A low-budget attempt at simulating the Disney formula for heartwarming stories about kids bonding with animals, Salty costars a personable sea lion and Ron Howard’s little brother, Clint Howard, an unusual-looking child best known for playing an alien in a 1960s Star Trek episode and then portraying an assortment of ghouls and weirdos in 1980s exploitation flicks. He’s a teenager here, and during several scenes he performs the “ugly cry” (to borrow a phrase from Oprah Winfrey), meaning that his face contorts in unflattering ways whenever he tries to convey deep emotion. All due respect, this has the effect of making Howard seem more peculiar than sympathetic, which in turn makes his casting seem like a poor choice, particularly since the nature of his acting is not such that it compensates. Moreover, the story is about as contrived and simple as it gets. After their parents are killed, twentysomething Taylor Reed (Mark Slade) and his little brother, Tim (Howard), hit the road for rural Florida, where Taylor has arranged a job at a marine-life attraction. The siblings hitch a ride with Clancy (Julius Harris), an animal trader traveling by school bus to the same park, where he intends to sell several animals. One of the animals is Salty, a sea lion, who bonds with Tim during their shared road trip.
Upon reaching the marine-life attraction, which is operated by Mrs. Penninger (Nina Foch), the siblings and Clancy—who has become something like a surrogate uncle for the boys—discover that the attraction has fallen on hard times. The inevitable ensues. As the boys help resuscitate the attraction, Tim and Salty have adventures, leading toward manipulative sequences during which Salty is badly injured and, later, erroneously blamed for starting a fire. None of this is interesting or surprising, and every aspect of the production looks cheap. Yet because the filmmakers include myriad shots of the sea lion flopping around on dry land or splashing through ocean waves, Salty delivers the bare minimum of what one might expect from such a project. FYI, the picture was co-written, coproduced, and directed by Ricou Browning, the swimmer who played the titular monster in the underwater scenes of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1955). Additionally, Salty continued as a TV show for 20 episodes from 1974 to 1975; Harris and Slade reprised their roles, though Howard wasn’t involved.