During the film’s shoot last fall at the very place were Winter’s story unfolded (Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida), I had the opportunity to visit the set as production was nearing completion and get a feel for what the September 23, 2011 release will be like.

While I’ve not yet seen the family-friendly 3D film, as it is still in post-production, I will share with you what I observed and heard that day while visiting the set and hopefully give you an idea of why this life-affirming tale will surely be worth your time this coming fall.

THE STORY

Since Dolphin Tale is “based on true events,” a surrounding story needed to be developed in order to adapt Winter's tale to film, fill screen time and help moviegoers of all ages connect with this unlikely hero. 

In the film, directed by Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud), Winter is indeed a young dolphin who is discovered while caught in a crab trap and then eventually loses her tail. When Winter begins her rehabilitation at Clearwater Marine Hospital (the name is changed from “aquarium” to “hospital” in the film), one of her most devoted friends is an introverted, 11-year-old boy named Sawyer Nelson. He soon rallies his friends and family—including his initially skeptical mother Lorraine Nelson—to help save Winter, and he convinces a pioneering doctor named Dr. McCarthy to create a unique prosthetic attachment to enable the dolphin to swim properly.

While Dr. McCarthy has developed prosthetics for war veterans and is good at what he does, he’s never done as much for an animal. Can he really help a wounded dolphin? And where in the world does he begin? It’s the challenge of his career. Joined with him in his efforts to help Winter is Clay Haskett, a dedicated marine biologist and single father who is the one who has brought her to Clearwater Marine Hospital. Clay tirelessly runs this understaffed facility and lives nearby in his houseboat with his father Reed and daughter Hazel, who he also homeschools.

No one knows the depth of impact that Winter will soon have in her new home and how everyone she meets—children, war veterans and all those who are helping her—will be inspired by an injured dolphin who never gave up.

THE CAST

Winter … Yes, Winter plays herself in role of “Winter” in Dolphin Tale. But how did an untrained animal become an on-screen “star”?

“We sat down with Alcon from day one and said we’ve got to make sure if we’re going to film Winter it has to be at her pace,” explains David Yates, CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. “And we’ve done so whether she’s wearing the tail or doing a scene. It’s been at her pace.

“Dolphins have to be stimulated otherwise they’ll regress,” he continues. “So the movie for her has been a great benefit. We brought all the actors in a little bit early and got Winter used to seeing them or a double that looked like them. She’s conformed. She’s the star of the show, and she knows it.”

“She’s done remarkably well,” adds Austin Highsmith who plays Winter’s trainer “Phoebe” in the film. “They had to train the ‘eyes closed behavior’ with [Winter] because dolphins that are in captivity are trained to keep their eyes open, so they can do medical procedures on them. So training her to shut her eyes and clench them up in the movie when she’s like the ‘sick dolphin’ was a really hard behavior to do. So they had me hold her, and they would try to train that. … She’s so cute. And she’s really smart, too.”