Dolphin Island is the kind of movie I would have adored as a marine mammal-loving tween. The story centers on 14-year-old Annabel (Tyler Jade Nixon), who lives in the Bahamas on a fishing boat with her paternal grandfather, Jonah Coleridge (Peter Woodward), surrounded by a close-knit group of friends who care deeply for her. Anna’s parents founded a marine research and conservation center there, and although they died 10 years prior, Jonah has kept the facility going. As a result, Anna’s best friend is a dolphin named Mitzy (played by two open water dolphins named Goombay and Cayla who live in the ocean but are cared for by the staff of an animal sanctuary).
While Anna’s life on the island is idyllic, things get complicated when her wealthy maternal grandparents, Sheryl (Annette Lovrien Duncan) and Samuel (David Raizor) Williams, turn up after years with a plan to assume guardianship of Annabel and take her back to New York with them. Although Anna wants her grandparents in her life, she doesn’t want to leave the home she loves. A custody battle ensues, with Jonah seeming to stand no chance against the Williams’ unscrupulous attorney Robert Carbunkle (Bob Bledsoe). However, this is a movie aimed at the middle-school crowd, so despite some dicey moments, everything works out in the end, and in the meantime, there are multiple scenes showcasing the fun of island life and of Annabel interacting with Mitzy.
Dolphin Island is a bit of a throwback to live-action kids’ films from more innocent times, like 1974’s Benji and 1993’s Free Willy, although there are nods to modern times too. The cast is diverse and Annabel is depicted as a capable and smart girl. On the other hand, she may be the least angsty teenage character to appear onscreen in decades, and her wide-eyed, open-hearted demeanor makes the character come across as substantially younger. Even when sparks fly between her and a local boy named Mateo (Aaron Burrows), their interaction is completely chaste. Anna’s overwhelming innocence is a bit cloying and will come across as unrealistic to anyone who’s lived through adolescence. Nonetheless, as a pre-teen, I likely would have appreciated the character, if only based on the knowledge that she was allowed to go out with her friends without adult supervision.
The vilification of both Anna’s maternal grandparents and their lawyer is a bit perplexing for this kind of movie. Although the commentary is fairly light and everyone is redeemed in the end, the story leans into the idea that it’s Anna’s grandparents’ wealth that leads to their self-righteous entitlement and that lawyers in general are corrupt and dishonest. In fact, of all the characters, the lawyer fares by far the worst. When he’s initially introduced his weight is played for laughs, then later, he’s painted as an amoral stooge, willing to do anything to please his clients. These are tired tropes, and it’s too bad the movie decided to build its central conflict on them.
Overall, however, kids between the ages of 7 and 11 are likely to enjoy Dolphin Island, even if their parents aren’t quite as enchanted. If anything, children’s biggest complaint about the film might be there isn’t as much focus on the dolphin as they might have expected, even as parents will notice Mitzy is woefully anthropomorphized when she’s onscreen in scenes that include a lot of dolphin nodding and vocalizing, as if the dolphin understands English and is having a conversation with her human friends. Still, despite some of the plots’ drawbacks or more questionable elements, Dolphin Island is a good choice for parents looking for a wholesome movie to watch with their kids, especially if those kids happen to be into dolphins or animals in general.