being, something Sawyer had not shown since being abandoned by his father who disappeared five years earlier, she withdraws him from summer school and agrees to let him to volunteer at the hospital.

Unfortunately, Winter's tail is damaged and must be amputated. Winter learns to swim without a tail by developing a side-to-side motion, like a fish, but after an x-ray Clay notices that the unnatural motion is causing stress on her spine; if continued the motion will eventually kill her. Later that day, Sawyer returns home to hear the news that Kyle has been injured in an explosion and is coming home for treatment. Sawyer wants Kyle to meet Winter and excitedly anticipates seeing him at a welcome-back party thrown by his aunt and uncle (Kyle's parents and Lorraine's sister Alice), but is devastated to learn that Kyle has skipped the party, preferring to stay at the local Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Sawyer and Lorraine go to visit Kyle who is working with Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) in the facility's prosthetic lab. To Sawyer's surprise, Kyle is embarrassed to see them and even asks them to leave, which infuriates Sawyer. Kyle takes him on a walk and talks to Sawyer about his leg. Sawyer then asks Dr. McCarthy about a prosthetic tail for Winter. He agrees to work on the project during his upcoming vacation, and convinces his prosthetic supplier (Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, which supplies Winter's real-life tails) to supply the parts at no cost. Dr. McCarthy manufactures a "homemade" model tail while waiting for the real one to arrive; however, Winter rejects it and destroys it by banging it against the pool wall.

Meanwhile Kyle gets into even more depression when his friend and swimming partner, Donovan Peck, beats his swimming records. Dr. McCarthy hears about it and talks to Kyle and encourages him to go home. Kyle decides to do so just as a hurricane hits Clearwater.

Shortly there after the hospital, already in financial peril, is damaged by the hurricane, where upon the board of directors agree to close the hospital, sell the land to a real estate developer, and find homes for all the animals, except Winter, who due to her condition is not wanted by anyone and may have to be euthanized. Sawyer is cleaning up the hospital when Kyle surprises him by helping him clean up. Sawyer introduces him to everyone and Kyle sees how Winter is exactly like him with a damaged leg. However, after a chance encounter with a mother and daughter, who also had a prosthetic limb, who heard about Winter's story and drove all the way from Atlanta, Georgia to see her, Sawyer comes up with a last chance plan called "Save Winter Day" to save the facility. Clay is not sold on the idea, but reconsiders after talking with his father, Reed (Kris Kristofferson). Kyle agrees to a race against Donovan Peck, a friend of his who broke nearly all his prior swim records, and goes to Bay News 9 where he asks the attractive newswoman, Sandra Sinclair, to promote the event.

The Hanger-supplied tail finally arrives; however, Winter damages it as well. Sawyer discovers that Winter isn't rejecting the tail; instead, the plastic to which the tail is attached is irritating her skin, which Sawyer compares to a seat belt irritating his skin. Dr. McCarthy comes up with an alternative gel-like sock (which he calls "Winter's Gel", the real-life name of the Hanger product used to attach prosthetic limbs, which was developed during its research with Winter). When Winter is fitted with the new prosthetic tail, she then tries to damage it but she is then able to accept the new plastic and tail.

At Save Winter Day, Winter is released into a river for the event and Sawyer's former summer school teacher gives him credit for his work at the hospital, allowing Sawyer to pass summer school despite not attending the actual class. The fisherman who initially spotted Winter places $50 in the donation jar saying, "Winter and I are old friends." The board learns that the real estate deal has closed; however the developer, who attends the event with his grandchildren, sees how everything worked with the help of Winter and agrees to allow the hospital to remain open and says he will financially support it since he has a horrible planning department that could take 20 years to build a hotel. Kyle and Donovan then race in the river, which Kyle then wins (with the help of Winter). Sawyer then dives into the river and swims with Winter.

The ending shows documentary footage from Winter's actual rescue and that she is happy and healthy. It then shows several of the prosthetic tails that Winter has worn, and scenes from real amputees who have visited Winter at the Clear water Marine Aquarium.

Differences between the movie and actual events[edit]

  • In the film, Winter is stranded on a beach near Clearwater. She is found by a nearby fisherman sitting on the shore (and then rescued with Sawyer's assistance). In real life, Winter was found in Mosquito Lagoon south of New Smyrna Beach―part of the Cape Canaveral National Seashore. The fisherman who discovered her was in the lagoon as well. Winter was first taken to the local Marine Discovery center and then transferred to Clearwater, which is on the opposite side of the state.[7]
  • In the movie it is mentioned that Winter's tail was amputated due to infection caused by the tail being caught in the rope. In real life, the loss of blood supply to the tail (from being caught in the rope) caused most of the tail to naturally fall off, with a small piece being amputated.[8]
  • In the movie the process of developing Winter's tail takes place over a few weeks by a Veteran's Administration doctor working during his vacation. In real life, the process of developing a suitable tail (and attaching it) took a number of months by Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka from Hanger Clinic.[7][9]


  • Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett, the operator of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater and Hazel's father.
  • Ashley Judd as Lorraine Nelson, Sawyer's mother and a nurse.
  • Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson, an 11-year-old boy who finds Winter and cuts the crab trap off her. And he also becomes Winter's "dad" and friend.
  • Winter as herself, an injured dolphin that must have part of her fluke amputated. Despite that, she adapts and swims side-to-side. But that figures to be bad for Winter's spine, hence the fake tail (which allows her to swim naturally.)
  • Kris Kristofferson as Reed Haskett, Clay's father and Hazel's grandfather.
  • Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, a prosthetic designer and Kyle's doctor at the VA Hospital.
  • Jim Fitzpatrick as Max Connellan, Kyle's father and Sawyer's uncle.
  • Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett, an 11-year-old girl and the daughter of Clay and granddaughter of Reed.
  • Ray McKinnon as Mr. Doyle, Sawyer's teacher.
  • Austin Stowell as Kyle Connellan, Sawyer's cousin.
  • Michael Roark as Donovan Peck, a friend of Kyle's.
  • Frances Sternhagen as Gloria Forrest
  • Austin Highsmith as Phoebe, the trainer of Clearwater Marine Aquarium.


Dolphin Tale was filmed in native 3D. The film was shot primarily in Pinellas County, Florida with the principal location centering around Winter's home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Additional locations featured in the film include: Admiral Farragut Academy, Honeymoon Island, Tarpon Springs, and local news station Bay News 9.[10]


Dolphin Tale was released theatrically on September 23, 2011 in North America by Warner Bros. Pictures and Alcon Entertainment. The film was released in RealD 3D as well as 2D.

The movie was released on DVD and Blu-ray on December 20, 2011.

Box office[edit]

The film opened at #3 with $19.2 million behind the 3D re-release of The Lion King and Moneyball.[11] In its second weekend, the film reached the #1 spot, dropping only 27%, and grossed $13.9 million.[12] As of January 5, 2012, the film has grossed $72,286,779 in the United States and Canada as well as $23,117,618 internationally bringing its worldwide total to $95,404,397.[3]


The film received very positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 82% of 106 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.5 out of 10.[13] Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 64 based on 31 reviews.[14]


Award Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Young Artist Award Best Performance in a Feature Film - Leading Young Actor Nathan Gamble Nominated [15]
Best Performance in a Feature Film - Supporting Young Actress Cozi Zuehlsdorff Nominated


Main article: Dolphin Tale 2

A sequel titled Dolphin Tale 2 was released September 12, 2014. Yates said there are more inspiring stories like Winter’s and Hope's tales, and is presently working on concepts for Dolphin Tale 3.


  1. ^ "Dolphin Tale (U)". British Board of Film Classification. 2011-09-06. Retrieved 2011-09-07. 
  2. ^ Kaufman, Amy (September 22, 2011). "Movie Projector: Brad Pitt vs. 'Lion King,' 'Dolphin Tale' for No.1". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 22, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Dolphin Tale @ Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ "Dolphin Tale (2011)". IMDb. Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  5. ^ "Dolphin Tale: about". 3 September 2011. 
  6. ^ Persall, Steve (2013-06-18). "'Dolphin Tale 2' to focus on rescued baby dolphin". Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, FL). Retrieved 2013-06-18. 
  7. ^ a b Yahalom, Tali (18 July 2007). "Dolphin and Iraq veteran share wonder of prosthetics". USA Today. Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  8. ^ "Winter, the tailless bottlenose dolphin - How you can help prevent injuries to dolphins". National Marine Fisheries Service. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  9. ^ "Pictured: The world's first bionic sea creature: Winter the dolphin gets a prosthetic tail". Daily Mail. 5 May 2008. Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  10. ^ Steve Persall (23 September 2010). "Production on Dolphin Tale in Clearwater starts earlier than previously announced". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2 January 2011. 
  11. ^ of Weekend Report: 'Lion' Remains 'King,' 'Moneyball,' 'Dolphin Tale' Go Extra Innings
  12. ^ Weekend Report: 'Dolphin Tale' Leaps Into Lead
  13. ^ "Dolphin Tale (2011)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved September 25, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Dolphin Tale s Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved September 25, 2011. 
  15. ^ "33rd Annual Young Artist Awards". Retrieved March 31, 2012. 

External links[edit]