You might have thought "Dolphin Tale," the sleeper hit kids' film of a few falls back, was a complete, compact and uplifting story that didn't really need a second act.
And if so, you were on the money.
A fictionalized account of the true story of Winter, a badly injured dolphin rescued by the Clearwater (Florida) Aquarium, and how a prosthetic tail was fabricated for her, allowing her to swim and survive and inspire veterans, cancer survivors and accident victims of all ages with her pluck, "Dolphin Tale" covered all the bases.
So "Dolphin Tale 2" feels, in its best moments, like little more than "Winter's Greatest Hits." The dolphin is in trouble again, the embattled aquarium faces the threat of losing custody of the dolphins it is rehabilitating, and Morgan Freeman shows up in the third act to complain about how tiny a baby dolphin they're caring for is.
"I pulled anchovies off pizzas that were bigger than that!"
Actor-director Charles Martin Smith built his follow-up story around Winter losing her companion dolphin. Aquariums are required to pair up these very social animals as a provision of keeping them. Winter, losing her pal, seems depressed.
The Clearwater Aquarium, spruced up, well-financed and successful now that Winter has become a star attraction, has to find her a friend, a distressed dolphin that isn't able to return to the wild. Sawyer, her human pal (Nathan Gamble), is so worried about this crisis that he may pass up the chance to attend a sea school where bright, aspiring marine biologists can get a taste of what the profession will be like.
Smith gets the righteous work of such aquariums right. Harry Connick Jr., the no-nonsense aquarium director and father of Sawyer's gal-pal Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), refuses to bend the mission to save Winter.
"Rescue. Rehab. Release."
The government guidelines may be inconvenient (Smith plays the inspector who lays down the law), but the adults don't question their necessity.
And the rescue and release scenes go to great pains to show how this delicate work is handled, how labor intensive it is and how rewarding it can be to return a dolphin or injured sea turtle to the wild.
But the life around the aquarium, with its cranky pelican (friend to the injured turtle) strains to be amusing. Smith peoples the film with the same cast, including Kris Kristofferson as Hazel's grandpa and Tom Nowicki as the aquarium's benefactor. There just isn't enough for them all to do. Freeman gets the few funny lines, which are all the same.
"I've got jars of peanut butter older'n you!"
Still, seeing what Winter can mean to a disabled child, the educational side of the story and the adorable animals make this every bit as child-friendly as the original. And if it's more about "teachable moments" than fun ones, at least "Dolphin Tale 2" will hold the interest of its youngest viewers while it teaches, which is all any parent can hope for from a kids' film.