Free Willy (1993)

11 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The pre-production meeting for “Free Willy” probably went like this:

Quick! We need a family film with a save-the-whales message to give the kids! How do we do it?

What do you mean, “How do we do it?” Why don’t we just make a documentary about the danger that whales face?

Because A) Documentaries don’t make money unless they’re narrated by Morgan Freeman, and nobody will know how cool his voice is until next year when “Shawshank Redemption” is released! And B) Come on, we’re Warner Bros. Family Entertainment now. Let’s make a sweet, charming family-adventure…and make money off of it!

OK, OK, I gotcha. So how about this—we tell the traditional story of a boy and his dog. People eat this stuff up—we’ve had a boy and his dog, a boy and his raccoon, and a boy and his alien. Why not have the whale be boy’s best friend?

Hm, that could work. But we need a certain thing to make sure that people are going to see it…maybe a pop star to sing the theme song!

Michael Jackson?


Yes, “Free Willy” tells the usually reliable boy-and-his-animal story, only it’s an unusual relationship between a young street kid and a killer whale. And while that does seem out there (and sometimes it is) “Free Willy” is innocent and charming enough to make for a winning family entertainment.

Jesse (Jason James Richter) is a young boy living on the streets after being abandoned by his mother and escaping from an orphanage. When he is caught spraying graffiti at an aquatic theme park, he is forced as part of his probation to clean up the mess he made. The main attraction at the park is an orca named Willy, with whom Jesse strikes up an unusual friendship. Soon enough, he finds that Willy is able to respond to the sound of his harmonica. He’s even able to train Willy to do certain tricks that the whale’s trainer Rae (Lori Petty) hasn’t been able to do, and so he’s hired as a co-worker.

Jesse lives with a pair of foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson), who are both patient and loving towards Jesse. But Jesse doesn’t take to his new home very well, and rebels by giving insults and sneaking out at night. Jesse just doesn’t comfortable with these because he would rather be with his own mother, who would just as soon not want him around. This is how he relates to Willy, who was taken away from his family in the nearby ocean. Both Jesse and the whale are homeless and maybe unable to make the best of their surroundings.

There are not many surprises in this movie—just look at the poster, trailer, or DVD cover and you know how the movie is going to end. And it relies on many clichés and formulas, although while some of these are acceptable because they still work, it’s pretty easy to make fun of the rest of them. The most particular of these elements is the villainous park owners, played by Michael Ironside and Richie Riehle. How can you not laugh when Ironside (who I suppose always has to play the villain) states out loud that they’re both about “making money?”

And while whales are undeniably beautiful creatures (which the movie reminds you right from the beginning, in an opening sequence that stretches out the action of whales jumping), Willy (played by “Keiko”) is probably the least interesting element of the movie, because he’s mostly seen as a big blob for Jesse to interact with, and I can barely see the whale’s eyes to connect with him myself.

And by the way, is it me or does Willy understand English? There are moments in which he nods for “yes” and shakes his head” for “no.”

But despite that, “Free Willy” is a solid family film, mainly because of its dramatic elements with Jesse trying to cope with his foster parents. It also works with how Jesse is able to redeem himself by changing from delinquent to hero, because of having this friendship with Willy whom he wants to help out. This is a gentle movie about a young boy discovering himself, and the relationship between Jesse and his foster parents ring true.

The acting is one of the strongest assets of the movie. Jason James Richter is naturally winning as Jesse—if his performance didn’t work, the whole film might fall apart. Lori Petty is strong as reliable, helpful Rae; August Schellenberg is quite solid as Haida-native handyman Randolph who knows a thing or two about orcas; and Michael Madsen as the foster father Glen is excellent, portraying a three-dimensional individual as he tries patiently to give Jesse a good home while also trying to relate to him. Also good is Mykelti Williamson as Dwight, Jesse’s social worker.

The whale effects are outstanding. Sometimes they would use a real whale (Keiko), but other times, the filmmakers would use animatronic whales. To be honest, I could never tell the difference between which whale was real and which whale was mechanical.

“Free Willy” has its heart in the right place, and the “save-the-whales” message is quite clear, but not so over-the-top that adults will be groaning in annoyance. It’s shot nice, the special effects are convincing, the actors are good, and as I said, the family-drama aspects are well-developed. It’s a charming film.

NOTE: Yes, as I mentioned above, Michael Jackson sings the film’s theme song, “Will You Be There.” It’s a touching song, and this was back when MJ was still king of pop and so if he told people to see this movie, they would. And that’s mainly why this movie was a box-office hit.

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