Joey Fields (Scott C. Kolden) is a small boy on his school holidays who takes a liking to Marine Land sea park in California, so much so that he sneaks in through a back gate to have a closer look at the activities there. The animals there are killer whales, dolphins, seals and other ocean-going creatures - there is an aquarium as well - and Joey is captivated by the idea of getting close to them, but today he is noticed by the security guard who tries to escort him from the premises. However, he makes a friend in Louie (Marty Allen), a fisherman who catches the animals, including what they eat, and it is he who persuades the head marine biologist Dr Jack Fredericks (William Shatner) to allow Joey to stick around.
Before 2013, A Whale of a Tale was just one of many obscure family films churned out by the American independents in the nineteen-seventies, notable mainly for featuring Shatner who had recently left Star Trek; it was shot in 1971 but not released for five years after that for whatever reason. However, after 2013 a documentary called Blackfish was making waves, if you'll pardon the pun, because of its exposure of the practices of ocean parks like Sea World and indeed Marine Land which kept the killer whales in surroundings that were, according to it, deeply inhumane and cruel. If you have seen that eye-opening work, then this earlier puff piece looks a lot less than wholesome.
Seeing Joey duped into believing the creatures trapped in pools and tanks that don't look particularly spacious were actually having, er, a whale of a time, renders this coming across as a propaganda piece that brainwashed the innocent public into visiting such parks; they were very popular with school trips, for example. You find yourself seeking out examples of poor treatment, not only in the tricks that the animals are made to perform, such as a dolphin that genuinely leaps through a hoop of fire (!) to the tell-tale sign of a troubled killer whale, the broken dorsal fin, though there is the odd bit where Shatner locks up a baby seal in a cramped cage and starts filming it on a cine camera.
Quite what he was going to do with that footage is a mystery, presumably take it to a Marine Land party for employees and show it there so they could laugh gloatingly over it? Essentially this was a feature length advertisement for the park, though there was a diversion into a commercial for a certain popular fast food outlet, one which never passed up a chance to publicise themselves (though they missed a trick by not selling dolphin burgers). Director Ewing Miles Brown seemed to have arranged his film around the various tourist attractions, Joey leading the viewer to see what amounted to water-based circus acts and areas to get close to the beasts of the sea, though not too close as they were keen to point out these were not tame pets, they were wild animals and could rip your arm off if you're not careful.
Okay, they didn't put it in those terms, but that was the inference, and Blackfish illustrated how dangerous these whales could be, with a number of deaths attributed to them as the creatures literally went insane for lack of freedom and enforced tricks they were required to perform. All that aside, and it is a lot to put out of your mind, this would be most notable for Shatner's appearance in that wilderness period between the Star Trek franchise finishing on TV and starting up again on film, and he didn't disappoint in his Shatnerian delivery of scientific dialogue, nor his eager romancing of Joey's mother Abby Dalton when he discovers she is a widow who happens to be available, thereby providing the replacement father figure for the boy. Hey, it could have been worse, it could have been Louie. Anyway, in search of a proper ending the last act saw Joey go nuts and set out to sea in a tiny dinghy, sending the adults into a panic when they search for him all night. It all ends happily, unless you were one of the killer whales in captivity in a relic that was pretty tedious once the outrage was taken into account. Music by Jonathan Cain, including drippy guitar-led ballads aplenty.