‘Dolphin Tale’ floats on a sea of wholesomeness

IN THE ENJOYABLY cornball throwback "Dolphin Tale," a rescued dolphin heals families, rehabilitates war veterans and saves the ecology of South Florida.

The movie has a variety of flaws, but all seem to flow from an excess of wholesome sentiment, and as the movie is pitched to kids, and its preteen characters are the strongest, it never seems to overstay its welcome.

The human lead is Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) a fatherless, drifting kid who's about to drop out of school when he happens upon a stranded dolphin and becomes instrumental in its rescue.

As Sawyer pulls out his pocket knife to cut the animal free of its snare, angelic harp music floods the soundtrack, and the spiritual connection between boy and dolphin is established.

The wayward Sawyer is suddenly driven and focused, which pleases his mom (Ashley Judd). His special connection to the wounded animal becomes useful to the lead animal rescue unit (Harry Connick Jr.), who also likes the way Sawyer gets along with his spunky daughter (Cozi Zuehlsdorff, not a stage name).

"Dolphin Tale" could easily have gotten by with a simple focus on the complementary turnarounds of Sawyer and Winter, the wounded dolphin (played by the actual wounded dolphin) - especially with Morgan Freeman on hand as an eccentric prosthetic expert who devises a way to replace the dolphin's amputated tail.

Hollywood is never one to leave well enough or true enough alone, so there are many other heart-tugging story lines - a real estate developer wants to level the animal rescue center, Sawyer has a wounded-vet cousin just back from Iraq, and just about everybody has some issue of grief or abandonment that dissolves whenever the happy, playful dolphin squirts water on them.

Go ahead and laugh, but you know you loved it when Flipper did the same thing. I would expect Winter to charm children as thoroughly as Flipper charmed you when you were a kid.

Not so charming - the freaking 3-D. Why, oh why, is this movie in 3-D? It doesn't do anything except muddy up the images.

And the one shot of Winter leaping happily into the air with her new tail is going to have the same effect in 2D, I assure you.

Dolphin Tale

Directed by Charles Martin Smith. With Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Austin Stowell, Kris Kristofferson. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 52 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for some mild thematic elements).