Dolphin Tale is a 2011 American 3D 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, Cozi Zuehlsdorff in her big screen debut, and Morgan Freeman. 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. This film was theatrically released on September 23, 2011 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Summit Entertainment. Dolphin Tale received positive reviews from critics and it earned $95.9 million on a $37 million budget. A sequel, Dolphin Tale 2 was released on September 12, 2014.
Sawyer Nelson, a lonely 11-year-old, has fallen behind in school since being abandoned by his father five years earlier. His only friend is his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a champion swimmer who hopes to compete in the Olympics. Kyle leaves to spend time in the army.
One day, Sawyer finds a fisherman attempting to help an injured dolphin tangled in a crab trap. The dolphin is taken for treatment to Clearwater Marine Hospital (CMH), run by Doctor Clay Haskett. Clay's daughter Hazel names the dolphin Winter, following the theme of two prior dolphins, Summer and Autumn, which were successfully treated and returned to the ocean. Sawyer sneaks in to see Winter (with an assist from Hazel) and later starts visiting daily, being harassed by a roof-dwelling pelican named Rufus. Their respective parents object at first (Clay because Sawyer has no experience with marine animals, and Sawyer's mother, Lorraine, because Sawyer is skipping summer school without permission to visit Winter), but they realize that the friendship seems to benefit both Winter and Sawyer (Winter feels better with Sawyer's presence, and Sawyer is becoming more confident and strong). Dr. Clay allows the visits to continue, and Lorraine withdraws Sawyer from summer school and lets him volunteer at CMA and giving him a new wet suit, as well.
However, 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 the unnatural motion is causing stress on her spine; if continued, the motion will cripple and eventually kill her.
The news comes that Kyle has been injured in an explosion and is coming home for treatment. Sawyer is excited to see him, but devastated when Kyle, depressed, skips his own welcome-back party and stays at the local Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where Doctor Cameron McCarthy is developing a prosthetic leg for Kyle. Sawyer and his mother visit Kyle there, but Sawyer is affronted when Kyle asks them to leave. Not intending to upset Sawyer, Kyle takes Sawyer on a walk and properly explains his situation and that he needs some time. Sawyer then asks Dr. McCarthy if he can work on making a prosthetic tail for Winter. McCarthy agrees to do so and convinces his prosthetic supplier Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics to supply the parts at no cost. Dr. McCarthy manufactures a "homemade" model tail while waiting for the real one to arrive, but Winter rejects it and destroys it by banging it against the pool wall.
Meanwhile, Kyle gets more depressed when his friend and swimming partner, Donovan Peck, beats Kyle's old swimming records. McCarthy hears about it and persuades Kyle to go home.
Then CMA, already in financial peril, is damaged by a hurricane. The board of directors agrees to close CMA, sell the land to a real estate developer, and find homes for all the animals except Winter, which due to her condition, is not wanted by anyone and may have to be euthanized. Kyle visits CMA and sees that Winter is like him, with a damaged limb. However, inspired by a girl with a prosthetic limb from Atlanta, Georgia, who - inspired by Winter's story of overcoming disability - comes to visit Winter, Sawyer envisions an event called "Save Winter Day" to save the facility. Clay is not sold on the idea, but reconsiders after talking with his father, Reed. Kyle agrees to a race against Donovan Peck and persuades Bay News 9 to cover the event.
The Hanger-supplied tail finally arrives; however, Winter rejects it too. Sawyer then figures out what the real problem is: the plastic base for the tail is irritating her skin. Therefore, McCarthy develops 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). Winter finally accepts this newest prosthetic tail.
At Save Winter Day, the work with Winter impresses everyone. Sawyer's teacher gives him school credit, allowing him to pass summer school. The fisherman who found Winter on the beach comes by, too. Also, the real estate developer decides to keep CMA open and financially support it. With Winter's help, Kyle then wins a swimming race against Donovan.
The ending shows documentary footage from Winter's actual rescue. It then shows several of the prosthetic tails that Winter has worn, and scenes from real amputees who have visited Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
- Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson is an 11-year-old boy who finds Winter and cuts the crab trap off her. He becomes a friend and paternal figure of sorts to Winter.
- Winter as herself is 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.)
- Harry Connick, Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett is the operator of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater and Hazel's father.
- Ashley Judd as Lorraine Nelson is Sawyer's mother and a nurse.
- Kris Kristofferson as Reed Haskett is Clay's father and Hazel's grandfather.
- Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy is a prosthetic designer and Kyle's doctor at the VA Hospital. He agrees to help create a prosthetic tail for Winter.
- Jim Fitzpatrick as Max Connellan is Kyle's father and Sawyer's uncle. He is also an army veteran.
- Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett is an 11-year-old girl and the daughter of Clay and granddaughter of Reed. She helps out in the aquarium and becomes friends with Sawyer.
- Ray McKinnon as Mr. Doyle is Sawyer's teacher.
- Austin Stowell as Kyle Connellan is Sawyer's cousin, who is a state swimming champion. At the start of the movie, he leaves to spend time in the army to get money to participate in the Olympics, but is injured and comes home prematurely.
- Michael Roark as Donovan Peck is a friend of Kyle's who is also a state swimming champion.
- Frances Sternhagen as Gloria Forrest is the owner of Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
- Austin Highsmith as Phoebe is the trainer of Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
- Betsy Landin as Kat is one of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium dolphin specialists.
- Tom Nowicki as Philip J. Hordern, a real estate developer.
- Richard Libertini as the fisherman finds Winter. He later visits during the fundraiser and gives them a generous donation.
Differences between the movie and real-life events
- Main article: Dolphin Tale (soundtrack)