Willy's Whale of a Tale
Before actually discussing the movie you have to question those who decided to call it "Free Willy". Okay so I know we have this tale of a whale called Willy and a young boy called Jesse who ends up trying to free it, but really "Free Willy", surely they must have known it would cause some dirty cackles and plenty of innuendo. Aside from the dodgy name choice and "Free Willy" isn't a bad movie, it may be quite unoriginal and seriously obvious as well as at times cheesy but it is entertaining. It's even entertaining despite some obvious manipulations of your emotions and I am sure that younger audiences won't notice how corny it becomes as we watch rebel Jesse bond with Willy the whale.
After getting caught vandalising the marina, young rebel Jesse (Jason James Richter) is given one more chance as long as he moves in with foster parents the Greenwood's and cleans up the mess he made at the marina. Not so infused about living with the Greenwood's Jesse finds working at the marina rewarding especially when he starts to bond with their new whale Willy. But things end up turning bad when Willy is meant to put on his first big show having been taught to do tricks by Jesse but flops causing the marina owner's to try and recoup the money they spent on the whale, even if it means doing something very bad.
Now to be honest the minute we watch young rebel meet Willy as he graffiti's the observatory in the marina you know what is to come. You can guess that having been ordered to clean up the mess he made he will bond with Willy, sharing some form of deeper feelings of being alone. And you know that this bond will lead to young Jesse being the one to teach Willy how to perform and so on. It truly is very unoriginal and the whole subplot of Jesse struggling to settle with his new foster parents adds little to make it any more original.
But all of this works, there is plenty of charm and amusement as we watch Jesse grow from this rebel without a care to this kid who shows he can be responsible when given the chance. It exudes a warmth as Marina workers Randolph and Rae see how Jesse is growing and also how he is bonding with Willy. And the whole series of scenes as Jesse trains Willy under the watchful eye of Rae has that obvious but nice touch of comedy about them as Willy ends up playfully soaking people.
Of course "Free Willy" is not just about Jesse growing as a young boy and there is the subplot of the Marina owners desperate to make some money off of Willy and this leads to the drama of Jesse trying to free Willy. It does border on the extremely cheesy as this ending is drawn out and does reach the point of being painful in its emotional climax. But then young audiences will lap this up, lap the excitement of those final scenes even if they end up being detached from reality.
At the centre of all this is Jason James Richter who plays young rebel Jesse and whilst some of his rebellion is not that real he does a decent job. There is something pleasant about the bond which Jesse forms with Willy and Richter gets this across nicely. He also gets across the element of friendship he forms with Marina worker Randolph played by August Schellenberg and also Lori Petty who has this beautiful tom boy thing going on as animal trainer Rae Lindley. In fact all the cast which includes Jayne Atkinson, Michael Madsen and Michael Ironside work well, delivering the solid and adequate performance for a movie which is made for younger audiences.
What this all boils down is that despite being a bit cheesy and very obvious "Free Willy" is also surprisingly entertaining. It has a charm and an innocence about it making great viewing for younger audiences who will enjoy the fun of Jesse bonding with Willy. Yet there is something about it which makes it enjoyable for adults as well, a simplicity which allows you to just be entertained by the tale of friendship.