“Free Willy” is an exhilarating drama of boy and nature that unabashedly pulls at the heart strings. Thankfully, its creators know just what to do emotionally and technically to pull off this old-fashioned sentimental yarn. It is a highly enjoyable whirlwind of images and feelings with enormous family appeal that could translate into “Karate Kid”-type success.
Cued to Jesse (Jason James Richter), an abandoned child in his umpteenth foster home, the story begins with a tough edge. He’s running with a gang of outsiders who are into petty theft and random vandalism. But on one outing, he’s nabbed at a Portland amusement park and winds up doing community service there in lieu of juvenile detention.
In true movie fashion, we discover “there’s no such thing as a bad boy.” The sullen Jesse soon becomes enthralled by Willy, a killer whale who’s the unwilling and unresponsive main attraction of the resident aquatic show. They are kindred souls.
The analogy is perhaps a tad cute and convenient but the filmmakers largely succeed in muting it with more pressing drama.
Willy may at last be getting Jesse to apply himself to something practical, but his new home life is by no means a slice of pristine Americana. His new folks (Jayne Atkinson, Michael Madsen) are unresolved about the decision to take him in and the boy’s natural aversion to any foster home does little to make the transition easy.
However, he loves the whale, who responds to his harmonica playing. The seagoing mammoth also responds to his commands after months of ignoring those of the park animal trainer (Lori Petty) and the knowing native supervisor (August Schellenberg).
Willy is literally eating out of Jesse’s hands, which attracts the notice of the park’s evil owner (Michael Ironside), who sees an opportunity for a sell-out attraction.
When that venture fails to coalesce, management decides the only way out is sabotage. However, Jesse gets wind of the danger and enlists his friends to do the right thing as the story hurtles to its exciting conclusion.
The bare-bones plot is decidedly hoary and conventional and luckily occupies a small facet of the movie.
What is endlessly fascinating in director Simon Wincer’s hands is his minute attention to detail. The process of caring and observing the orca is handled to perfection.
As Jesse, Richter is a welcome antidote to the scrubbed contemporary moppet stars. In the best possible sense he appears to have been plucked from the street and employed to do more than yeoman-like movie service.
The adults have less meaty opportunities but Schellenberg and Madsen bring a dignity to what might have been predictable parts. And while she tries valiantly , Petty can’t quite overcome the against-type casting thrust upon her.
An extremely handsome production, “Free Willy” effectively manipulates audiences with its rhythms and pictorial splendor. Basil Poledouris’ bold score is perfectly in sync with the narrative.
An astute, intelligent family picture, the film is a potent reminder that you can have your heart in the right place and still produce a gripping, satisfying entertainment.