Dolphin Tale 2 is kind of infuriating, mostly because it tries to so hard to be innocuous. Kids like animals, what’s wrong with that? Nothing. A dolphin beat the odds and now inspires veterans and disabled children with her story of hope? That’s great. And when that same very special dolphin loses her best friend and finds a new one? Well, only a monster would have a problem with that.
It seems like a defensive strategy on the part of the filmmakers, when really they could have just given viewers more of the raison d’être for a movie like this: animal scenes. No child—and certainly no adult, presumably in the company of a child—goes to see Dolphin Tale 2 for any reason other than to watch dolphins swimming around. When they do appear, the animal scenes in Dolphin Tale 2 are well done, with some nice-looking, if standard, underwater cinematography. The animal cast itself is quite endearing; on top of star attraction Winter and comic relief Rufus The Pelican, we meet Mandy The Dolphin, Hope The Dolphin, and Mavis, an animatronic turtle.
The central conflict of Dolphin Tale 2 is based around young Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), our hero from the first film, now a 15-year-old wunderkind who leads staff meetings and an army of teen volunteers who call him “sir” for some reason. Sawyer has received an offer to participate in a prestigious Semester At Sea program but, being young, he’s reluctant to leave home. Then one of the dolphins at the aquarium, Panama, dies of old age, and Sawyer’s beloved Winter falls into what appears to be a deep depression. Facing a loss of business as well as USDA fines, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) is pressured to pair up newly acquired dolphin Mandy with the despondent Winter. But this is in conflict with Haskett’s trap-rehabilitate-release philosophy, and he defies his boss, the government, and his own daughter’s wishes to set young Mandy free. A nice little lesson in scientific ethics, right?
Sure, except another young dolphin, one who conveniently can never be re-released into the wild for reasons that are barely skimmed over in the movie, is found immediately afterwards, rendering Haskett’s big sacrifice superfluous. That’s what’s so frustrating about Dolphin Tale 2—the plot is being driven by forces that are beyond the characters’ control. Haskett’s bound by scientific ethics. The USDA is bound by law. Sawyer can’t commit to three lousy months abroad, because he has to wait and see what happens to Winter. And because everyone’s basically throwing their hands up in the air saying, “What do you want me to do?,” the conflict, such as it is, feels more like waiting around for the deux ex machina that we know has to appear at some point, or the movie will never end.
The plotting of Dolphin Tale 2 is best symbolized in the scene where Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman at his most grandfatherly) gives Sawyer a pocket watch as a going-away present. The watch is stopped. Sawyer is disappointed. He shakes it, and it starts again. Problem solved. That’s what this movie does when it needs to move the story along—just shake the watch, and hope things start ticking again. But at least they brought back the pelican.