I was familiar with Winter's story from the 2009 picture book Winter's Tail by Juliana, Isabella, and Craig Hatkoff. The basic premise is in 2006, 3 month old Winter was found caught in a crap trap off the coast of Florida. She was rescued and brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; in critical condition her tail had to be amputated. She was not expected to survive any of this, but did and learned to swim in a side-to-side motion. But doctors were concerned for her spine, as her body was not designed to swim that way. A team of prosthetic specialists spent nearly two years developing and testing a prosthetic tail for Winter. With it, she learned to swim in the proper up-and-down motion and has become a hugely popular attraction at the aquarium. The gel sleeve developed for Winter's tale has since been used with human prosthetics.
The film follows this story, showing the struggles that Winter and those trying to help her faced. It also adds several plot lines to give a different narrative arc to the film. There is Sawyer (played by Nathan Gamble, who's had a few small roles prior to this film), a quiet kid who prefers to tinker with toy helicopters to school work or socializing. He develops a special relationship with Winter after finding her washed up on shore. The aquarium's director, Clay (Harry Connick Jr) and his daughter, Hazel (newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff) welcome shy Sawyer into the group where he becomes the force that brings together the different stories. Sawyer's cousin, a local swimming hero, joins the army but returns home from his deployment with injuries and must learn to wear a leg brace. It is when visiting his cousin in the VA hospital that Sawyer meets Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) who he recruits to create a tail to save Winter. As if Winter didn't have enough problems, the aquarium is feeling the effects of the recession and must sell to a developer. Sawyer and Hazel's grit and determination end up saving Winter and the aquarium--they use a webcam to show Winter online and to hold a big fundraiser.
While these characters and story lines are fictional, and yes, somewhat cliche, the film does capture the heart of Winter's tale. Many people did come together and work tirelessly to help Winter, who has become a true inspiration for countless children and adults. Clearwater Marine Aquarium was a low-profile aquarium until their CEO David Yates promoted Winter's story. The webcam is real, you can log on anytime to see Winter at http://seewinter.com. Stick around at the end of the movie to see footage that documents the real rescue and rehab of Winter as well as scenes of actual kids and adults with medical conditions or disabilities who have made the trip down to Florida to visit Winter.
I saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon and it was packed with families. I didn't spot any crying kids but every adult near me was wiping away tears--including me! While there were younger kids in the theater, kids 8 and up would get the most out of it; it is a family drama so with the humor (Winter is a playful dolphin and there is a mischievous pelican who hangs around) it involves heavy issues and is not just a lighthearted animal movie. There are lots of options to further explore the themes in the movie. For starters, the Hatkoff family has several other picture books that tell stories of hope and friendship including Owen & Mzee; Leo the Snow Leopard, Knut, the Baby Polar Bear; and Lola & Tiva. I truly enjoyed watching this new take on Winter's remarkable story.
Contributor: Emily Griffin