"Let's free Willy! We could take him down to the bay and put him back in the water!"—Jesse
When Free Willy was released theatrically in the spring of 1993, it became a surprise hit, raking in money and becoming a part of the pop culture zeitgeist, even becoming the source of all manner of bad puns and double-entendres in the opening monologues of late night talk show hosts. Its success spawned a short-lived 1994 television series and two theatrical sequels.
Irony precedes the DVD re-release of Free Willy in a new special edition (a barebones version was released in June of 2001) to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its theatrical run, as well as the first-time DVD release of its two sequels. Just months before, Keiko, the orca who played Willy in the films, had arrived off the coast of Norway, apparently looking for human contact. This after a team of whale experts had spent six years training and preparing Keiko for release back into the wild (he'd been living in captivity since 1979). It had only been five weeks since he'd been set free, and here he was swimming with little kids in Norwegian fjords.
Debate now swirls about whether Keiko will ever be fit for free living, and both sides seem to have valid points: he does appear capable of hunting as he hadn't lost any weight when he popped into Scandinavia for a visit, but he also clearly enjoys the company of people—maybe more than the company of whales.
Either way, each DVD in the Free Willy trilogy (they're sold individually and are not currently available in a boxed set) comes stuffed with a leaflet for the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, which continues to raise money to cover the enormous expenses involved in preparing Keiko for life in the wild. That's cool, I suppose, as long as their motive is truly the whale's best interest, and not winning an argument with the keep-Keiko-captive crowd. I've included a link to the foundation's website in the "Accomplices" section of this review for those interested.
On with the review…
Facts of the Case
Free Willy—When a benign juvenile delinquent named Jesse (Jason James Richter), abandoned by his negligent mother, is arrested for his graffiti work on a whale storage tank at a Sea World-type amusement park and sent back to clean up his mess as punishment, he forms a bond with Willy, the head-case orca inside the tank. Orcas, you see, have very close familial attachments and Willy, none too happy about being in captivity, refuses to cooperate with the park's animal trainer, Rae (Lori Petty, A League of Their Own). Under the guidance of Rae and Randolph (August Schellenberg), a Native American orca expert working at the park, Jesse works with the Willy, developing a bond with the whale. Their mutual respect and love for one another enables Willy to learn to cooperate with his park handlers, and Jesse to open up to his new foster parents, Annie and Glen Greenwood (Jayne Atkinson and Michael Madsen).
Everything seems peachy until the new-and-improved Willy fails to perform before a sold-out crowd, prompting the park's sleazy owner (Michael Ironside, Scanners) to concoct a scheme to kill Willy so he can collect insurance money to recover the investment he's sunk in the whale. Jesse, Randolph, Rae, and the Greenwoods formulate a counter scheme: in order to save Willy's life, they'll release him back into the wild.
Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home—Nearly the entire cast of the first film (with the exception of Lori Petty) reunite for a sequel. As the film opens, word comes that Jesse's mom is dead, and that Jesse has a half-brother, named Elvis (Francis Capra, great-grandson of director Frank Capra). To Jesse's chagrin, the Greenwoods agree to take the eight-year-old compulsive liar into their home. Meanwhile, Randolph now has a boat on which he goes orca-spotting with his teenage goddaughter Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt, Apollo 13). And Randolph doesn't just spot any ordinary orca, he finds Willy and his family. All appears right with the universe once Jesse is reunited with Willy, and is making romantic progress with Nadine by impressing her with his connection to the massive marine mammal, until an oil tanker runs aground, trapping the family of whales in a cove and beaching Willy's sister, Luna.
Enter marine veterinarian, Kate Haley (Elizabeth Peña, Tortilla Soup), who works with Randolph to save Luna and helps the whole gang formulate a plan to get the whales out of the cove. The rescue seems to be on track until a slimy oil company executive secretly negotiates the capture of the whales by the even slimier Wilcox (M. Emmet Walsh, Blood Simple). Jesse, Randolph, Nadine, Elvis, the Greenwoods, and Kate must work together to figure out a way to once again use Willy's ability to jump out of the water on command as the deus ex machina through which he and his family can be free.
Free Willy 3: The Rescue—Jesse and Randolph go to the well one last time (the rest of the series' familiar faces are tellingly absent), in this second sequel to the 1993 smash hit about a boy and a whale. Randolph now has a job on a full-fledged research vessel, on which he gets Jesse a summer job as an assistant. Meanwhile, we're introduced to 10-year-old Max (Vincent Berry), a regular kid whose dad (Patrick Kilpatrick, Minority Report) is away from home for long stretches in his capacity as a fishing boat captain. When young Max is taken on one of his father's expeditions as a rite of passage, he learns daddy isn't just an ordinary fisherman; he's an illegal whaler. The whole idea of killing whales doesn't sit well with Max in the first place, but when the boat's crew begin following a family of orcas, and the boy has a couple personal encounters with you-know-who, following in dad's footsteps becomes completely out of the question.
When the crew of the whaler steals the recording Jesse uses to signal to Willy, with the intent to call the orcas to their vessel in order to kill them, Jesse and Randolph must spring into action to try to save their friend. The question is, can Willy's sparkling personality and giving nature warm the hearts of the grizzled whalers?
My definition of a top-tier children's movie is one that works as well for adults as it does for the small ones for whom it was designed. Disney's The Lion King comes to mind. In my estimation, Free Willy doesn't quite reach that standard, but it comes fairly close. Its characters are a bit too pat; its too loaded with overly-expository dialogue to ensure the little ones don't get lost in the story; and the plot itself borrows too heavily from superior works like Walter Farley's The Black Stallion, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling, John Steinbeck's short story "The Gift," and the old tear-jerking Disney classic Old Yeller. Still, considering it raked in nearly $80 million domestically during its theatrical run in the spring and summer of 1993 (this, remember, was before a film had to break the $100 million mark to be considered even a marginal summer blockbuster), I imagine there are many adults who'd disagree with my assessment.
The point is, Free Willy is not the sort of kids' flick adults will find insufferable. Simon Wincer's (Lonesome Dove) direction is solid if not spectacular, the acting is surprisingly effective, and the film boasts some beautiful footage of orcas, particularly the opening credit sequence shot by wildlife cinematographer Bob Talbot (Ocean Men: Extreme Dive).
The film's greatest strength is its depiction of the relationship between boy and whale, which easily trumps the more trite human relationships. Jason James Richter handles the character of Jesse competently, although he's far more convincing during teary-eyed interactions with Willy than when lashing out in anger at his foster parents. Willy is delicately handled, only slightly anthropomorphised (he sometimes nods or shakes his head as though he understands English perfectly), yet we still get the sense he has a unique personality (characterized in large part by anger).
The supporting cast does fine work. August Schellenberg imbues Randolph with the appropriate gravitas, and Lori Petty is as cute and bubbly as any water park trainer you've seen at a Sea World whale show. Michael Ironside, looking very much like a Cuckoo's Nest-era Jack Nicholson, plays the weasley park-owner baddie with the panache he's developed from years of playing weasley baddies. Still, Michael Madsen is most impressive as mechanic Glen Greenwood, Jesse's foster dad. He takes a mundane, cookie-cutter role and gives it an edge. There's just enough of a Fonzie vibe to his portrayal of an otherwise middle-class average guy, that it's easy to believe a troubled 12-year-old would come to respect him. Free Willy was released only a year after Madsen's turn as psychopathic criminal Vic Vega in Quentin Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs, and it left me wondering if Willy might end with Michael Ironside losing an ear in the grisliest of ways.
Free Willy's two sequels make a perfect case study of a studio's attempts to create a franchise out of a flash-in-the-pan success, only to run the whole endeavor into the ground. And as the quality deteriorated—the magic gone—so did the receipts: Free Willy 2 made around $30 million at the box office, while the abysmal third installment mustered less than $4 million. The biggest problem with the sequels is they lack their predecessor's strongest element: a focus on the relationship between Jesse and Willy. As a matter of fact, Willy is more plot-device than character in the two follow-ups, little more than an excuse to reunite the human actors. And Jason James Richter lacks the cute-kid factor he brought to the first film, having made the transition from preteen to young adult by the time the second film went into production.
If Free Willy 2 has a strength it's that it at least provides us with the warmth of reuniting with familiar faces: all the original cast return with the exception of Lori Petty and Michael Ironside. Also back is some fine wildlife cinematography. It's not enough to save a movie that is far more likely to tax the patience of adults, even if kids are apt to like it just fine. Which brings me to Jesse's incredibly grating half-brother Elvis, brought on I'm sure as the antidote to Jason James Richter's puberty. He spends most of the film as the sort of obnoxious, smart-alecky kid ones sees regularly on television sitcoms, the sort of kid you desperately want to introduce to the back of your hand (I'll admit this, though, Francis Capra is so effective at tearful sobbing, he nearly saves the character in film's final act). The fact his name is Elvis doesn't help matters (I imagine its an oblique wink at the pop culture literate, a reference to his and Jesse's mom's white-trash roots: Elvis Aaron Presley's older, stillborn twin was named Jesse Garon…get it?). Honestly, though, the structure of the film, its performances, its construction (under the direction of Dwight H. Little, Murder at 1600) are no more rickety that the first, but the charm and heart are largely absent.
If Elvis was to Free Willy 2 what Chachi was to Happy Days—a crass attempt to hold onto its youth in order to see if the cash cow would keep giving milk—then little Max is to Free Willy 3 what Cousin Oliver was to The Brady Bunch—a death knell, the indisputable sign the franchise had jumped the shark. The third installment has none of the heart and soul of the first, and doesn't even offer up the familiar faces of the second. It's as if the producers floated this one at us to see if we'd accept it and, had we, I can imagine a Free Willy 4 with Max and his reformed whaler father taking over the center stage and even Jesse and Randolph completely absent. Thankfully, the film died the box office death it deserved, sparing us from that sad sight.
On the plus side, Free Willy 3 (under the direction of Sam Pillsbury) does offer some beautiful underwater cinematography just like the first two. It also avoids heavy-handed, one-dimensional characterizations despite its plot about illegal whalers. I'm not saying the characters aren't trite, I'm just saying the film goes out of its way to portray the whalers as uninformed rather than demonizing them. Will kids like Free Willy 3? Probably. Because it deals with whaling, it's a bit more intense than the first two, but the whalers only make one kill and it's not graphic—any small child who can handle the death of Bambi's mother or Dumbo's separation from his, shouldn't be too upset by Free Willy 3.
As I mentioned before, this is the second release of Free Willy on DVD. I've never seen the original release (as a matter of fact, I'd never seen Free Willy before watching the 10th Anniversary Edition DVD), so I can't compare the two. What I can tell you is this: the transfers of all three films are absolutely beautiful. They were struck from pristine sources and boast beautiful, rock solid color and zero in the way of artifacts or edge enhancement. Both Free Willy and Free Willy 2 are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. Free Willy 3, while offering up a clear and beautiful image, is short shrifted with a full frame, pan-and-scan transfer. I know it's grossly inferior to its predecessors, and I'm sure the studio isn't expecting it to sell like hotcakes, but they could have made it widescreen just for the sake of continuity and consistency. There's no doubt economics drove the decision: Free Willy 3 is the only film in the trilogy to come on a single-layered disc, which likely wouldn't have supported the bitrate necessary for a truly pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes on each disc are of equal quality. They're clean and free of hiss, and manage to draw you into the films even though they lack extensive use of surrounds and never reaching down into the really low frequencies.
Free Willy sports the widest array of extras, the most interesting of which is the five-and-a-half minute conversation with wildlife cinematographer Bob Talbot. "Escape the Nets" is a game kids can play with the DVD player's remote, and there are a couple additional games accessible via DVD-ROM—none are particularly engaging. The text-based factoid feature, A Whale's Tale is essentially repeated on the other two discs as Orca Wonders and Orcas Up Close.
If you're an adult fan of Free Willy, the good news is that the 10th Anniversary Special Edition sports a gorgeous transfer and a nice 5.1 surround track. If you own the original release and are happy with it, I wouldn't consider the meager and kid-friendly extras on this new version reason enough for a double-dip.
Personally, I'd stay the heck away from Free Willy 2 and 3, but if you're looking for movies your young children might enjoy, they're probably right up your alley.
Free Willy is found not guilty; it's solid enough family entertainment. Free Willy 2 is guilty of misdemeanor crass commercialism, but free to go with time served. Free Willy 3 is not guilty if only because it's not a crime to beat a horse that's already dead; still, I think we'd all be best served pretending the whole ugly affair never happened.
All charges against Warner Bros. are dismissed. With the exception of 3's full screen transfer, the studio has treated the Free Willy films with more love and care than I would've imagined. They've also done right by consumers by offering each film individually, rather than forcing fans of the original to buy its inferior sequels in a boxed set.
This court's in recess.
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• All Ages
Scales of Justice, Free Willy
Perp Profile, Free Willy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Free Willy
• A Conversation With Wildlife Cinematographer Bob Talbot
Scales of Justice, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home
Perp Profile, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home
• Orca Wonders
Scales of Justice, Free Willy 3: The Rescue
Perp Profile, Free Willy 3: The Rescue
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Free Willy 3: The Rescue
• Orcas Up Close
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