Dolphin Tale begins with a view of the underwater world, showcasing the inquisitive nature of dolphins to their surroundings. Dolphin Tale is based on the remarkable true story of a Bottlenose Dolphin named Winter. When Winter’s tail becomes hopelessly entangled in a fisherman’s ropes causing Winter to wash ashore, a friendless and lonely boy tries to help her. As Winter is taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium where rehabilitated and later makes her home, the boy, Sawyer, forms a bond with her. Winter’s tail had to be amputated due to the damage and infection caused by the rope, eliciting a stronger bond with Sawyer. As the movie progresses and the bond between the two kindred spirits gets stronger, there is a character shift in both. Sawyer transforms from a wallflower to someone who stands up for what he believes in; Winter grows into herself more and adapts to a new life in captivity.
An interesting aspect of this movie that may have been overlooked was the main cause of the entire the film – human interaction. In the first ten minutes of the film, Winter is found beached, ensnared with a fisherman’s rope that is bound around her tail, which is effectively cutting off blood circulation and into her skin. In choosing to show this, the film not only explains how Winter became a rehabilitated animal, but also brings light to the initially negative interaction between human and animal. This film invites parallels to Disney’s Finding Nemo, where, throughout the film, human intervention causes more harm to the environment and animal populations. A specific example of human intervention in Finding Nemo is at the beginning of the film where the SCUBA diver intervenes and removes Nemo from his home. Dolphin Tale subtly shows that the interaction between human and animals is more times that not, an unfortunate occurrence for the dolphin. The carelessness of the fisherman is demonstrated by leaving their ropes or nets behind result in thousands of marine animal deaths every year. There are a few that are in a sense lucky, such as Winter, to have been found by a good natured pedestrian, and brought to a rehabilitation facility where staff members actively work towards saving animals lives instead of hindering them. The relationship between Winter and Sawyer is a symbiotic one. While Winter is dependent on the caretakers of the aquarium for her physical wellbeing, she relies on Sawyer on a more personal level. Winter is responsible for bringing Sawyer out of his shell and growing into his own being who stands up for what he believes in and fights for it.
A defining point in the film that solidifies this human-animal relationship between Winter and Sawyer is when her final fitting of her prosthetic tail arrives. After previous failed attempts with other prosthetic tails that were ill suited, the anticipation of the moment is palpable through the screen. Sawyer’s face is the last face she looks at before she goes for her first swim. That human-animal gaze solidifies their relationship; it was almost as if Winter was saying, “okay, I’m ready”. This human-animal relationship not only brings their relationship into the realm of the non-fiction, it also breaches the barrier into the dynamic of cross species communication and understanding. Jonathan Burt in Animals in Film, states that, “The animal’s eye is a very significant motif in films and we need to ask what it is the film invokes,” and this example seems to illustrate how the “exchange of looks is not just a form of physic connection but also determines the practical interaction that is taking place,” if not “the basis of a social contract”[i]. Countless films take advantage of focusing in on the eye of an animal to elicit a reaction from the viewers and invoke a sense of understanding, a window into the animal’s thoughts so to speak. In this instance, Winter and Sawyer’s understanding of each other is displayed through this human-animal gaze.
This gaze also transpires into the making of the film. Winter has a bond with those she encounters everyday, her trainers. Watching an animal with their trainer, whom they may have had for years, shows that there is an undeniable bond between the two. The aspect of using trained animals to film Dolphin Tale adds to the human-animal gaze that is ever present while filming, “At a more technical level, the very act of making a film using trained animals is premised on some form of mutual intelligibility in the look between human and animal. Alongside the lines of sight that link director, technicians, camera and actors are those that link trainer to animal”[ii]. The added benefit to using trained animals and their trainers is that is subsequently makes the film more believable.
With the world wide telling of this story, Winter became the animal ambassador for the physically and mentally disabled. Thousands flock to Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, every year for an audience with the Bottlenose Dolphin star of the film. Seeing an animal with prosthetic shows children with disabilities that they are a not alone and that other animals can share in what they go through. There is a point in the movie where a young disabled girl watches as Winter swims with her prosthetic and turns to her mother and says, “Mommy, she’s just like me”. This pivotal point in the movie is what sends the most important message. Winter is not just a dolphin without a tail, she is a motivator for the disabled to feel their self-worth and that even though they are disabled, and it should not prevent them from living their lives at a standstill.
At the end of the movie is actual footage of Winter’s rehabilitation as well as interactions with disabled people. This brings in the question of if this story is more about helping people than animals; thus bringing into question animal ethics. Burt brings an interesting point, “Children who are recalcitrant or unhappy at the beginning of these films, often because of some family trauma, are transformed by the end through their contact with animals”[iii]. This is not only analogous with the story line, where Sawyer went through a transformation with his interactions with Winter, but also to real life. As an ambassador, Winter encounters many children with disabilities, and the transformation of their emotions in the short time they spend with Winter is displayed in the footage at the end of the movie. The joy on their faces to interact with an animal that is similar to them gives them a perspective on their own life that is positive. While some would argue that bringing the disabled to Winter and having them interact with her would be undermining to Winter as simply being used for the benefits of people, others would argue that it is symmetrically beneficial. As in most cases, if an animal is against something, there is most likely not a lot anyone could do to force them to do said task. If Winter were set against doing something, she would most likely swim to the bottom of the pool and avoid the situation. The fact that she has her head above water, is watching and responding to those she encounters, and is inquisitive to new things, makes me surmise that there is mutual enrichment going on in these scenes.
The interactions in Dolphin Tale are represented in a mostly positive light. The beginning of the story where Winter is found with her tail bound, is an unfortunate, but necessary and true element of this story. The human-animal gaze between Winter and Sawyer is a defining theme of this movie, showcasing a mutual understanding and respect between human and animal. With Winter’s work as an animal ambassador for the disabled, she has become a figure of acceptance and understanding in the youth of the disabled. Not only is it beneficial for humans to interact with Winter but also for her to interact with humans as a form of enrichment. Dolphin Tale showcases positive human and animal interactions, abolishing the gap between disability and animals.
[i] Burt, J. (2002) Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 38.
[ii] Burt, J. (2002) Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 53.
[iii] Burt, J. (2002) Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 187.
Burt, J. (2002) Animals in Film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 38-189.
“Dolphin Tale (2011).” IMDb. IMDb.com, Inc., n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.