‘Dolphin Tale 2’ waters down family-friendly story

From left, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Harry Connick Jr. and Nathan Gamble star in “Dolphin Tale 2.”
From left, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Harry Connick Jr. and Nathan Gamble star in “Dolphin Tale 2.” Photo provided

It’s a strain to poke fun at “Dolphin Tale 2.” Even more than the very solid first film, this is cynicism-free cinema; a place where snark goes to die. But while the wholesomeness, PG-rating positivity and conservation goals remain a strong selling point, the story simply isn’t as good as the first one.

Directed by “Never Cry Wolf” star Charles Martin Smith, “Dolphin Tale” was a welcome throwback, a solid piece of filmmaking and a completely innocent tween-friendly story. It strayed a bit from the source material, but that was balanced by a co-starring role for the real-life dolphin Winter, who was saved in the mid-2000s after she was fitted with a prosthetic tail.

This time, the drama at Clearwater Marine Aquarium centers around Winter’s depression and a race-against-the-clock search for a new companion. A less interesting second story features Winter’s human friend Sawyer, who struggles to decide whether to attend a semester at sea.

Both narratives seem forced, especially after the happily-ever-after ending in the first film. The filmmakers strain to ratchet up the drama with confusingly vague threats to move Winter and fire aquarium head Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.). Based on the pains Sawyer goes through deciding whether to get on a boat, you’d think he’s taking a one-way trip into outer space to plant a nuclear missile on an asteroid.

Thankfully, the tone remains the same. Smith, who also wrote the script, inserts a lesson at every turn. Best of all, he never talks down to the young audience. Haskett must decide whether to release a perfectly healthy dolphin, even though the animal’s continued presence could save Winter. It’s a complex moral dilemma that kids and parents can discuss on the ride home from the theater.

The actors who play Sawyer and Haskett’s daughter, Hazel (Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff), have a nice chemistry, both with each other and the adults in their life. With close to zero romance in this film — affairs hinted at in the first “Dolphin Tale” have been abandoned — more complex kid/adult relationships can be explored. The father and daughter conflict between Clay and Hazel are particularly satisfying, aided by two actors who clearly are buying into this material.

Other characters from the last film are clumsily forced into the plot. It’s kind of sad to see Rufus the Pelican getting way more screen time and plot significance than characters played by Kris Kristofferson and Ashley Judd. Morgan Freeman, being Morgan Freeman, strolls in for barely two minutes and still manages to command the moment.