BOSTON -- Marine scientists are withholding their seal of approval from the new movie "Andre."
Their complaint: The fabled Atlantic harbor seal that was adopted by a family from Maine is being portrayed by a California sea lion.
"It's like doing 'Born Free' with a bear," said Patti Fiorelli, a former trainer who worked with the real Andre at the New England Aquarium, where he spent his winters.
The aquarium declined to participate in the production of the film, which opened Wednesday.
"As a scientific and conservation organization, we are very concerned about accuracy," aquarium spokeswoman Sandra Goldfarb said. "A lot of children are going to watch this film and think that that's a seal."
In fact, experts say, there's as much difference between a seal and a sea lion as between a dolphin and a whale.
Sea lions have external ear flaps while seals have small holes for ears. Sea lions can use their large front flippers to run or climb on land; seals are less agile out of the water. Sea lions have a long attention span; seals are more easily distracted. And an adult male seal weighs about 300 pounds, while a sea lion weighs as much as 1,000.
Oh, yeah. There also aren't any California sea lions on the East Coast, where the film is supposed to be set.
"I think they ruined a good story, to tell the truth," said Lew Dietz, who collaborated on a book about Andre with trainer Harry Goodridge.
Goodridge found the orphaned seal pup near Rockport, Maine, in 1961, and his family adopted it. Each November when the harbor froze, Andre was flown to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Each April, he would swim more than 230 miles home to Maine.
Plagued by cataracts, Andre was nearly blind when he made his final trip to Rockport, where he died in July 1986. A statue overlooking Rockport Harbor was erected in his memory.
"Hollywood wasn't satisfied with the real story," said Goodridge's widow, Thalice, who screened the movie Tuesday. "There wasn't enough conflict. There were no villains. They put in a lot of this stuff to spice it up."
Annette Handley, the film's producer, said Paramount agreed to back the movie last December, but only if it could be produced for summer release. That left little time to find and train a harbor seal, she said.
So a 10-year-old sea lion named Tory was cast as Andre and the film was made in Vancouver, British Columbia, instead of Rockport. A disclaimer in the credits explains that the star is a sea lion, not a seal, and home movies of the real Andre follow the film.
"To get a movie made in Hollywood you're faced with a lot of challenges and a lot of limitations," Handley said. "Certain concessions have to made."
Coming out of a matinee showing of "Andre" yesterday, 9-year-old Jenny Hatton of Boston said she couldn't tell the difference.
"The movie was really good," she said. "I couldn't tell if it was a sea lion or a seal. ... It jumped up, played basketball, stuck his tongue out. Said hello and goodbye and shook hands with his friend."