Free Willy did for killer whales what Jaws did for sharks. There isn’t a single 90’s kid who doesn’t know the iconic image of a whale leaping over a boy. Free Willy is a quintessential animal movie, but I surprisingly never watched it when I was younger. Only Simpsons parodies and other media references. Since I already knew the ending, I guess I didn’t feel the need to watch the movie. Even though a movie called Free Willy has an obvious outcome, I needed to see everything in context. Free Willy has a lot of effort put into it for a family film. It’s nearly 2 hours with widescreen, Lauren Shuler Donner as producer, and an original song from Michael Jackson. “Will You Be There” is a sincere anthem that supports the film’s environmental message.
Willy is an orca ripped away from his pod and held in captivity at the Northwest Adventure Park (an obvious stand in for Sea World). Jesse is a troublemaking orphan who ends up working at the park as punishment for graffiti. Jesse and Willy are two lonely creatures who form a touching bond. Newcomer Jason James Richter is as good as the rest of the impressive cast. Jayne Atkinson and a less intimidating Michael Madsen are Jesse’s foster parents who attempt to connect with him. Before he was Bubba, Mykelti Williamson was Jesse’s well meaning social worker. Since it’s a 90’s movie, August Schellenberg is Jesse’s wise Native American mentor. Lori Petty continues her winning streak as a park trainer who helps Jesse train Willy to do tricks.
Even future screenwriter Michael Bacall and Halloween “scream queen” Danielle Harris have a small part in the movie. Richard Riehle and a non-Military Michael Ironside are greedy businessmen who seek to profit off Willy. When the killer whale grows increasingly homesick, they finally decide to free Willy. Seeing the big jump was more emotional than I was expecting. Willy is part animatronic, part orca actor Keiko. It’s honestly hard to tell the difference, especially when the final scene uses CGI. Free Willy was a major success that led to the real life release of Keiko into the wild. Sadly, Keiko didn’t have the happy ending that Willy had. Nevertheless, Free Willy is an inspiring whale tale.
Followed by: Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home