Director: Simon Wincer
Cast: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Michael Madsen, Jayne Atkinson, Michael Ironside, Keiko
Released: July 16, 1993
I saw this movie in the theaters as a kid and I may have seen it on home video a year after it came out, but I haven't seen it since then. I don't remember if I saw the second movie or not, but I'm pretty positive I didn't see the third. If you had asked me who was in this movie before I recently watched it again, I would have told you "Some kid and a killer whale". I would not be able to tell you any of the adults who was in this. Lori Petty from Orange is the New Black (and Tank Girl too, I know, but I've never seen that, so to me she's Lolly from OitNB) plays a trainer at the aquarium? I didn't know that. Michael Madsen from the Kill Bill movies play the kid's foster dad? I didn't know that. Jayne Atkinson from 24 and House of Cards plays the kid's foster mom? I didn't know that. Of course, when I saw this movie back in 1993, I didn't know any of those people!
I forgot that Jesse (Jason James Richter), the 12 year old kid who befriends Willy the whale, was a runaway. I remember he met Willy because he had to clean the aquarium shed that he and his friend vandalized with spray paint, but I thought he was just a little punk. I guess I forgot he was acting up because he didn't have any parents and would sleep in a skating park with his other homeless runaway friends and steal cakes from bakery vans and go to restaurants and eat leftover food off plates after people left and would scam people for money by telling them he didn't have enough bus fare to get home.
After he is caught spray painting the aquarium (his friend manages to get away), he is placed in a foster home with a seemingly nice couple (Madsen and Atkinson), but acts like a total douche to them. He acts like a little prick to everyone he meets and I just want to smack him so much. But I guess since his mom is in jail and his dad is...wherever....we're suppose to feel bad for him. The only one who can make him smile is Willy, the killer whale whose tank he vandalized. Rae (Petty) the trainer, tells Jesse that they've been having a hard time training Willy, but lo and behold, Jesse and Willy form a special bond (Willy even saves Jesse after he knocks his head and falls into the tank...he's lucky Willy didn't pull a Black Fish on him!) Jesse feeds Willy and trains him by moving around in circles so the whale copies him. The whale attraction is losing money as they can't put on a show but now that Jesse has trained Willy they have a big grand opening and lots of people are in the stands to see Willy perform. However a bunch of snot-nosed obnoxious kids are banging on the glass in the downstairs viewing area and this makes Willy agitated and therefore he does not perform no matter how much his 12 year old BFF pleads him to. You would think they would have a sign that says "PLEASE DO NOT BANG ON THE GLASS!" Although I have been to zoos and people still feed the animals even though there are signs that say "PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS", so that probably wouldn't have helped. When Willy refused to put on a show, I was like, "You show them Willy...don't perform for those awful people!"
Every movie like this needs a bad guy and in this movie it's Dial (Michael Ironside) who is the owner of the aquatic park and might as well have dollar signs etched in his eyes because that's all he cares about. He is very angry after the fiasco with Willy not performing and after he sees a leak caused by Willy ramming into the glass to stop the incessant tapping, he gets an idea to cause more damage to the tank. He and his other henchmen sneak into the aquarium one night and puncture some holes so water starts spilling out, but since Jesse was there at the time, he hides and overhears everything, such as Dial telling them that they will collect one million dollars insurance from the death of Willy. First of all, that doesn't sound like that much at all, but this was 1993. Second of all, wouldn't there be an investigation in all of this? Wouldn't they be fined for not having a stable living condition for their orca? Wouldn't they find out that the tank was purposely sabotaged? I feel like that he did not think this the entire way through.
I didn't remember this subplot at all and thought they had freed Willy because, you know, it's the right thing to do! There's a scene at night where Jesse is sitting in the bleachers and Willy is making this awful, haunting noise and he says, "What's wrong boy?" Keep in mind you can see Puget Sound beyond the little pool Willy is swimming in. Christ on a cracker, kid, look up. What the hell do you think is wrong? He does look up and on closer inspection he notices that there are....ORCAS in the wide open body of water and realizes they must be Willy's family as they are answering his sad cries.
But it isn't until Willy's life is in danger that they then decide to release him into the wild. So if Willy had performed a great show that day and they had made a crapton of money and the evil guy never had to kill the whale for the insurance money, then they never would have released him? Is that what I'm suppose to believe? That seems effed up! In fact, I think that would have been more interesting...to FREE the damn whale (technically part of the dolphin family, I know) because it's the RIGHT THING TO DO! Not free him just because his tank was gushing out water. AURGH, movie!
They do end up doing just that and instead of asking for help (besides from Jesse's foster parents), it's just Jesse, Rae, and a Native American guy who works at the park. Dial and his henchmen find out about the plan and go to stop them (how are they going to get back a 3 ton orca?) They back Willy out into the water, but two boats have blocked his path with a big net in the way, so Jesse beckons the whale to follow him over to a rock wall and we see the famous scene where Willy jumps over and into his freedom. The kid is right under the whale and all I can think of is, If that whale falls halfway, it's going to be very unpleasant for that kid! They show stock footage of a pod of orcas in the wild and it's so obvious that none of the whales are Keiko, the whale who played Willy because his dorsal fin has flapped over, which is a common thing that happens to orcas in captivity. None of the whales shown have the drooping dorsal fin.
As you know, Keiko was released into the wild because it didn't seem right to have a whale that was the star of the FREE Willy franchise to not be free. He was released near the coast of Iceland in 1998 (the final Free Willy movie came out in 1997 so that must have been when his contract was up, sorry, bad joke!) Sadly he died in late 2003, most likely from pneumonia.
"Will You Be There", the song Michael Jackson sang for the movie, won Best Song at the MTV Movie Awards. (And if you want to see the famous jumping over the rock wall scene, it starts around 2:30):