CLEARWATER — In December 2010, cast and crew of the film “A Dolphin Tale” were in the middle of their wrap party at a nearby restaurant when rescuers pulled up to Clearwater Marine Aquarium in a wildlife ambulance with a dolphin calf named Hope.
Some ran across the street to watch aquarium staff as they brought her in.
At the time, no one really thought the baby dolphin, found stranded in the Indian River Lagoon next to her dead mother, would be sequel fodder.
“There were jokes about it, but I don’t think anybody actually thought that it was actually going to come fruition like it did,” said Austin Highsmith, 33, who plays Phoebe, a dolphin trainer, in both films.
In the ensuing months, Hope became acquainted with Winter, the prosthetic-tailed dolphin that inspired the original “Dolphin Tale.” Winter had been found in the Indian River Lagoon five years earlier. Hope’s playfulness — and, presumably, the success of “Dolphin Tale” — inspired the sequel, “Dolphin Tale 2,” that opens Sept. 12. A few younger members of the cast were in town Tuesday to talk about the new film, which they say has key differences from the original.
“In some ways it’s more dramatic; in some ways it’s more touching,” said Cozi Zuehlsdorff, 15, who plays the part of Hazel. “It’s definitely got a different message.”
The film’s plot largely is driven by the death of Panama, the elder dolphin who had been Winter’s surrogate mother and tankmate in real life, and the challenges of finding Winter a new best friend.
“While the first one was about never giving up hope and that family is forever, the second one really plunges into new territory and probes ideas of having life be full of possibilities and embracing change, which is a great message to start the school year,” Zuehlsdorff said.
She said her character was written differently for the sequel to reflect the years that have passed since the original.
“My particular storyline has a lot to do with wanting to be treated like I have valid opinions and ideas as I’m getting older,” Zuehlsdorff said. “It’s really a fun role because it’s kind of mimicking real life in that we’re all getting so much older and we treat each other differently in many of our relationships because of that.”
The two films’ inspirational nature helped to foster a sense of camaraderie among the cast and crew, Highsmith said.
“I’ve never kept in touch with that many people from a project, ever,” she said. “We all still keep in touch because it was just that special.”
“Dolphin Tale 2” also stars Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson.