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REVIEW: Free Willy

Free WillyDirected by: Simon Wincer
Produced by: Lauren Shuler Donner, Jennie Lew Tugend, Richard Donner, Arnon Milchan
Written by: Keith A. Walker, Corey Blechman
Edited by: O. Nicholas Brown
Cinematography by: Robbie Greenberg
Music by: Basil Poledouris; Michael Jackson (theme)
Starring: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, Michael Ironside, Mykelti Williamson, Michael Bacall, Keiko
Year: 1993


Man, I remember a time when I could watch this movie and not think of all the horrors that went on at SeaWorld, don’t you? Thank you, Blackfish, for making the message behind Free Willy so devastatingly real now that I’m a grown man. I hate you.

All kidding aside, however, this was probably one of the first pieces of media with an activist message kids from my era ever watched outside of a “very special episode” of one of their favorite TV shows. (And that was probably the episode of Fresh Prince where Carlton bought the gun after Will was mugged.) Free Willy was the movie that dared us to care about the remarkable relationship between a troubled young boy named Jesse who just desperately needs someone to love him and set a good example for him and his unexpected friendship with a tenacious whale who was taken away from his own family and put on display for a world that doesn’t fully understand him.

Free Willy - Jason James Richter

Your tears flowing yet? Yeah, I didn’t really think so. Free Wily has all the elements of a mawkish 1990s big screen afterschool tear-jerker, complete with the shaggy-haired blond kid with sparkly blue eyes and that cuddly creature, Willy, who is so very nearly anthropomorphized, it’s no wonder the producers of the animated TV series made the decision to just have Willy and Jesse carry out actual conversations with one another (while fighting an evil … cyborg, I guess…). It also has a theme song composed and performed by one of the biggest pop stars of all time, Michael Jackson, whose music video that played before the movie back in the VHS days was mandatory viewing every time we popped it into the VCR.

I have to hand it to Free Willy, the movie, however – While the movie can pour on the schmaltz a little thick, especially as it reaches its iconic finale, and the seldom seen villain played by Michael Ironside is rarely more nuanced than scowling like only Ironside can at everything he sees (unless It’s dollar signs), the story is fairly grounded in a recognizable reality, and the characters are less obviously perfect than one might expect from family fare like this.

Free Willy - August Schellenberg, Lori Petty

The foster parents, for example, are obviously somewhat conflicted about what they’ve agreed to take on by accepting Jesse into their home. Heck, they’re even portrayed as having a – gasp – fight with one another over this very topic (though it’s admittedly glossed over in a rush to reassure the kids it’s all okay). The workers at the theme park are similarly shown as doing the best they can with the given circumstances, but not really sure what else they can do for the captive giant they care for. The characters of Randolph and Willy’s trainer, Rae, frequently point out how volatile Willy is, frequently referring to him as one would an intolerable coworker, but Rae in particular takes pity on him, despite this, and even playfully refers to his favorite snack, salmon, as “his chocolate,” which I remember being a really fun detail my friends and I latched onto as kids.

Free Willy - Jason James Richter, Jayne Atkinson, Michael Madsen

Jesse himself is a relatively believable troubled kid, one who is never given any really big speeches to teach the adults any lessons, which might have betrayed that realism, preferring to instead brood and respond with smartass remarks when confronted, and the film gets a solid performance from Jason James Richter, who was only about 13 at the time the movie released. This helps in his character gaining the audience’s sympathy as he forges an unexpected (to the characters) relationship with Willy and the two help each other out through a mutual understanding and care.

While the film never overtly vilifies the concept of a theme park of this nature, it does directly target the concept of seeing it only as an entertainment business venture used for purely profit rather than an educational and scientific endeavor that still takes care of the animals even with a bit of entertainment on the side via greedy businessmen. If the filmmakers wanted to express such an anti-SeaWorld view, they probably couldn’t have, anyway, since they relied so much up on filming at an actual water park and making frequent use of real whale footage (which is impressive on a technical level, as it’s nearly seamlessly interspersed with an animatronic whale and even a little bit of early CGI that was fairly convincing at the time).

Free Willy - Richard Riehle, Michael Ironside

Free Willy is a surprisingly decent family film, even if it has its cloying moments along the way. (Willy’s mournful crying will take you from “Aww” to “AGH” in too-large doses.) Performances are convincing enough from both the humans and the animals (real and fake) to elicit our sympathies and make a case for the respect and fair treatment of these wild and potentially dangerous creatures that have real and even complex emotions, even if they aren’t nearly as adept at understanding human language as the movie depicts – something that’s an easily forgivable but not overlooked aspect of this being a ‘90s family film. It’s a veritable childhood classic that’s aged a lot better than one might expect.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5

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