Even the most inspiration-averse will have eyes as moist as blowholes by the end credits of Dolphin Tale 2, a good-hearted kids' drama whose earnestness and surprising moral complexity put other sunny-weepy sea-mammal flicks to shame. Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail, once again plays herself. Like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit II, she's tasked with doing the same things she did in the first movie -- while also spending a lot of the sequel too depressed to get back into the game. Winter slumps in her pool, refusing to swim, even swiping at Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), the boy who loves her.
Winter's malaise settles in once a dolphin pal of hers dies. (Writer-director Charles Martin Smith handles the upsetting scenes with matter-of-fact tastefulness.) Since they're profoundly social animals, dolphins in captivity need to be paired. Since it's cruel to keep a dolphin captive, and there are few wounded dolphins around, the aquarium staff faces tough choices that make for interesting drama.
By the time Winter needs a friend, a rescued dolphin named Mandy is healthy enough for release -- and young Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), whose family runs the aquarium, campaigns hard to pair up Mandy and Winter anyway. She loves Winter so much that she's willing to sacrifice Mandy's freedom.
Smith structures his story so that it's Hazel herself who discovers she's wrong -- that wild animals aren't pets. (Both kids are strong, naturalistic performers, but Zuehlsdorff, a ginger cut-up with smile enough for two, gets the best scenes.) Occasionally, Winter and the kids glide about together in glorious swim-dance, but the movie's heart and energy lie in the much more moving scenes of animal rescue -- and animal release.