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 goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt) -- not to mention Willy and his siblings, Luna and Littlespot.

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 goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt) — not to mention Willy and his siblings, Luna and Littlespot.

But he’s confused by the tug of blood ties. The situation only worsens when he learns his mother, a drug addict, is dead, and Elvis, the half brother he didn’t know existed, is about to make a visit. His discomfort with the swaggering, cocksure Elvis (Francis Capra) is more than just the 8-year-old’s mythomania — he’s also distracted by the ache of raging hormones and the proximity of Nadine.

Add to all this personal angst an oil tanker 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.

The script, credited to Karen Janszen, Corey Blechman and John Mattson (Blechman co-wrote the original), is nothing if not ambitious. Family trauma is juxtaposed with physical peril, echoes of Jesse’s troubled youth reverberate in Elvis’ life and Native American folklore clashes with industrial expedience.

It ought to be a breathless mess, and it’s difficult to say precisely why it isn’t. Certainly the ensemble cast contributes to steering the material away from the mire of sentimentality. Richter is an unusual young lead in that he’s not unduly charismatic nor classically handsome. But he’s real and confident, and that adds up to an attractive combination.

Schellenberg and Madsen are masters of underplaying; their matter-of-fact attitude makes palatable and credible what would otherwise be improbable, melodramatic material. And when the high energy finale kicks in, emotions run high and culminate in a charged wrap-up.

Technical credits are clean and crisp without being cold. The mechanical whales rarely betray their wire-and-mesh origins and remain secondary to the film’s human elements.

Handsomely produced and politically correct, “Free Willy 2″ avoids stumping for environmental concerns or family values. Its most serious misstep is when Michael Jackson’s theme song stops the action to focus on inane images.

Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home

(Family -- Color)

Production

A Warner Bros. release in association with Le Studio Canal Plus, Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films of a Shuler-Donner/Donner production. Produced by Lauren Shuler-Donner, Jennie Lew Tugend. Executive producers, Richard Donner, Arnon Milchan, Jim Van Wyck. Co-producer, Richard Solomon. Directed by Dwight Little. Screenplay, Karen Janszen, Corey Blechman, John Mattson, based on characters created by Keith A. Walker. Camera (Technicolor; Panavision widescreen), Laszlo Kovacs; editors, Robert Brown, Dallas Puett; music, Basil Poledouris; production design, Paul Sylbert; art direction, Gregory Bolton; set design, Mindy R. Toback; set decoration, Casey Hallenbeck; costume design, Erica Edell Phillips; sound (SDDS) , Robert Janiger; whale effects supervisor, Walt Conti; animatronic whales created by Edge Innovations; associate producers, Mark Marshall, Douglas C. Merrifield, Sherry Fadely; assistant director, Van Wyck; second unit directors, Michael McAlister, Conrad E. Palmisano; second unit camera, Gary Holt; casting, Judy Taylor, Lynda Gordon. Reviewed at Mann Theater, Westwood, June 24, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 96 min. Jesse ...Jason James Richter Randolph #Johnson ... August Schellenberg Glen Greenwood ... Michael Madsen Annie Greenwood ... Jayne Atkinson Nadine ... Mary Kate Schellhardt Elvis ... Francis Capra John Milner ... Jon Tenney Dr. Kate Haley ... Elizabeth Pena Wilcox ... M. Emmet Walsh Dwight Mercer ... Mykelti Williamson Commander Blake ... John Considine Every sequel must confront the perilous waters known as the sea of familiarity. Initially one senses that "Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home" 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 that should ring up comparably upbeat numbers, in all media, to those of its predecessor. 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.

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