Who would have guessed that a movie about a kid who rescues an amputee dolphin would not only be the more believable of the two ‘based on a true story’ flicks this weekend but would also among the better family films of the year.

Inspired by the story of a dolphin named Winter, who was rescued on a Florida beach in 2006, Dolphin Tale is as sweet as a handful of cotton candy and as triumphant as a game-winning home run.

11-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) sees Winter washed up on the beach one afternoon, her tail fin tangled in a crab trap. When she’s rushed to the local marine hospital, the vets there realize they have no choice but to amputate the infected fin, leaving Winter with no real way to swim.

Just like that, the kid, a loner who’s failing all his subjects at school, finally has something to believe in, and the dolphin has a new friend to help get him through rehab.

Under the guidance of Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.), Sawyer slowly helps get Winter back on her feet (so to speak). But all is not happy in Flipper-ville. A greedy developer is ready to pounce on the financially troubled hospital and raze it to make way for a hotel, and then (well, sure) a hurricane blows through.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that everything works out in the end (it is a kids movie after all), but despite the foregone conclusion and the overly sappy melodrama that pervades, Dolphin Tale is so entirely entertaining and uplifting that not only will parents be able to sit through the whole thing, they’ll actually enjoy it. A lot.

Directed by Charles Martin Smith (who directed Air Bud— though I prefer to think of him as Agent Wallace from The Untouchables) has put together a gem of a family flick. The weighty issues are kept to a minimum, as is the unsavory-ness of Winter’s injury, and though the script may be fraught with clich├ęs, the performances of the entire cast (including Gamble, Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and delightful young newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff) help Dolphin Tale rise above much of the family-friendly fare so far this year.

As for the 3D, well… it’s entirely unnecessary (save for a few brief stylized scenes), but it’s a sin that can be overlooked, given how pleasant and life-affirming the festivities are otherwise.

4/5 stars