Free Willy 3: The Rescue

1997, PG, 86 min. Directed by Sam Pillsbury. Starring Jason James Richter, Vincent Berry, Patrick Kilpatrick, August Schellenberg.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Aug. 15, 1997

Among the fictional cetacean set, Moby Dick still commands all the highbrow respect, but with two megahit movies to his credit, curly-finned screen idol Willy is definitely the whale who's gettin' paid these days. This third installment in the saga of the amiable, perpetually endangered giant orca figures to keep the lucrative franchise chugging along with more of the wholesome and edifying family drama that gave its predecessors their cineplex-packing power. This time around, Willy's human antagonists are the crew of an illegal whaling ship that services Asian black markets in defiance of international treaties. The captain (Kilpatrick) is really not a bad sort, but he's one of those guys -- like tobacco farmers and elephant poachers -- who sees his traditional livelihood as a birthright to be defended against all costs against meddling, sentimental enviro-wimps. But his efforts to pass the family harpoon along to 11-year-old son Max (Berry) meet resistance when the boy falls under the awesome mammals' mystical spell. Max soon begins colluding with a group of scientists, including Jesse (Richter, Willy's pal from FW 1 and 2), who want to expose the clandestine whaling activities. As with most kid/animal movies, the whales' inherent appeal is exaggerated by anthropomorphizing them to an unrealistic degree, showing them frolicking like two-ton toddlers, munching oranges, and breaching exuberantly in postcard-esque backlit scenes. (Scenes of Willy biting heads off seals might add balance and authenticity, but at the expense of box office appeal.) Still, the filmmakers do pass up some easy opportunities to stack the moral deck in favor of the whale-savers. In particular, they make an honest effort to at least understand why some humans can't or won't respect the whales' right to lead unmolested lives befitting creatures with no irreplaceable commodity value in our post-whale oil age. The human characters on both sides are believable, relatively well fleshed out, and interesting enough to sustain viewer attention in a story the outcome of which is 100 percent suspense-free. By the end of this exemplary family movie, Free Willy 3's two main objectives have been fully met: All the narrative elements are in place for a sequel, and enough goodwill has been sustained that we'll welcome its inevitable arrival.

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