Initially one senses that Free WIlly 2 is caught rudderless in a dreaded whirlpool and will wind up seeming more mechanical than any of the picture’s pod of whales. But once free of clunky plot constraints, the continuing family saga is a swimmingly satisfying emotional yarn.
The enduring strength of this unexpected franchise is its theme of family. Both the young protagonist, Jesse (Jason James Richter), and the title orca are in search of that hallowed unit. In Willy’s case, the search is a literal trek obstructed by ecological dangers.
Jesse’s quest is more complex. He has an abundance of warm, caring people in his life – his foster parents, Glen (Michael Madsen) and Annie (Jayne Atkinson), who are superhuman paragons of patience; Randolph (August Schellenberg), his former ally at the aquarium; and Randolph’s god-daughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt).
But he then learns his mother, a drug addict, is dead, and Elvis, the half-brother he didn’t know existed, is about to make a visit. He’s also distracted by the ache of raging hormones and the proximity of Nadine.
Add to all this personal angst an oiler gone aground and bleeding into the whale lanes off Washington state and you have Free Willy 2 in a tightly packed nutshell. The movie is less a narrative arc than it is a juggling act. Director Dwight Little may be a tad awkward in his form, but he does manage to keep all the balls in the air.
Technical credits are clean and crisp without being cold. The mechanical whales rarely betray their wire-and-mesh origins.