The 90s On Netflix: Free Willy (1993)
The rest of the movie3
Mark Harrison | On 06, Aug 2021
Director: Simon Wincer
Cast: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, and Michael Ironside
Where to watch Free Willy online in the UK: Netflix UK
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
In summer 1993, there was not one but two box-office hits about the folly of theme parks displaying live animals for entertainment. The commercial successes of Jurassic Park and Free Willy were relative to the size of their respective attractions, but the latter was a sleeper hit that spawned one of the decade’s more understated family franchises.
Bookended by footage of orcas swimming free in the wild, Free Willy tells the story of wayward kid Jesse (Jason James Richter) and his unlikely friendship with a captured whale named Willy (Keiko). Together with the whale’s trainer, Rae (Lori Petty), and keeper, Randolph (August Schellenberg), Jesse fights Willy’s corner against the unscrupulous adventure park owners (Michael Ironside and Richard Riehle) who mistreat and exploit him.
Undoubtedly more intimate and less cynical than Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur hit, the film is so essentially good-natured that it’s difficult to report that the film doesn’t hold up especially well. While the ending is undeniably powerful, the extent to which it’s one big run-up to a single standout sequence is quite startling.
Heck, this is one of those films where the climactic spoiler is right there on the poster and the cover of the VHS and DVD releases – this is a spoiler-lite column, so we won’t get any more specific than that – and it’s almost to let you know that it’s going somewhere. Like Willy, languishing in a tank that’s too small for him, there’s a case to be made that it’s too iconic an ending for a film this unremarkable.
The environmental message would be more admirable if it wasn’t slightly soft-pedalled. The film isn’t about the drawbacks of keeping whales in captivity everywhere, so much as the apathy and cruelty at this one adventure park, ran by Ironside and Riehle’s over-the-top villains. One report from the time of production had it that Warner Bros asked SeaWorld for its cooperation in making the film and the company requested a new ending where Willy wound up in one of their parks instead.
We didn’t end up on that dark road (imagine how much worse that poster would have been) but the film still dozes every time it’s not Jesse and the whale (played variously by real-life captive orca Keiko or animatronics and CG-models of him) on-screen. It’s this aspect that will have set younger viewers’ imaginations running, but more than likely drove up visitor numbers for parks with their own whale attractions over the years.
Petty and Schellenberg offer nice supporting turns, but the underrated performance in all of this is Michael Madsen’s role as Jesse’s foster dad, Glen. Contemporary reviews dismissed the Reservoir Dogs breakthrough star as a case of miscasting, but there are some grace notes in his portrayal of Glen as a recovering tearaway, whose well-meaning, ill-at-ease attempts at parenting appear to be hit and miss. This is quietly one of his better performances.
And then that ending comes, and wherever you stand on the 100 minutes preceding it, there’s a 10-minute spell where it’s pure cinematic magic. That finale is so good and it’s what people will have left the cinema with. It’s no surprise that the film wound up becoming a massive sleeper hit worldwide, nor that the decision to include the Save the Whales Foundation’s hotline number in the end credits reportedly drew $20 million in charitable donations.
Follow-ups abounded, and the most surreal was a short-lived animated spin-off in which Jesse and Willy (who could now speak to each other) travelled the world and battled an Ahab-inspired cybernetic eco-criminal called The Machine – no, really. On a saner level, there were two live-action sequels with Richter and co-stars returning. 1995’s The Adventure Home and 1997’s The Rescue weren’t anything like as popular as the first film, and they were followed with little fanfare by a standalone direct-to-DVD spin-off called Escape from Pirate’s Cove in 2010.
Free Willy is unabashedly sentimental in its portrayal of the friendship between boy and whale and, by the time the Michael Jackson song plays out over wildlife footage of orcas swimming free, you’ll leave on a high. All the same, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home remains pretty safe in its position as the best anti-whaling movie yet produced by Hollywood…
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“Recent studies have shown that some people are genetically predisposed to gaining weight. Someday in the near future, we might even find a cure.”
Free Willy is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.