Free Willy (1993)

Posted by on Dec 16, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Though empowered, the stereotypical Indian character is a bit – oh, what’s the best way to describe it? ah yes – horrible.

The very moment the title appears on the screen, thereby ruining a dramatic plot twist at the end, Free Willy sets the tone for a predictable and sentimental boy-and-his-dog story. However one of the few breaks from conventional stories of this kind, the inclusion of a killer whale instead of a dog, proved so successful that moviegoers caught a phone number for Save the Whales Foundation at the end of the credits and donated $20 million to the cause. It is, in fact, the performance by Keiko (the Orca whale) that holds this flimsy film together and led to a brief period of social action.

The movie opens with bearded alpha male poachers positioning their boats and tossing out their nets near a pod of whales. As the family of whales call to each other in innocent bursts, the poachers communicate fluently with Cro-Magnon-era grunts. Their raid proves successful as they bag a young Orca, which they name Willy. Shortly thereafter we begin to follow a group of homeless kids as they scam tourists for cash, raid a local restaurant’s scraps, smoke cigarettes, and hide out at a skate park (you know, stereotypical naughty kids stuff). Suddenly some cops raid the hideout and chase the kids down. While they flee, a few choose to spray some graffiti at Willy’s new adventure park home. The cops catch one, Jesse (Jason James Richter in his screen debut), and forward him to a social worker, who in turn forwards him to a family (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson). They seem nice enough – though Madsen says “this is a lease; we’re not buying yet.” Not surprisingly, Jesse continues to rebel and vows his long-lost mother will one day return for him.

As part of his punishment, Jesse Willy3must scrub all the paint off the park’s walls. Then he discovers Willy. As usually is the case in child-and-their-animal movies, there’s an initial hatred/fear immediately followed by fascination/love. Through Willy’s trainer (Lori Petty), Jesse learns that Willy is temperamental in his new surroundings and “a very special case.” Cocky and careless, Jesse responds, “So, who isn’t?” In the days that follow, Jesse makes it a ritual to sneak out and visit Willy. The manager of the facility (August Schellenberg), a shameless Native American stereotype, eventually tells Jesse some sacred beliefs about Orcas. The most prominent of which is that they have the power to look within a person’s soul. As if the parallels of their lives weren’t enough, this seals the deal and we realize they are kindred spirits.

Practically overnight Jesse transforms from a heartless badass to an expert whale trainer. In order to bring Willy’s tank up to standards, Jesse must train the whale to do tricks and convince the villainous park owner (the reliably evil Michael Ironside) he’s worth the investment. “The Willy Show,” Ironside says, “It will make money, and that’s what we’re all about.” From there drama ensues, things fall apart, and they must all come together to “free Willy” from his sub-par living standards, while Michael Jackson serenades us with Will You Be There.

It’s no secret that Free Willy is as unintentionally funny as it is cheesy, and older viewers will certainly scoff at the token American Indian guy (though it’s still better than Pocahontas). However, the filmmakers successfully fuse Keiko with a few animatronic whales for a truly enjoyable training montage and, of course, the emotional climax that gives Willy the power to leap 20 feet in the air. Keith Walker’s story and screenplay has plenty of flaws, but the foster family aspect hits a true chord and I wish there would have been more reason to utilize it further. The whale tricks and melodrama became too much in the three sequel installments that followed, and belly-flopped.

Beneath Free Willy’s surface lives an environmentalist message that makes us long for a simpler, more natural way of life and beckons us to care about Earth’s creatures. Like most of the film, the message may be cheesy, but the audience bought it and, ironically, freed Willy as well. Shortly after the film’s release, animal activists found Keiko (a.k.a. Willy) in sub-par conditions in Mexico. With the $20 million in donations, the audience literally freed Keiko back to the Icelandic wild. And they didn’t even need a Sarah McLachlin song to help convince them.

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