Theatrical release poster for Free Willy
|Directed by||Simon Wincer|
|Story by||Keith A. Walker|
|Music by||Basil Poledouris|
|Edited by||O. Nicholas Brown|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Family Entertainment|
|Box office||$153.6 million|
Free Willy is a 1993 American family drama film directed by Simon Wincer, produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Jennie Lew Tugend, and written by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman from a story by Walker. The film stars Jason James Richter as a foster boy who befriends a captive orca.
The film received positive attention from critics and was a financial success, grossing $153.6 million over $20 million, and has a small cult following. It eventually grew into a small franchise, spawning three sequels and a video game companion.
Michael Jackson produced and performed "Will You Be There", the theme for the film, which can be heard during the film's credits. The song won the MTV Movie Award for "Best Song in a Movie" in 1994. It was also included on Jackson's album, Dangerous, and All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film's first sequel.
The film begins with a pod of orcas swimming near the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. The pod is tracked down by a group of whalers, and one of them, Willy, is trapped and sent to an amusement park.
Sometime later in Astoria, Oregon, Jesse, a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his mother six years before, is caught by the police for stealing food and vandalizing the theme park. Jesse's social worker Dwight earns him a reprieve by finding him a foster home and having him clean up the graffiti at the theme park. His foster parents are the supportive and kind Annie and Glen Greenwood, but Jesse is initially unruly and hostile to them.
While working at the park, Jesse encounters Willy. Willy is regarded as surly and uncooperative by the park staff, including his trainer Rae Lindley, but he saves Jesse from drowning, starting a bond, and becomes friendly with his keeper, Haida native Randolph Johnson. Jesse teaches tricks to Willy, and is offered a permanent job at the marine after probation. Jesse also warms into his new home.
The owner of the amusement park, Dial, sees the talent Jesse and Willy have together and makes plans to host "The Willy Show" in hopes of finally making money from Willy, who has thus far been a costly venture for him. On the day of the first performance, Willy is antagonized by the children banging constantly on his underwater observation area and refuses to perform. Willy smashes against the tank, damaging it. Jesse storms off in tears and plans to run away. Later, while at the tank, Jesse notices Willy's family calling to him and Dial's assistant Wade and other men sneaking into the underwater observation area. They damage the tank enough that the water will gradually leak out in an effort to kill Willy and claim his $1,000,000 insurance policy.
Jesse, Randolph, and Rae hatch a plan to release Willy. They use equipment at the park to load Willy onto a trailer, and Jesse and Randolph use Glen's truck to tow Willy to a marina. They try to stay on the back roads to avoid being spotted, but eventually get stuck in the mud. Wade meanwhile informs Dial that Willy is missing, and begins a search to find Willy.
Unable to move the trailer himself, Jesse calls Glen and Annie using a CB radio in Glen's truck. Annie and Glen show up and help free the truck, and continue on to the marina to release Willy. Dial knows where they are headed, and when they show up, he, Wade, and his henchmen are blocking the gate into the marina. Glen charges at them full speed in the truck, forcing the henchmen to scatter as the truck crashes through the gate. Glen turns the truck around and backs Willy into the water, flooding the truck in the process.
Willy is finally released into the water, but Dial and his goons attempt to stop them. During the struggle, Jesse gets Willy to swim away while the whaling ships close in with their nets. Jesse runs towards the seawall, calling for Willy to follow him, steering him away from the boats. Jesse goes to the edge where Willy is and tells him that if he makes the jump, it'll be his highest and he'll be free. Jesse says a tearful goodbye, but pulls himself together and goes back to the top. He prays a Haida prayer Randolph had taught him, giving Willy a signal and makes the jump and is finally free to return to his family. Everyone cheers (except for Dial and his henchmen), Willy leaps out of the water in celebration, and Jesse happily celebrates, but stops when he realizes that he'll probably never see Willy again. He goes back to Glen and Annie who hug him as they look out into the sea. Willy calls out to Jesse in the distance and both say their final farewell. The movie ends with Willy finding his family, and the entire pod swimming and jumping through the ocean.
- Jason James Richter as Jesse
- Keiko the Orca as Willy
- Lori Petty as Rae Lindley
- Jayne Atkinson as Annie Greenwood
- August Schellenberg as Randolph Johnson
- Michael Madsen as Glen Greenwood
- Michael Ironside as Dial
- Mykelti Williamson as Dwight Mercer
- Danielle Harris as Gwenie
- Richard Riehle as Wade
- Michael Bacall as Perry
Most close-up shots involving limited movement by Willy, such as when Willy is in the trailer and the sequences involving Willy swimming in the open water, make use of an animatronic stand-in. Walt Conti, who supervised the effects for the orcas, estimated that half of the shots of the orca used animatronic stand-ins. Conti stated that the smaller movements of a real Orca actually made things difficult in some ways for him and his crew; they had to concentrate on smaller nuances in order to make the character seem alive. The most extensive use of CGI in the film is the climax, filmed in Astoria, Oregon, where Willy jumps over Jesse and into the wild. All stunts with the orca were performed by the young orca trainer Justin Sherbert (known additionally by his stage name, Justin Sherman).
Box office performance
The film was released by Warner Bros. on July 16, 1993 and grossed $7,868,829 domestically in its opening weekend. It went on to make $76 million in its foreign release for a total of $153,698,625 worldwide. Upon its initial release, Free Willy ranked number 5 at the box office before moving to number 4 by the following weekend. Afterward, its rank in the box office began to gradually decline, with the exception of a three-day weekend (September 3 to September 6), in which gross revenue increased by 33.6%.
The film has received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Free Willy currently holds a 57% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, based on 22 reviews, indicating mixed reviews. The film on Metacritic has a 79 out of 100 rating.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
References in other media
- The aquatic star of this film was an orca named Keiko. The huge national and international success of this film inspired a letter writing campaign to get Keiko released from his captivity as an attraction in the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City; this movement was called "Free Keiko". Keiko was moved to The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Oregon by flying in a UPS C-130 Cargo Plane. In Oregon he was returned to health with the hopes of being able to return to the wild. In 1998 Keiko was moved to Iceland via an US Air Force C-17 to learn to be wild and after that to Norway where there were other orcas. Keiko eventually died of pneumonia in a Norwegian bay on December 12, 2003. A decade later in 2013 a New York Times video reviewed Keiko's only partly successful release.
- Free Willy was referenced in the 1998 film Slappy and the Stinkers, when the five main children (the Stinkers) try to return Slappy, the sea lion, to the ocean; they see an orca in the water and assume it's Willy from the movie. As they realize that orcas eat sea lions, they decide to return Slappy to the aquarium they previously took him from.
- In Tommy Boy, Tommy is insulted by three boys who make fun of his weight and refer to him as a whale while shouting "Free Willy!"
- Free Willy has been parodied in several episodes of The Simpsons. The episode "The Boy Who Knew Too Much" features Homer Simpson watching a "director's cut" of the film, in which Willy fails in his attempt jump over the rocks and crushes Jesse. In The Simpsons Halloween special "Treehouse of Horror XI", Lisa Simpson frees a dolphin from the Springfield aquarium and it jumps over a rock barrier in a similar fashion to Willy, except its tail hits Lisa in the face and she winces.
- The South Park episode "Free Willzyx" was also a parody of the movie Free Willy.
- Rickitt, Richard (2006). Designing Movie Creatures and Characters: Behind the Scenes With the Movie Masters. Focal Press. pp. 161–65. ISBN 0-240-80846-0.
- "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
- "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
- "Free Willy (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
- Winerip, Michael (September 16, 2013). "Retro Report: The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed" (video (11:43)). New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
- Mirkin, David (2004). The Simpsons season 5 DVD commentary for the episode "The Boy Who Knew Too Much" (DVD). 20th Century Fox.
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