In 2011’s Dolphin Tale, we met Winter, the real-life, injured dolphin who needed a prosthetic fluke and was adopted by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) and the rest of the caring folks at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Now the entire gang is back for Dolphin Tale 2, and though at first blush you might be thinking to yourself, “…and the world needs this why?”, well, we need it for exactly the same reason as we needed the first one: because it’s entertaining, wholesome, and fun.

After Winter’s longtime dolphin friend passes away, she’s left all alone. Apparently that’s not only a bad idea dolphin-wise, but it’s also against regulations. (The film’s director, Charles Martin Smith, cameos as the USDA agent who breaks this news to the CMA staff.)

So the search is on for a new dolphin who, like Winter, is unable to return to the wild. And believe me, MUCH is made of this notion throughout the film—it’s almost as if the filmmakers are going out of their way to distance themselves from Sea World in these post-Blackfish days. You can practically hear them yelling, “These dolphins are NOT here for entertainment!”

Helping in the search is young Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who rescued Winter in the first film. He’s worked his way up and is now among the leaders at the aquarium—so much so that he’s being recruited for a full-ride scholarship at a semester-long marine biology program. And Haskett’s daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) is growing up nicely, too, now serving as official CMA tour guide and budding documentary filmmaker.

There are also a couple other subplots, some of which work (an injured sea turtle is brought in and instantly bonds with the aquarium’s pelican mascot), some of which don’t (there are hints of a budding love story between Sawyer and Hazel, but it ends up fizzling out). The real reason we’re here, though, is to watch the dolphins swim around, and Smith deserves full marks for remembering that.

The story is full of drama (and, sure, even the requisite amount of melodrama), but we know exactly how this thing’s going to wrap up before it even begins—so it’s the journey that’s important. And with Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and even pro surfer Bethany Hamilton along for the ride, it’s a sweet and gentle journey that’s actually worth taking.

No, it doesn’t break down any cinematic barriers, serve as a showcase for cutting edge talent, or leap to the top of anyone’s list of Oscar contenders… but what Dolphin Tale 2 does do is give families a reason to go to the movies. And in 2014, that’s been a rare bird indeed.

3/5 stars