Free Willy (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Traditionally, Man's best friend is supposed to be his dog. Sometimes, even a cat. But rarely is the love and affection of a boy won over by a killer whale. Such is the case in Free Willy, however, where young Jesse's unusual relationship with an orca leads to his own redemption.

Abandoned by his mother when he was little, Jesse (Jason James Richter) has lived most of his life on the streets or in what is euphemistically called a "childrens' home". When Jesse is caught spraypainting graffiti all over the observation windows of Willy the whale's holding tank, his probation is to return to the scene of the crime by day and clean up the mess he made. Along the way, Jesse strikes up an unusual friendship with Willy and manages to get closer to the whale than Rae Lindley (Lori Petty), the trainer. Meanwhile, Jesse has been "rescued" from the home by Annie and Glen Greenwood (Michael Madsen), a couple looking for a young boy to share their home. Even though Annie and Glen seem like nice people, Jesse isn't sure it's a good situation for him, especially since he regards the rules of the house as little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to curtail his freedom.

Back in the late seventies, Dino DeLaurentis, the master of overbudgeted, poorly-written tripe, came out with a movie called Orca: The Killer Whale. Starring Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling, and clearly designed as a rip-off of Jaws, this movie presented whales in the most negative light possible. They were beasts who lived to hunt, and man made a suitable prey. Now, approximately fifteen years later, we have been given this movie, one that presents the orca in a more sympathetic light.

Free Willy is not a great film -- it relies on too many cliches and formulas. In fact, there won't be many people going into the theater not knowing exactly how the movie is going to end (take a look at a TV commercial, theatrical trailer, or even the newspaper print ad). Despite that, Free Willy is solid family. This is one of those unusual films that is capable of enthralling those under twelve while not sending older members of the audience rushing for the exit.

This is the second venture into family movies for executive producer Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon). His previous effort, which he directed, was a little-known and muddled fantasy about abused children. Called Radio Flyer, it was a box office failure. This time around, Donner has involved himself in a family movie with more appeal and fewer problems.

The movie's biggest assets are the actors. Twelve-year old Jason James Richter does a credible job as Jesse. This may be his first film, but you can't tell from the polished performance he gives. Lori Petty proves that there are still a few worthwhile roles for women in American films. In her hands, Rae is every bit as strong and capable as any of the men in this picture. Michael Madsen's Glen is a somewhat-gruff man who wants a child, but doesn't exactly know how to handle the one that he gets. On paper, this character may have been a cliche, but as portrayed by a veteran character actor, he comes across as a real person.

Perhaps the best reason to see Free Willy on the big screen is the photography. Both underwater and above-the-surface scenes are filmed with style, and much of the impact will be lost in a television picture. The special effects are good -- it's almost impossible to tell where the real whales end and the mechanical ones begin.

Don't be put off by the dumb title. Free Willy has its heart in the right place. It only gets preachy once or twice about the "save the whales" issue, and is never more obvious than a film like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Message or not, Free Willy is one of only a handful of non-Disney titles worth considering for a family movie outing.

Free Willy (United States, 1993)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1993-07-16
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1