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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Free Willy - 30th Anniversary Review

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Children bonding with animals. Does that ring any bells to you?

From one commonly played film genre to another, it has become a favorite topic among many family films since they help explore the dynamics a relationship between humans and animals could go and to what extent their friendship would’ve been tested. In some cases, such movies as these are general fluff. But other times, some genuine masterpieces are made from them.

There are the more middle-of-the-road flicks, like The Amazing Panda Adventure, Andre, Flipper, and who knows what else. There are some good ones, like Dolphin Tale and its sequel. And then some are done beyond well, like Old Yeller, E.T., and The Iron Giant. As I demonstrated with Elemental concerning romantic comedies, all it takes is a good story with identifiable enough characters, not to mention some clever and inventive craftsmanship, to make it work.

Now, how about a killer whale for an animal buddy? Where would this kind of story go?

That was accomplished modestly with the classic film Free Willy. But modest as its achievements were, it burrowed into my subconscious and that of the general moviegoing public. How?

Let’s look at the story first. In the Pacific Northwest, a young boy named Jesse lived in the streets scavenging for food with his buddies but was later caught spray-painting a nearby aquarium, the Northwest Adventure Park, and soon apprehended by the cops. Jesse lived on his own ever since his mother left him six years before and was forced to fend for himself, whether it’s through self-reliance and to evade the law at every turn. Once Jesse was caught, two outcomes occurred: one, he was placed under protective childcare by Annie and Glen Greenwood, who took a liking to him. And two, Jesse was sentenced to community service by washing off the graffiti he and his friends left behind.

During the few days in which he cleaned up his mess, however, he developed a budding friendship with some of the workers and animals at the Northwest Adventure Park, including local Native American Randolph, aspiring marine biologist Rae, and the aquarium’s newest addition, an orca named Willy. Yet even before he was caught, it was Willy he grew the closest to, developing a close bond with him and even teaching him a few tricks. This companionship earned Jesse a job at the Northwest Adventure Park after he washed all his graffiti away. To Jesse’s witnesses-turned-coworkers, this was unprecedented and a big deal; none of them had any luck with Willy and dismissed him as just one cranky whale. Even Rae became a thorn in Willy’s side since she tried taking medical tests on him.

Of course, as Jesse empathized with him more and understood his feelings, Jesse soon caught on to what was eating Willy. Willy was originally wild and free with his family in the oceans when he was suddenly captured and forced into captivity, separating him from his family. So now, Willy was lonely, homesick, and desperate to return to his family.

But that’s not the only problem Jesse and Willy had to deal with. The owners of the aquarium, Dial and Wade, captured Willy with plans to make money off him. And they plotted to achieve it in one of two ways. Either Willy would’ve performed for their audiences and be the Northwest Adventure Park’s next big star, or they would’ve made blubber meat out of him. $1 million worth, Randolph concluded. So, with Willy being too depressed to perform, not to mention too anxious to do so in front of a live audience, even with Jesse on his side, this put them in a corner. Once Jesse saw Willy’s family in the oceans far away and caught wind of the owners’ diabolical schemes, he devised a plan to sneak Willy away from the aquarium before they could get to him and, with his friends and foster parents, quickly evacuate him to the nearest ocean where he’d be home again.

This picture has a great level of modesty, which could make or break a film centering around a boy bonding with something as massive as a killer whale. In some cases where such a story is told, it would have looked either like a grand-scale film or too much like a Hallmark film. But with Free Willy, a few things helped support it and lent it the reputation it earned since its release.

For a long time, ever since I was just a small kid, I remember catching on to the first half hour or so of the movie, despite me not being familiar with what was going on, and part of that may be thanks to the scenery.

You may recall me mentioning this several times before on The Screened Word, but before my family and I moved to Ridgway, CO, I spent my first ten years living in Washington State. The beautiful forests, gorgeous views, breathtaking beach nearby, and lush greenery make me feel blessed to have grown up in such a beautiful neighborhood as that in which I grew up, and I’ll always have a soft spot for the Pacific Northwest for that reason.

And I must say, from what I gathered about the first half hour of the movie, I remember as a kid how some of the symbols and signs scattered throughout the film reminded me a lot of what I was used to around our hometown in Lacey and Olympia, and that the characters felt conveyed nicely enough to have left a striking impression on me as I grasped what went on in front of me, either on the screen or in real life.

After finally watching this movie from beginning to end, for all its generally mixed reputation over the years, the movie’s sense of execution felt much stronger than I remember it. Many of the film’s components helped give this movie a more mellow and serene sense of visual identity, and it helped emphasize the empathy to be felt over a boy bonding with an orca.

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, the scenery in this movie still arouses the same awe-inspiring euphoria that I recall every time I gazed at the views around me back in the day. Whether it’s on the oceans, the shorelines, or the town closest to it, they were all captured with a sense of visual grace, conveying the luscious atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest while also honing the more mellow, folksy demeanor that populated its nearby community. And, of course, whenever the scenery was focused on the characters, humans and killer whales alike, the sheer modesty and natural essence were expressed bright as day. Occasionally, it played to the characters’ strengths, like when Jesse and Willy continually grew closer; they felt more genuine thanks to the shots. And when Jesse and his friends tried to escort Willy out of harm’s way and back into the ocean, the modesty only helped make it feel more epic and urgent.

And finally, it culminated in arguably the most iconic scene in the movie, if not one of the most iconic scenes in 90s cinema: Willy leaping over the rocky pathway and Jesse straight into freedom. The pure ecstasy and triumphant moods throughout this scene caused many moviegoers to look at this with the same glee as Jesse did upon watching his friend return home safely to his family. It became so popular that it has been subject to plenty of spoofs and satires in television and film since. Even among children’s movies, I can see this image being almost as recognizable as Elliot and E.T. touching fingers.

Do you remember what I said about Homeward Bound and how I admired its scenery because of director Duwayne Dunham’s contributions and how it worked because of his involvement in Twin Peaks? Intriguingly enough, I discovered that one of Free Willy’s executive producers was Richard Donner. You see, he’s had some experience shooting up in the Pacific Northwest and knew how to blend its natural beauties with the childlike wonders running rampant through it. And I’ll give you one guess as to which movie he displayed such magic in.

That’s right—The Goonies.

Much like in The Goonies, Richard Donner knew how to heighten the emotional misadventures and circumstances concerning the film’s main characters while allowing their surroundings to contribute to our characters’ feelings. And in the case of the Pacific Northwest, it honed a more beauteous essence of emotional processing. Even Keith A. Walker, who starred in The Goonies as Mikey and Brand’s father, conceptualized the story with Richard Donner and his wife, producer Laura Schuller-Donner, helping him refine it. Of course, Donner’s influence was apparent throughout Free Willy the same way Steven Spielberg’s influence was throughout Super 8: he provided the right canvas and colors to convey the movie with, while the more prominent details were handled by the writers and directors in charge of the picture.

How are the characters in this movie?

Well, they all had a more varying level of credibility, but not enough to help them stand out as class-A characters. But once it didn’t go into overdrive, their lightness in characterization helped maintain their sense of naturality and authenticity. And as I mentioned, plenty of such characters stood out to me.

Let’s start with Annie and Glen Greenwood, Jesse’s adoptive parents. They felt like regular people with good-paying jobs, a nice place to rest, and a generally steady relationship through all their ups and downs. Even if some of their methods of communication tested Jesse a little, you can still tell they were trying their best to help Jesse through his troubles, no matter what it took. Annie felt like the most content and relaxed of the couple, while Glen tried to get the hang of being a father to Jesse. This was the case since his relationship with his mother, both of whom Jesse saw in a picture, hinted at a potentially stirring story that may have had more in common with Jesse and his mother than it seemed.

One of the aquarium’s workers, Randolph, who lived across the street from it, left me amazed by his tenderness, dignity, and consideration for the needs of others with his intuitive knowledge of the goings-on concerning his fellow neighbors and the local wildlife. He even felt wise, considering the knowledge he imparted to Jesse regarding the legend of Natsaclane, who was escorted home by a band of otters and a killer whale. He felt like an almost mystical character, and for all his light characterizations, a bit of weight could still be sensed with him.

Rae, the other main coworker at the aquarium, felt like your everyday chipper lady who established great expertise underneath her more tender personality. Outside of that, she didn’t display much besides how she had a boyfriend and planned to go to school to get a degree in marine biology. But she still felt adept, likable, and like the kind of gal whose company you’d feel happy to be in once you get to know her.

Even some of the minor supporting characters stuck out to me more than I expected them to. Jesse’s best friend from the streets, Perry, felt like a wisecracking kid with big aspirations in life no matter where he roamed or who he ended up with. And when he and Jesse were apprehended by the cops and rehabilitated, Perry made a couple more appearances throughout the movie and turned out to have gotten a good do-over with a guy named Dayton. In fact, during his last visit with Jesse, Perry mentioned that he and Dayton planned to go together to Sacramento and then to Los Angeles on duty. For what job, I didn’t catch. I was curious about this character after seeing him as Jesse’s partner-in-crime, but he must’ve been one lucky street urchin to get such a productive turnover in life.

And, of course, the police officer, Dwight, potentially had a long history with Jesse and his buddies, constantly tracking him down and apprehending him and his buddies on more than one occasion. However, he showed that he was still a bit concerned for Jesse’s well-being, given his age, and was willing to give him a chance to start over and embrace the possibilities of a new and better life, especially considering Jesse’s bad history with his mother.

And finally, you have Jesse. His experiences and background helped establish him as a crafty, slippery kid who had no one to go home to or even a home to speak of and abided by the simple rule of survival of the fittest. Only when he started to connect more with Willy and his troubles did he begin to acknowledge the worth of having someone to have faith in, someone to do something for. And that helped him appreciate what and who to have in his life.

I noticed plenty of people gripe about Jesse’s more aggressive behavior and how it may have clashed with the more tender personality they expected out of him in a movie like this. But you must remember, besides being a graffiti artist and living in the streets, he, Perry, and their buddies spent the past six years of their lives – in the words of Aladdin – scraping for food and ducking the cops.

And speaking of Aladdin, think about this. Ever since I saw portions of this movie as a youngster, I became used to children working to swindle people of their money, steal food for themselves, or even spray graffiti on some designated areas. And I remember watching these kinds of characters with interest before I understood their motivations, and now, I almost relish them for that. That tells me I have an affinity, almost, for imperfect protagonists who were genuinely guilty of some misdeeds in their life and thus had inner demons to battle.

In cases like Jesse here, Aladdin, and even Naruto later on, these protagonists started with a bad rep for being underhanded street urchins who contributed to the crime rate before they embarked on a journey to self-discovery and growth. That kind of protagonist feels a lot more engaging and engrossing than a seemingly perfect protagonist.

Who would you find more interesting? Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, with her endearing personality and well-meaning ethics, but the misfortunes of perpetual mistreatment and servitude? Or Aladdin, who, despite being good-hearted, was never innocent to begin with and had a bad track record of committing constant theft, even if it was to survive? This kind of protagonist always draws me in more because the heroes’ dilemmas only made their more victorious or humanitarian moments feel more effective.

Besides, the fact that Jesse always had to avoid being caught by the cops or whoever would’ve suspected him of robbing gave him an uneasy view of people with his best interests at heart, especially Glen and Annie as they took him in. Also, he had uncertain ways of evaluating parents since his mother was potentially neglectful and couldn’t have cared for Jesse or herself. That makes me wonder, did she have a drinking problem? A gambling addiction? Who knows? And that also makes me wonder: whatever happened to his father? Did something happen to him that tore Jesse’s family apart? And did something happen to Jesse’s dad that he may have been too young to remember? Anything’s possible, but however you take it in, it must’ve been traumatic enough for Jesse to keep believing that, somehow, his mother would’ve come back for him when it’s clear she abandoned him when he was younger. Also, the fact that he was triggered a bit by Annie and Glen fighting says something about what may have occurred in his family that enacted such a response out of him. That’s why, when he grew closer to Willy, he could tell that Willy longed for something as he did. I suspect that it was a sense of belonging. Jesse wanted to feel like he belonged somewhere, whereas Willy wanted to feel like he belonged where he was meant to be in the first place. So, you can feel Jesse’s angst and anxieties as a rehabilitee who went from living in the streets to living in a normal home with a decent family.

On top of that, his friendship with Willy helped him grow as a better person, for he went from being distrustful of strangers or cops to being more understanding and almost considerate of other people’s needs.

However, while the characterizations may have been a mixed bag – I’ll explain why very shortly - there are two defining elements to this movie that I felt invigorated this movie into the cult classic that it is. The first one is the acting.

Getting back to Jesse, this was actor Jason James Richter’s first major role in a motion picture, and there’s a reason he became such a minor child star in the first place. Bear in mind, this was the early 1990s, and back then, iconic child actors like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Macaulay Culkin, or Jonathan Taylor Thomas wowed their demographics because of their coolness factor while meshing it with childlike activities that their target audience would’ve imagined doing if they were in their shoes. Think of them as the kind of suave, smooth-talking kids that would’ve sent other kids of the opposite gender into a frenzy. With Jason James Richter, I think he played a slight role in the child star craze, too, but for different reasons. He carried the same modesties and cool-kid factor that they did, except he also proved to be rough around the edges, which synchronized most succinctly with where he stood in society, especially as a kid with a troubled history concerning his mother and uncertainty over how to assess his soon-to-be adoptive parents. He was shown to be occasionally aggressive, mistrusting, and sarcastic, and other times, he felt like a bit of an outsider. But other times, Richter infused his character with tremendous tenderness and budding consideration for the needs of others and allowed them to go together with his savviness and changing circumstances. I don’t know how well he fared in the later Free Willy films or later in his acting, but I feel that this movie was where Richter might have hit many of the right notes for me, brash as parts of them were. He and the character were the heart of this movie, outside of Willy himself, and helped carry the film through with his inflections and dilemmas.

The other actors in the movie gave it their all and made their characters work by just how naturally they played them. That would’ve explained how the characters felt so believable, realistic, and grounded.

August Schellenberg truly added gravitas to Randolph. You can feel this guy’s presence and nearly no-nonsense attitude. And you could easily catch on to how he was experienced enough to get a firsthand account of the local marine wildlife and the instincts of his fellow neighbors. The character may have felt like a retread of what the 1990s tried to do with Native Americans – what with trying to shed a more positive light on them by making them arguably the wisest characters in the story – but August’s inflections helped make Randolph feel real and like someone you’d see opening your eyes more to the world around you.

I have a soft spot for Lori Petty as Rae. She expressed her character with a lighthearted energy to compliment, if also conceal, her professionalism as a marine biologist wannabe. She displayed her skillset quite adequately, honed her more human moments to touching results, and made her character more endearing.

The actors playing Annie and Glen did a nice job, too…most of the time.

Jayne Atkinson, as Annie, helped make her character feel modest and friendly enough to leave a decent first impression while also sneaking in elements of a mother-to-be who’s finding her way in mastering it through her understanding of people like Jesse. And at first, I was completely on board with Michael Madsen as Glen. The way he played Glen in his professionalism and tried to get the hang of being a potential father figure to Jesse, I can tell that he was conflicted about this but still wanted to try and give it his best shot. However, as I let it sit, something about his acting in this film felt a little off. Maybe it was just Madsen looking too uncertain of how to react to kids or the situations they’re going through, as his character was, but it just came across as a bit awkward at times. Halfhearted at worst, but mainly awkward.

The actors playing Perry and Dwight also infused some personality into them, despite not getting much screen time. Michael Bacall played Perry with a generally wisecracking attitude, a general smart-guy attitude, with enough considerations to make him a complacent best friend for Jesse. Meanwhile, Mykelti Williamson played Dwight with slight sass and a surprisingly thoughtful demeanor to showcase how much he wanted to help put Jesse on a new path despite his past misdeeds.

However, I don’t know if it was because I was more familiar with the movie’s first half hour or what have you, but the one element I remembered the least about Free Willy was its villains. Even when I first saw them after so long, I remember them feeling vaguely familiar, except it was mostly the same rhythm: Wade was more expressive, while Dial was stingier and one-note. And at first, I thought their contributions to the movie felt nonsensical. But as I watched them do their thing, suddenly, it called me back to how whalers did their thing. They captured the whales and were prone to make money off them, whether dead or alive, however they could. These guys didn’t express much regarding whaler instincts, but their intentions with Willy, especially after Willy busted the tanks a bit out of fright, still gave off such hints and inflections. There was one moment I thought was cartoonishly evil, with Wade going to the tank to see the water squirting out after Willy busted the tank and then maliciously ate his popcorn as if to say, ‘Yep, this whale’s as good as dead. More money for us.’

Outside of that, however, and now that I think about it, it’s what little I remember about the villains that surprisingly felt most welcome. I knew the movie was about Jesse and Willy’s friendship and how Jesse plotted to take Willy out of the Northwest Adventure Park and into the nearby ocean. The villains’ motivations being restrained in exposure helped keep their pursuits low-key while still inviting a sense of dread to feel out of them. And I mean, in just the right doses. A part of me wishes that the villains could’ve appeared more and acted in a much more charismatic or multifaceted manner. But for what they did establish within the movie’s main storyline, it all felt like a decent accomplishment.

If you can believe it, the highlight of the performances in this movie wasn’t limited to just the human performers; let’s talk about the killer whale, Keiko. For what he managed to do in this movie, he performed his character completely well. Keiko acted as naturally as we’d expect any killer whale to behave, especially in captivity or the wild. I got the impression that he was around humans long enough to know how to work off them, especially the ones he trusted the most. I suspect Keiko was the closest to Jason James Richter, for their chemistry felt as genuine as Jesse and Willy’s friendship. I think it’s all a matter of who you’re closest with during filmmaking, and I’m convinced that Keiko acted that way with Jason James Richter because of all he managed to display with him as Willy.

Plus, once Free Willy was released, it inspired an event similar to what The Lorax inspired that led to the cleaning of Lake Erie. After being captured at a young age, Keiko was originally in poor health due to being enclosed in a tiny, small water tank in Mexico. After the film was released and became a smash hit, it inspired a movement entitled the Free Willy–Keiko Foundation to help relocate Keiko to a much better habitat where he could be in good health again and be in the company of those who cared for him. The movement was a success, and soon, Keiko was relocated to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and later released into the wild in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland. It feels like one of those rare moments in the 1990s when environmental awareness in the media paid off. And in a way, the movie entitled “Free Willy” literally freed ‘Willy,’ too.

Besides, going off-topic for a minute here, let me tell you a story. Around 20 years ago, my family and I took a trip to San Diego, and among our destinations was SeaWorld, where we got to see the famous killer whale, Shamu. Because I had a vague familiarity with Free Willy back then, the idea of watching a live killer whale performing in front of a live audience was just astounding and a real experience. But now, having just watched Free Willy, I wondered what went through Shamu’s head concerning his time in captivity and the idea of all the other killer whales enjoying their freedom. It’s beyond me, but while Shamu knew how to perform well, obviously, Willy didn’t feel in the mood to perform, whether it was because he was homesick or didn’t trust the other humans who tried to take care of him..

But now, let’s hop on to the other element of the movie that gave it the vitality it needed to work as a movie. And for me, it’s the music, which is just breathtaking.

What composer Basil Poledouris provided throughout the movie lived up to the word ‘wondrous’ and conveyed the whimsy and borderline majesty of what went on throughout the film. Whenever you hear Poledouris’ music, it heightens the emotional joys felt in Jesse and Willy’s growing friendship and emphasizes the terrors concerning the park owners’ plot to kill Willy. And when Poledouris focused on the living conditions that either Jesse or Willy went through individually, the music perfectly reflected what they felt in each given moment. In addition, the synthesizers, choral music, flute music, and harmonica music – including those played by Jesse – added to the music’s more beauteous elements and would’ve left you lost in their almost transcendent melodies. All in all, the music seemed a tab upbeat, while at other times, it expertly heightened the movie’s more empathetic mood.

The songs made for the movie and its soundtrack all sounded upbeat, too. Out of context, they all sounded like romantic pop tunes, which I can’t help but feel was commonplace throughout the 1990s. But much like the main song I’ll address here soon, they all carried a shred of adequate thematic applicability to Jesse and Willy’s friendship. They’re all fun to listen to, and my favorites are probably New Kids on the Block’s “Keep on Smiling,” and 3 T’s “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You.”

But for my money, only two major tunes cemented their legacy among Free Willy.

The first one is the main theme by Basil Poledouris. Something about this music hits home not only the implicit empathy that permeates Free Willy but also the genuine wonders of watching killer whales playing in the ocean and having fun. The playfulness, the sheer beauty of watching orcas, and the overall pleasant atmosphere of watching them frolic about take my breath away every time I hear it. If I ever get lucky enough to watch a pod of orcas doing their own thing out in the oceans, I suspect this music might creep into my brain as I do so. It’s become that emblematic of orcas, like how 101 Dalmatians became emblematic of Dalmatians.

And the second tune – yes, I’m sure you’ve seen this coming – is Michael Jackson’s song, “Will You Be There.” It was a fabulous piece by Michael Jackson about longing and the importance of companionship, and the vocal ranges by Michael Jackson and the choir backing him up added a truly soulful and ethereal experience to the song.

Don’t get me wrong; I know this song was not composed specifically for Free Willy. This song debuted on Michael Jackson’s hit album, Dangerous, released in 1991. But besides the song being glorious and lovely, its message and application felt apt here in Free Willy. It can be read on its own as ranging between a romantic ballad and a mother-and-child song. When you see and hear it applied to Free Willy, you can interpret it as reflecting Jesse and Willy’s friendship, with the song varying between feeling like it was expressed from Jesse’s point of view or from that of Willy. “Will You Be There” felt exactly how it would normally sound, especially in the Dangerous album, but it also felt cute and heartfelt in the film—and I mean cute and heartfelt while being expressed to outstanding, almost outstandingly haunting levels.

However, let me tell you another reason why this song stuck with me. As I mentioned, I was no younger than one or two years old, maybe three, by the time I watched the first half-hour of the tape my family and I had of Free Willy. That means I was familiar with the beginning of the movie, up to where Jesse started settling in with his soon-to-be adoptive parents. But in the previews, where they highlighted which films and shows were coming soon, they were nice enough to slip this in.

I may have been too young to comprehend or appreciate great artistry, but this song had me mesmerized and glued to the screen as I listened to the rhythms, grand music, and exceptional singing by Michael Jackson. I don’t know if this was my earliest exposure to pop music, but this was undeniably my earliest exposure to Michael Jackson’s work. And this was long before I caught on to his legacy, many other hit songs, and humanitarian causes. “Will You Be There” fits this movie like a glove, I feel honored to have been acquainted with this song at such a young age, and it’ll always have a special place in my heart.

Does that save Free Willy? Almost. The story still felt like it was done before, and outside of Jesse, the characters might and could have used a tad more personality for them to make for more memorable supporting characters to accompany Jesse, especially the villains. Through all its faults, however, Free Willy amounted to more surprises to be found in a boy-meets-whale movie than I remember it. The scenery was gorgeous, the acting added tremendous value to the characters, the music was first-rate, and while the characters were a mixed bag, their naturality speaks for itself. Free Willy may have been one of the earliest movies I was ever acquainted with, and now that I fully understand the movie inside out, I now have a greater appreciation for it than ever before. It’s no Old Yeller, E.T., or Iron Giant, but its heart is in the right place, and it shows all the way through.

Prepare yourselves because this movie might talk you out of whaling.

My Rating

A high B

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