Directed by Simon Wincer. Starring Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, Mykelti Williamson, Keiko. (1993, PG, 112 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 16, 1993
Free Willy is a rousing modern-day fable about hugging whales, overcoming villains in black hats and freeing the enemy within. It is a beautifully photographed tale of good triumphing over evil and the simpatico relationship between the 12-year-old Jesse (Richter) and the amusement park whale Willy (Keiko). The parallels between the two are strong: Jesse, abandoned by his birth mother and whose longing for family ties causes him to act out aggressively even when placed in the loving foster home of Annie and Glen (Atkinson and Madsen), and Willy, whose capture forcibly removes him from his family pod and places him in the demeaning role of amusement park show animal where he retaliates by behaving uncooperatively. The whale comes to the boy's rescue by giving him something to care about and a reason to put down roots, and the boy spearheads the midnight guerrilla action to save the whale when the unscrupulous park businessmen decide to recoup their losses generated by their recalcitrant aquatic performer by turning him into a belated insurance write-off. It's all pretty involving and sweetly ingratiating in a Charlotte's Web-by kind of way. Still, the younger audience members are likely to be distracted by the long psychological set-up for the movie's stand-up-and-cheer finale. Indeed, if you've seen the trailers you know that the movie appears to exist for the sole reason of that one spectacular image of the whale jumping over the boy and the retaining wall into the oceanic freedom waiting on the other side. While the title Free Willy may work for the pre-teen crowd, it's liable to leave its elders cracking smutty jokes or wondering if it's some kind of belated anti-Dukakis propaganda regarding the pardon of Willie Horton. The performances are all effective and Australian director Wincer (who received great notice of late for his direction of TV's Lonesome Dove) has a nice feel for locating human beings within specific environments. The villains, of course, are way too simple. (How about a word of caution about the ever-robust international whaling industry or the orcas that died for our tuna fish sandwiches and casseroles -- something kids might really relate to?) So, while the sentiments expressed in Free Willy are a bit adolescent and the exposition a bit prolonged and overdone, the movie still succeeds on its own terms and logic. And if people leave the theatre with only the fuzzy glow of wanting to go out and “hug whales,” then, honestly, we are still the better for that.