Bless its well-meaning heart, but "Dolphin Tale 2" is plodding and politically correct in a way that saps the proceedings of all potential buoyancy and drive. Inspired by the continuing true story of Winter, a tailless bottlenose dolphin who resides at Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium, this lesser sequel to 2011's "Dolphin Tale
" feels like a monetary-based add-on rather than an organic continuation that was crying to be told. Because it is pretty much a done deal that all will turn out right in time for the rose-tinted finale, it is difficult to become terribly invested in the spindly, stretched-thin plot. Returning writer-director Charles Martin Smith fills the movie with a whole heap of lesson-learning and fabricated semi-conflicts, but little that doesn't feel like conscious manipulation toward his target audience of young children and their parents.
In the three years since Winter's life was saved by the construction of a prosthetic tail, Sawyer Nelson (Mason Gamble) has gotten a job at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium with dreams of eventually becoming a marine biologist. On the day that he is offered a full scholarship for a "Sea Semester" program, he learns that the facility's oldest dolphin, Panama, has passed away. With an increasingly lethargic Winter suddenly by herself and facing an ordered transfer, the race is on for Sawyer, aquarium operator Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and Clay's daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), to find their much-loved star attraction a female water companion.
"Dolphin Tale 2" doesn't have a pessimistic bone in its body. Indeed, the film is so earnest that one almost feels like a curmudgeon having to criticize it. Animal-loving children will be all over it, but the original "Dolphin Tale
" told a more arresting story with more pressing consequences. The entire central cast is back, though most of the adult actors are playing thankless second fiddle to likable teenage co-stars Mason Gamble (2008's "Marley & Me
") and Cozi Zuehlsdorff. As Sawyer's mother, Lorraine, Ashley Judd (2014's "Divergent
") is predominately on hand to remind her son that he must make a decision soon about whether or not to attend the semester at sea. Morgan Freeman (2014's "Lucy
") delivers sage-like advice as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, who is tasked with fitting Winter with a new prosthesis that her hoped-for companion, Hope, will accept. Harry Connick, Jr.'s (2009's "New in Town
") Dr. Haskett must learn to accept that his daughter is growing up, leading to Hazel confiding in Lorraine with this chillingly bad line: "He treats me like a plate-glass window; he doesn't see me." As for Kris Kristofferson (2014's "The Motel Life
"), it's hard to tell if even he understands what his purpose is as Clay's background-dressing father, Reed.
Featuring a two-scene cameo from surfer Bethany Hamilton and a crowd of extras and day players who pander with saccharine glee, "Dolphin Tale 2" is sunny, inoffensive and blandly cornball. The location shooting at the actual Clearwater Marine Aquarium gives the picture's setting a consistent authenticity, even when the squeaky-clean, dimple-cheeked material is homogenized within an inch of its life. The will-she-or-won't-she climax in which all of the above look on as they wait to see if Hope takes to Winter is roughly as exciting as a stroll to the mailbox. Still, there are some nice moments, made all the nicer because the film is targeting youngsters and hasn't a joke about bodily functions in sight. The last scene is its best, focusing on Sawyer's blossoming relationship with Hazel as he prepares to spread his proverbial wings. It is a memorably sweet capper to a just-okay, otherwise distaff redux.