While I admittedly not seen Dolphin Tail, or even Free Willy, one aspect of the film that I greatly appreciated which set this film apart than other films in its mini-genre was that there was no villain. None, whatsoever. Every townsperson, every government officer, every Native American. Even Seaworld wants to help this whale in a non-shady way! The conflict of the film doesn't stem from a kind town trying to protect a whale from those who want to harm it, but rather many different kind groups arguing over how to protect a whale. Near the end of the film, when an attempt to capture the whale is made, another group interrupts and destroys the entire operation. With everyone trying to save the whale in they're own separate way, the only one loosing is the whale, who simply wants to be interacted with. It's a compelling story, literally forcing the audience member to choose which of the well meaning groups they're going to root for, and when every person is portrayed in such a kind light it's difficult to decide.
However, the main flaw of the film is also the reason why the theater was filled almost entirely with families. Too often during serious or suspenseful moments a quick shot of the whale acting goofy is edited in to lighten the mood. While understandably the film's prime audience is families, making my critique a little snobbish, the unnecessary flashes of "wacky whale" during odd moments are more distracting than cute or funny. When the scene is happy, show as much "wacky whale" as you want, but when stakes for this whale's life couldn't be any higher, please don't.
Because I'm probably the last person in the country to see this movie in a theater, you might have to wait for the film to reach DVD to see it, but despite some minor flaws it's a compelling documentary for the whole family. With (literally and figuratively) human characters each trying to do the right thing to help the lost whale, the film presents an alternative for a "bad guy" unlike most childrens films you'll ever see. Also, while it wasn't mentioned during this review, the cinematography of the Canadian landscape is also pretty stunning. Concluding with that tangent, The Whale is a solid compelling documentary you shouldn't miss.