For a relatively small documentary, “Blackfish” has made huge ripples. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 exposé of Sea World’s inhumane conditions for killer whales and occupational perils for trainers has kept animal cruelty in the headlines, if only because the marine amusement park’s stock has nosedived since the film’s premiere.
Though writer-director Charles Martin Smith’s script for “Dolphin Tale 2” was probably completed before the release of “Blackfish,” it’s impossible not to see this sequel to the 2011 schmaltz-fest as belonging to the post-“Blackfish” era. The original “Dolphin Tale” hinged on a near-mystical connection between wayward teen Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Winter, the dolphin he helps restore to health after her infected tail eventually requires amputation. Winter is no mere patient, but a friend, teacher, and guidance counselor to Sawyer in one smooth, rubbery package.
In the relatively grown-up “Dolphin Tale 2,” however, Winter and her fellow injured dolphins are “wild animals” — a phrase repeated no less than three times to emphasize that rescued dolphins aren’t pets or even domesticated companions, but unpredictable creatures we can’t wholly understand. In an early scene, an upset Winter, unwilling to perform for the crowds, even swats at Sawyer, resulting in an arm injury.
The sequel, then, clearly expects viewers of the first film to grow up with the franchise. A preoccupation with growth, and its attending pains, permeates and coheres the film. Having surpassed the slick sentimentality of the original, “Dolphin Tale 2” is a unexpectedly satisfying and conscientious coming-of-age narrative about how maturity sometimes means letting go of immediate emotional attachments for a greater cause or a longer view of things.
And yet it remains an appealing fantasy about super-teens saving sick animals. Aquarium director Dr. Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) is officially in charge, but he’s happy to hand off many of his responsibilities to his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and his protégé Sawyer.
The eventful film contains several storylines, but the major plots concern Sawyer’s dilly-dallying about participating in a three-month semester at sea and the far more compelling fate of Winter, who might have to be moved to a different facility when her dolphin-mate, a legally required companion, suddenly dies.
To adult eyes, the distribution of labor to a couple of adolescents with seemingly very little book learning feels somewhat silly, especially when a dismayed Hazel pores over the medical charts of a dolphin that her father would prefer to release back into the wild rather than pair with Winter, thus insuring the latter’s stay at the aquarium. For younger viewers, though, the youths’ incongruous authority at the educational institution might well prove inspiring. (For the record, the dolphin rescuers seen in documentary footage during the credits have many, many years on the film characters.)
The longer “Dolphin Tale 2” stays out of the water, the more desperately it gasps for air. The arc about Sawyer’s indecision regarding the semester at sea — and another subplot about Hazel’s unrequited crush on him — feel like cheap, processed filler. (At least the kid actors apparently got some thesping lessons between the first and second movies.)
Once underwater, though, Smith mines urgent drama — and joyous spectacles — from the characters’ Hippocratic desire to do right by the dolphins under their care. Two scenes of utter elation conclude the storylines of the main dolphins by reuniting them with other members of their own species.
It’s telling that the human role in these scenes is to applaud, and not much more. Contributing to the cheers are Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman as Sawyer’s mother and Winter’s prostheticist, respectively; their biggest role in the film appears to be lending their recognizable names to the poster.
Rather than rely on a contrived relationship between humans and animals (ahem, Lassie), then, Smith’s scrupulous sequel somehow makes the respectful distance between humans and animals the stuff of poignant dilemmas, while still fulfilling the desire of watching a boy swim and dive and jump in the water with his favorite dolphin to an adoring crowd.
You could accuse “Dolphin Tale 2” of trying to have its kelp and eat it too. But the whole thing just works; the film gets pretty close to the Platonic ideal of accessible but still meaningful edutainment. And in a movie landscape that’s aggressively dumbed down and cynical, a little integrity goes a long way.