Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dolphin Tale 2: Finding a Little Hope

It would’ve been nice to talk with Winter. But she wasn’t doing interviews.

The other stars of Dolphin Tale 2 were more accommodating when I went down to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a set visit last year. Some select Christian media outlets had the opportunity to talk with Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton and several other performers. Winter, the famous aquatic mammal and the  breakout star from the original Dolphin Tale, apparently wasn’t available. But that’s OK. She makes time for the people who matter.

Winter’s story, according to pretty much everyone involved, has mightily impacted thousands of folks. Not just people who come to Clearwater just gawk at a famous bottlenose dolphin, but people—often with disabilities themselves—who’ve been inspired by Winter’s disability. No matter what life throws at you, Winter seems to channel another aquatic star—Dori from Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming.

If you’re not familiar with the original Dolphin Tale, the movie focuses on the true story of Winter, who lost her tail fluke and joint after she got tangled up in a crab trap. As you might imagine, those body parts are absolutely critical for the life of a dolphin. But the good people at Clearwater, along with some outside help, developed an artificial fluke that Winter, after some struggles, learned how to use. And now the animal gets along just (ahem) swimmingly.

A couple days ago, I marveled at how one little boy with autism took inspiration from a Guardians of the Galaxy character. But according to those involved with Dolphin Tale 2, that’s nothing compared to the influence that Winter has had on people.

David Yates, the real CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, knows many of the stories by heart: The tank commander who lost an arm and leg in the middle east—and who found a source of inspiration in this aquatic hero. A nine-year-old girl with a cleft palate whose family drove of miles to just see Winter. Kids who were scared to go to school because of some sort of real or perceived disability, but who saw Winter and found the courage to go after all.

“It’s amazing how God can use a little dolphin like this to change thousands of lives,” Yates says.

The new movie, Dolphin Tale 2, includes real-life footage of some of the people whom Winter has impacted. Yates says he’s received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails regarding Winter.

“Every kid has a life challenge,” he says. “They look at Winter (and say) she’s different, but she’s OK.”

When you’re promoting a feel-good movie, you’re naturally going to emphasize the feel-good elements. But when you hear how much Winter’s story also touched the movie’s cast, you wonder whether there’s something to it. Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel in the movie, and Austin Highsmith, who plays dolphin trainer Phoebe, teared up recounting some of the stories they’ve heard and seen. Everyone involved in Dolphin Tale returned for the sequel. Everyone, it seemed, felt the original movie was really special. And they wanted to be part of that feeling again.

“We’re really this Dolphin Tale family,” said Austin Stowell, who plays Kyle Connellan in both movies. And that family extends, in a way, to those who’ve been touched by them—particularly by Winter’s story. “It shows us that I can do anything.”


The first Dolphin Tale was an improbable hit, earning $72.3 million on a relatively shoestring budget. Will the second one—which focuses on Winter’s potential new tank mate—make the same sort of impact? We’ll find out next Monday.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Forrest Gump: He Knows What Love Is

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

That’s Forrest Gump’s snappiest comeback line. Whenever someone asks Forrest if he’s an idiot (which is often), he remembers what his Mamma always told him: Stupid is as stupid does. It’s not a denial. It’s simply a statement of fact, and a bit of a challenge. Don’t judge me by how I think. Judge me by what I do. Oh, and while you’re at it, judge yourself, too.

Forrest Gump, originally released in 1994 and the winner of six Academy Awards (including Best Director Robert Zemeckis, Best Actor Tom Hanks and Best Picture) is returning to theaters today, rolling out on 300 IMAX screens across the country. I’ll be interested to see whether anyone cares.

Forrest Gump hasn’t aged well for some. When you think of the year’s classic movies, you maybe think of Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption or The Lion King before this Oscar winner. Forrest Gump can feel a little too milquetoast by comparison. The special effects—cutting edge for the day—feel pretty dated now. Lines like “Run, Forrest, run!” and “life is a box of chocolates” are more likely to trigger eye rolls than smiles. Some positively hate the thing. Writes Amy Nicholson of L.A. Weekly:

“Forrest Gump has persevered, still celebrating 20 years of ignoring the tragedies that lurk beneath our lives like great whites in the dark waters below his shrimping boat. Let us not forget that the Bubba Gump fortunes only came after a hurricane took out all of Forrest's competition. Post-Katrina and post-recession, even his seafood riches now have a rotten aftertaste.”

But like folks who met Forrest in the movie, Amy underestimates the guy. Forrest might not have been fully aware of hurricanes or understood the Vietnam War, but he’s no stranger to tragedy. He understands pain maybe better than most of us. He loses his mother. He loses his best friend. He loses—repeatedly—the love of his life. And he’s never allowed to forget how slow he is. When Forrest learns he fathered a child, he’s amazed, then terrified that his son might be slow, too.

And yet, rather than grow angry or bitter or fatalistic, Forrest grieved and moved on. His journey is one of deep, abiding faith.

Forrest Gump is a deeply spiritual movie, one of the most faith-driven stories I’ve ever seen. Echoes of scripture weave through each storyline. It’s most obvious, maybe, in his relationship with Lieutenant Dan (I talk about it a little in the spiritual content section of my Plugged In review), but nowhere is it more poignant and powerful than in his love for Jenny, his wayward “girl.”

Jenny is a troubled woman. Like the song says, she searches for love in all the wrong places—trying to find happiness in parked cars or drug-filled penthouses. She poses for Playboy. She sings folk songs naked in a strip club. She longs for love, but instead she finds a string of abusive boyfriends, made (it’s suggested) in the image of her father.

When she was a kid being chased by her dad, she asked Forrest to pray with her:--begging that God would turn her into a bird so that she could fly away from her horrid life. She never loses her desire for wings, it seems: She climbs bridges and balconies, longing to wing her way into oblivion.

And yet she does fly. Again and again, she flies from her past, remaking herself at every stoplight—as if she could somehow fly away from herself. And in so doing, she flies away from Forrest, too.

“Can I have a ride?” she asks a passing truck driver after Forrest “rescues” her from the strip club.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“I don’t care,” Jenny says.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better depiction of how our own sin and shame impact our relationship with God.

See, Forrest loves Jenny—loves her unconditionally, just as God loves us. He loves with a perfect, undying passion. And Jenny loves Forrest, too … sorta. But she seeks fulfillment elsewhere time after time. And when Forrest asks Jenny to marry him, she realizes that he’s too good for her.

“You don’t want to marry me,” she says, sadly.

 “Why don’t you love me, Jenny?” he asks. “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

Jenny, after all this time, sees that it’s true. He knows what love is. It’s she that doesn’t.

Now, I’m not calling Forrest a Christ metaphor. Jesus and Forrest are pretty different … except in that image of love. A love that’s undimmed by what we say or do, a love unstained by our own sin and shame. A love that would die for us, and has.

That kind of love can seem a little stupid and simple-minded to our jaded eyes. Na├»ve. Oblivious. Like Forrest himself. Like, Amy Nicholson tells us, the movie is.  

And yet there’s unfathomable beauty there, too. A love we can’t understand, but part of us wants to.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” Forrest says. The Apostle Paul said something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

In Forrest Gump, we’re given a fool—one whose foolish ideas of love can put our own wisdom to shame.