Free Willy

Free Willy

1993, PG, 112 min. Directed by Simon Wincer. Starring Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, Mykelti Williamson, Keiko.

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Simon Wincer Films
Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles
Thirteen years have passed since the last installment of the Crocodile Dundee series, and one has to wonder: Why now? Why, even, at all? Can't ...

Kimberley Jones, April 20, 2001

The bulky IMAX cameras undertake the challenges of speed and movement and create some fantastic racing sequences and crowd shots.

Marjorie Baumgarten, May 30, 2024

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
SXSW Film Review: The Greatest Hits
Love means never having to flip to the B side

March 16, 2024

SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
SXSW Film Review: The Uninvited
A Hollywood garden party unearths certain truths

March 12, 2024


Free Willy, Simon Wincer, Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, Mykelti Williamson, Keiko

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle