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FLIPPER (1996)

Sandy Ricks

Traditionally at this time of year something jumps out of the sea and onto the movie screen, asking to be loved. So here comes Flipper, a finny star in the 1960s and now a more technologically advanced, less unself-conscious version of his former self.

When the baby boom generation first fell for Flipper, it seemed marvelous that he could even be coaxed out of the ocean and persuaded to eat bait.

Now we can see a dolphin-shark showdown or a half-dozen dolphins making balletic leaps, but it's never entirely clear where the special effects leave off and the sea life begins. Not even the scenery in Alan Shapiro's new "Flipper" looks entirely natural, since the ocean colors range from blinding, too-perfect aqua to dull gray. This might not be worth noticing if the color continuity weren't so recklessly varied in many scenes.

"Flipper" does have casting that works to its advantage, since Paul Hogan and Elijah Wood make a personable team. Hogan plays Porter, a lovable rascal living in an island paradise, and Wood plays Sandy, the nephew sent to visit him for the summer. They both glower at first and make a predictably odd couple. But they certainly bond when Flipper arrives on the scene.

Hogan does well showing off Porter's bachelor habits, like feeding beer to a pelican or washing dishes with his feet. And Wood, looking newly chiseled and handsome, is aging gracefully well beyond the realm of the child star. Together, they ought to please an undemanding kiddie audience, but "Flipper" offers little else in the way of excitement or plot. It does have a dolphin-poisoning villain, referred to as "the jerk who tried to kill Flipper," but he isn't all that alarming. "Oh, if it isn't the Greenpeace warrior!" is his idea of a scathing remark.

"Flipper" also draws on other elements, like a coming-of-age story for Sandy as he escapes the hurt of his parents' divorce. Isaac Hayes also turns up as the local law officer, eventually and unsurprisingly enlisted to help protect dolphins and keep the waters clean. Although this is something of a buddy picture, it also has a few obligatory female characters around.

Jessica Wesson plays the schoolgirl who catches Sandy's eye, while Chelsea Field is the old-fashioned girlfriend who hopes Porter will settle down.

A minor point: "Flipper" tailors itself to baby boom parents by trying to incorporate pop music references into its plot. Sandy wears T-shirts prominently promoting his favorite bands and talks so much about a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert that it becomes a much-discussed matter.

Meanwhile, Porter describes himself as a die-hard Beach Boys fan, though he looks more like the Jimmy Buffett type. And the closing credits are accompanied by the vintage hit "In the Summertime," which needed its lyrics seriously rewritten to suit a squeaky-clean family film like this.


"Flipper" is sunny, amusing big-screen entertainment -- the kind that nets major millions at the box office -- but there's not much new under the Caribbean sun in this '90s update of the popular '60s television series and films.

"Flipper" features a winning cast: Paul Hogan as a crusty bachelor on a Bahamas island and Elijah Wood as a teenager made sullen by having to spend a summer in the middle of nowhere when he could be home hanging with friends and checking out rock concerts. Three live bottlenose dolphins starred in the title role, along with an animatronic critter. The dolphins are charming, which is at least 50 percent of the concept of the film.

Hogan plays a cigar-chomping former Beach Boys roadie named Porter, who is living the hippie life in paradise. He's got a large, ramshackle beachfront house, a fishing boat that provides his livelihood and a grubby but smug bachelor lifestyle in which he answers to nobody. He even has a smart, spirited girlfriend, Cathy (Chelsea Field), who wants to marry him. More important (at least for the plot) is Cathy's vocation: She's a marine biologist.

To the grumpy kid, Sandy (Wood), Uncle Porter is a dinosaur and a wise guy. Pushing here, berating there, he makes his nephew feel uptight. And in terms of teenage thrills, the island is dead.

Flipper, orphaned by greedy local sportfishing interests who kill dolphins because they interfere with commerce, changes all that. In their first meeting -- during a fishing trip -- Sandy protects Flipper from gun-toting party-boat captain Dirk Moran (Jonathan Banks), the film's ruthless villain.

Sandy and Flipper immediately establish a rapport, and Flipper delights the kid by following him to a lagoon and performing tricks for him -- the dolphin leaps out of the water at Sandy's command. When other kids are attracted to Flipper, including a teenage girl named Kim (Jessica Wesson), things begin to look up for Sandy.

As the plot thickens, it turns out Moran has been doing nasty environmental things offshore. The sheriff (Isaac Hayes) wants physical evidence before he'll take any action, and that gives Sandy, his uncle and their respective female friends a challenge. Within this context, "Flipper" has just the right amount of environmentalist subtext and doesn't get preachy. This handsomely photographed movie also captures the appealing, laid-back island lifestyle and offers mesmerizing underwater scenes worthy of a National Geographic special. Especially effective are sequences showing dolphins dealing with a huge, hungry hammerhead shark named Scar.

"Flipper" is tame enough for all ages, though small children may find it too long and too talky.


There are worse ways to spend a hot summer's evening than sitting in a cool theatre watching playful dolphins leap out of a sparkling blue-green sea. But, Flipper's story is a tired fish tale. The semi-wayward, urban son of divorcing parents arrives on a remote Florida key, marooned for the summer with a salty old sailor/uncle whose $100-per-week job is to whip his nephew's spoiled, self-absorbed butt into shape.

On his first sea outing, Sandy is charmed by a school of magical dolphins cavorting in the surf. But when he witnesses the killing of a dolphin by the boorish, barbarous, bottom-feeding bad guy, Dirk Moran (Jonathan Banks), the spell is broken and all Sandy can think about is escaping his prison paradise. Sandy makes for the morning ferry and freedom and as he waits on the dock, his Gameboy blips and bleeps draws the attention of the dolphin who was orphaned by Dirk's rifle. He's intrigued, but the ferry's siren call is still more alluring. Uncle Porter goes after him, of course, and there quickly ensues a hurricane, a much closer encounter with the dolphin, the beginning of a sweet summer romance, and the solution of a toxic waste pollution mystery. (Just guess who leads them to the underwater dumpsite and then guess who the culprit dumper is.)

There are several morality lessons in Flipper and they hit you like the thwack of a dolphin's tail. There's also a lot of nonsense, mostly, but not only, involving tons of high-tech marine research equipment, a dolphin who, like his four-legged counterpart, Lassie, understands commands like �Go find it, boy!� and more complicated tasks like, what to do with �it� once found. The movie's relieved by the occasional funny line, beautiful scenery and good casting. Fortunately, the sullen, Gameboy-addicted teen is played by Elijah Wood, who has an intriguing, emotive face and more acting talent in his little finger than Paul Hogan has in his lean, weather-beaten body (though Hogan actually has pretty good comedic timing and is not bad as the eccentric master of the unbeaten path.


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