Dolphins is about wild dolphins, the ones featured in the latest eco-tour packages for families. (You can swim with them, but not in the United States.) There are 30 species of dolphin, some of which are threatened with extinction, and others who face all sorts of man-made hazards that kill a thousand of them every year. Producer-director Greg MacGillivray (Everest, The Living Sea) gets close to four different species-wild Atlantic dolphins, dusky dolphins, rough-toothed dolphins Holly and Hercules, and a bottlenose dolphin named JoJo. While some of the underwater photography in Dolphins is spectacular-especially the sequence in which the dolphins herd a school of fish to create a 'baitball'-this 40-minute documentary is more PBS-style nature film than exciting large-format entertainment.
Children will have trouble following the dizzying number of scientists and dolphins, mostly because the filmmakers lack the skills required for character development. Some scientists only appear underwater, and none of the scientists speaks directly to the camera. An example is Kathleen Dudzinski, whose research, the mapping of dolphin speech, comprises a large portion of the film. Her experiments are explained in a few, easily missed sentences, with only one live, underwater example, making it difficult for the audience to grasp the scope of her work. The most charismatic of the scientists, Dean Bernal, who has become the human companion of JoJo, an 'ambassador' dolphin-these are dolphins who seek human companionship-is onscreen for only a few minutes. MacGillivray never adequately explains what scientists have learned from such relationships, nor do we see Bernal up-close. At some point during a particularly irrelevant sequence featuring the Bahamian town where Dudzinski does her shopping-which any competent editor would have left on the cutting room floor-you realize there simply isn't enough underwater footage to sustain this 40-minute film.
The dolphin's delightful squeaks and whistles are often mixed with Sting's music and the undistinguished voice of Pierce Brosnan, creating an annoying cacophony that is both distracting and inappropriate for a nature film. Dolphins will undoubtedly send the little ones to the snack bar. Older children will feel as though they've seen this all before, on 'National Geographic' or the Discovery channel. Since the film is so frequently out of the water, or at a considerable distance from the dolphins, the giant-screen format just isn't as exhilarating as it usually is.