Anthony Breznican
September 16, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

From Lassie to Flipper to Seabiscuit, Hollywood has had plenty of animal stars, but rarely one that plays the lead in its own life story. In Dolphin Tale, a wounded female bottlenose is rescued by a struggling aquarium after losing her tail — and this time, the real-life creature behind the story got the starring role. ”Having her play herself was the key to it,” says Richard Ingber, a marketing executive at Alcon Entertainment (The Blind Side), who pitched the movie after seeing a news report on Winter the dolphin. Though a novice actor, Winter impressed with her feisty interactions with Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., and child star Nathan Gamble, who play the humans responsible for the dolphin’s rescue. Says trainer Abby Stone, ”Winter really is a sassy little girl.”

Most of the film’s human characters have been fictionalized, but the core of the story is true: Since her rescue in 2005, Winter and her prosthetic tail have become a worldwide draw for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, especially for disabled children and wounded veterans. ”To me, it’s an old message,” says aquarium CEO David Yates. ”It’s simply: Don’t give up, persevere, you’re going to be okay.”

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