The Doc Option: Watch ‘The Cove’ Instead of ‘Dolphin Tale 2’

The Oscar-winning documentary shares a more essential story than any family film sequel.


The Doc Option is a column recommending nonfiction works as alternatives to popular dramatic takes on the same or similar stories. In this entry, we recommend that you watch The Cove.

The first Dolphin Tale got surprisingly strong reviews for an innocuous family flick. While as of yet there is no verdict in for the film’s sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, it seems widely agreed upon that the fact that there is a sequel at all is rather baffling. Like it’s predecessor, the movie is based on true events that took place at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, but there’s no hook to the story of (part 2’s) Hope the dolphin the way there is to that of (part 1’s) Winter, who needed to be fitted with a prosthetic tail by the Aquarium after losing her real tail to a crab trap. Oh wait, Hope was a baby when she was rescued, so the movie seems to be nakedly playing for “aww”s.

If you’re in the mood for a movie about dolphins — and why wouldn’t you be? dolphins are great — but aren’t interested in a redundant feel-good movie, then you might want to consider a necessary though dire documentary about them. The Cove was able to ride a wave of controversy to an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature after its release in 2009, and with good reason. It’s full of stomach-churning imagery and immense urgency, and it exposes a subject that many people know nothing about.

Everyone loves dolphins, which is why a movie like Dolphin Tale can be a success, but most are content to coo at them in aquariums or at TV and Internet footage of the creatures. Few actually truly care about dolphins, which is how people can get away with hideous abuse against them.

The Cove captures in unsparing detail the annual dolphin drive hunt held in the small town of Taiji, Japan. The efforts of the filmmakers and the team of activists they followed were blocked by the authorities, necessitating a covert shooting operation. The doc is presented like a heist movie, with much attention paid to the logistics required in setting up the various cameras and crew members. And once the hunt gets underway, it’s easy to see why the police and locals didn’t want it filmed — the hunt is a horror show of savagery. Dolphins are herded into the namesake cove, netted in and then slaughtered. The waters of the cove literally turn red with their blood. It’s a vicious but bravura sequence.

The film finds a center in Ric O’Barry, the leader of the activists, who is acting out something of a redemption story. He was originally a dolphin trainer, having helped catch and train the dolphins used in the TV series Flipper. But one of those dolphins later died in O’Barry’s arms (in an act which he firmly believes was suicide, as she shut her blowhole and stopped breathing), spurring an ideological 180 in him. O’Barry forms an interesting counterpoint to Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), the human lead of the Dolphin Tale movies, another man working to help marine life, albeit in an entirely different manner.

Haskett is the sanitized, family-friendly face of institutional efforts to save wildlife, whose ultimate effectiveness could be considered questionable at best, especially since they often clean up after the consequences of “legitimate” businesses (remember, Winter was maimed by human activity in the first place) without doing anything to stop any incidents from happening again. O’Barry is on the outside, a radical who seeks to agitate. The film climaxes on him barging into a meeting of the International Whaling Commission with a screen displaying his footage of the Taiji hunt. The difference between Dolphin Tale and The Cove is the difference between what is and isn’t in one’s comfort zone. And you already know what’s more important to experience.

The Cove argues from every angle against the necessity of dolphin hunting, making cases that dolphins are sentient, that imprisoning them is wrong, that their meat (which contains high amounts of mercury) isn’t worth harvesting and more. Its depiction of the Taiji locals is sometimes so monstrous that it verges on racism, which is uncomfortable on an entirely different plane than what the movie is going for and is a definite drawback to watching it. But it’s still a necessary film, especially if you claim to care about, and not just like to watch, our cetacean friends.

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LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at