Free Willy

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Free Willy
An orca jumps over a jetty with a young boy giving out its signal to the orca. The film's tagline reads "A Friendship you could never imagine".
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySimon Wincer
Screenplay by
Story byKeith A. Walker
Produced by
CinematographyRobbie Greenberg
Edited byO. Nicholas Brown
Music byBasil Poledouris
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • July 16, 1993 (1993-07-16)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$20 million[1]
Box office$153.7 million[2]

Free Willy is a 1993 American family drama film, directed by Simon Wincer, produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Jennie Lew Tugend, written by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman from a story by Walker and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures under their Family Entertainment imprint. The film stars Jason James Richter in his film debut, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg, and Michael Madsen with the eponymous character, Willy, played by Keiko.

The story is about a 12 year old orphaned boy named Jesse who befriends a captive orca, Willy, at an ailing amusement park. When he discovers that the park owner has been planning to dispose of Willy, he hatches a scheme to break Willy out of captivity.

Released on July 16, 1993, the film received positive attention from critics and was a commercial success, grossing $153.7 million from a $20 million budget. It grew into a small franchise, including an animated television series, two sequels, and a direct-to-video reboot in addition to inspiring the rehabilitation and release of Keiko. The film marked Keith A. Walker's only film as screenwriter, and last project before his death in late December 1996.


On the Pacific Northwest coastline, a pod of orcas are peacefully swimming. The pod is tracked down by a group of whalers. One of the orcas is separated from his family. The whalers sell him to Northwest Adventure Park.

Months later in Portland, Jesse, a 12-year-old orphan who was abandoned by his mother six years ago, fled from Cooperton and spends three days roaming the streets with his fellow orphans, begging for money and stealing food. To evade police in pursuit later that night, he and Perry break into a building that turns out to be the adventure park's observation area. While doing graffiti on the building walls and its water tank, Jesse comes face to face with the large orca before ultimately getting caught by the police. Dwight informs him that his new foster parents Glen and Annie Greenwood would be happy to take him in. Jesse, who hopes to be reunited with his mother, begrudgingly goes to live with them.

In lieu of being sent to juvenile hall, Jesse is allowed to make up for his vandalism by cleaning and repainting the observation area. He forms a bond with the orca, named Willy, when he takes a liking to Jesse’s harmonica playing. With probation ending, and his job completed, Jesse sneaks out of the house to visit Willy, and accidentally falls in the tank. He nearly drowns but Willy saves the boy and brings him to the surface. Randolph and Rae notice that Jesse is the only human the normally ill-tempered Willy responds to, and eventually Jesse is offered a summer job. He also starts to warm up to the Greenwoods.

Park owner Dial sees the talent Jesse and Willy have together in hopes of finally making money from Willy who has thus far been a costly venture for him. On opening day, however, Willy refuses to perform due to being antagonized. Jesse, unable to get him to do tricks while dealing with pressure from spectators, tearfully storms off and plans to find his mother. Willy cracks the tank with his stress-induced rage, having had enough of the children's constant banging. That night, a disillusioned Jesse sneaks out to stop by the tank to say goodbye to Willy. Before leaving, something responds to Willy's crying noises again. Jesse follows the responses and realizes Willy is communicating with his family. The discovery is interrupted when park manager Wade and some colleagues sneak into the observation area to deliberately damage the spot where Willy smashed the tank that the water will gradually leak out.

Randolph explains to Jesse that Dial plans to kill Willy and collect the million-dollar insurance. Jesse hatches a plan to return him to the ocean, with Randolph and Rae joining in. They use a forklift to transport Willy onto a truck stolen from Glen. As the insurance policy doesn't cover theft, Dial launches a search when he is informed by Wade about the missing orca. Jesse, Randolph, and Rae try to stay on the back roads to avoid being spotted, but when the truck gets stuck in the mud, Jesse uses the truck’s CB radio to call Glen and Annie for help. The Greenwoods arrive and Glen is at first reluctant to assist with the plan, but relents when Jesse pleads with him. Glen drives the truck to Dawson’s Marina, where Dial, Wade and their men have assembled at the gates to stop them. Glen smashes through the gate, turns the truck around and backs Willy into the water.

After a struggle with Dial's men and Wade, Willy manages to swim away. However, two of Dial's whaling ships seal off the marina. Jesse runs toward the breakwater and encourages Willy to follow him and jump over. On the breakwater, Jesse recites a Haida prayer Randolph had taught him through the story of Natselane, before giving Willy the signal to jump. Willy makes the jump over and lands in the ocean on the other side, free to return to his family, while a dismayed Dial and Wade can only watch. Jesse thanks and hugs Glen and Annie as Willy calls out to Jesse in the distance.


  • Jason James Richter as Jesse, a 12-year old orphan
  • Lori Petty as Rae Lindley, Northwest Adventure Park trainer, Willy's veterinarian and aspiring marine biologist
  • August Schellenberg as Randolph Johnson, Willy's Haida caretaker
  • Jayne Atkinson as Annie Greenwood, a teacher, Jesse's foster mom and Glen's wife
  • Michael Madsen as Glen Greenwood, Greenwood Auto Repairs founder and owner, Jesse's foster dad and Annie's husband
  • Michael Ironside as Dial, the greedy owner of Northwest Adventure Park
  • Richard Riehle as Wade, Northwest Adventure Park general manager
  • Mykelti Williamson as Dwight Mercer, Jesse's social worker
  • Michael Bacall as Perry, a runaway orphan who also hangs with other street kids and works alongside a criminal
  • Danielle Harris as Gwenie, a runaway orphan
  • Isaiah Malone as Vector, a runaway orphan
  • Tom Lasswell as Brody, a truck stop employee who reveals to the Greenwoods that he saw Glen's stolen pickup carrying Willy
  • Keiko as Willy, a captive 12-year old orca whom Jesse befriends

Then-Astoria mayor Willis Van Dusen made a cameo appearance as a fish vendor. Jim Michaels was the announcer for the Northwest Adventure Park's aquatic theater. Additionally, Moultrie Patten and Ed Murphy play two homeless men at the car wash station where the former makes a compliment to Randolph after seeing Willy getting sprayed. Debbie Derryberry was a stunt double for Jason James Richter in some scenes including Willy saving Jesse.



The project first originated in 1984 when Keith A. Walker conceived of the story while working on The Goonies with the film's director Richard Donner, who would eventually serve as one of the executive producers for Free Willy. In the original script, the character of Jesse was a mute 10-year-old boy living with nuns.[3] Donner and his wife, producer Lauren Schuler Donner, hired screenwriter Corey Blechman to update the script and to make it less sentimental, including making Jesse older and into a street tough-type.[3]


Filmmakers searched throughout the U.S., Japan, France, Spain, and Argentina for an orca to portray Willy before settling on Keiko, a twelve-year-old orca that had been residing at Reino Aventura amusement park in Mexico City since 1985.[4] The production team was able to film Keiko in the park while it underwent renovations from May and June 1992.[4] A wooden backdrop was used to make the Reino Aventura aquatic arena appear as if it was located in the Pacific Northwest.[4] Once filming concluded in Mexico City, production moved to Oregon and Washington for location shooting. Oregon locations featured in the film include Ecola State Park, Oregon Convention Center, Pioneer Courthouse Square, Morrison Bridge, 14th Street Pier, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Burnside Skatepark and Oaks Amusement Park. The climactic jump scene takes place at the Hammond Marina in Warrenton where a rocket launcher was used to shoot the Willy animatronic out of the shoot.[4] The final scene along with the opening and end credits wildlife montages were shot by Bob Talbot.

Most close-up shots involving limited movement by Willy, such as when he is in the trailer and the sequences involving him 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.[5] The most extensive use of CGI in the film is the climax where Willy jumps over Jesse and into the wild. All stunts with Keiko were performed by the young orca trainer Justin Sherbert (known additionally by his stage name, Justin Sherman).

Principal photography took place from May 18 to August 17, 1992.[4]


Box office performance[edit]

The film was released alongside Hocus Pocus and Benefit of the Doubt on July 16, 1993, and grossed $7,868,829 domestically in its opening weekend.[2] It went on to make $76 million in its foreign release and $11,181 from the 2021 re-release in some domestic markets, bringing the film's gross to $153,709,806.[2] Upon its initial release, Free Willy ranked number 5 behind Hocus Pocus plus holdovers from Jurassic Park, In the Line of Fire and The Firm at the box office before moving to number 4 by the following weekend and it stayed there for two more weeks. Afterward, its rank in the box office began to gradually decline, with the exception of a three-day weekend (September 3 to 6), in which gross revenue increased by 33.6%.[2]

Critical response[edit]

The film has received positive reviews from critics. The Rotten Tomatoes website reported that 71% of critics have given the film a fresh rating based on 31 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6/10.[6] The site's critics consensus reads: "Free Willy tugs at the heartstrings skillfully enough to leap above the rising tide of sentimentality that threatens to drown its formulaic family-friendly story".[6] The film on Metacritic has a weighted average score of 79 out of 100, indicating "generally favorable reviews" from 14 reviews.[7] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.[8]


Award Date Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref.
Youth in Film Awards February 5, 1994 Best Youth Actor Leading Role in a Motion Picture: Drama Jason James Richter Won1 [9]
Outstanding Family Motion Picture: Drama Free Willy Won
Kids' Choice Awards May 7, 1994 Favorite Film Free Willy Nominated [10]
Favorite Movie Actress Lori Petty Nominated
MTV Movie Awards June 4, 1994 Breakthrough Performance Jason James Richter Nominated [11]
Best Kiss Jason James Richter and Willy Nominated
Best Song From a Movie "Will You Be There" by Michael Jackson Won
BMI Film & TV Awards 1994 BMI Film Music Basil Poledouris Won [12]
Environmental Media Awards 1994 Feature Film Free Willy Won [13]
Genesis Awards 1994 Feature Film Free Willy Won [14]
Golden Screen Awards 1994 Golden Screen Free Willy Won
  • ^1 — Tied with Edward Furlong for A Home of Our Own.

Home media[edit]

Free Willy sold almost 9 million units on videocassette following its release in December 11, 1993.[15][16] The original VHS, 10th Anniversary DVD, and Blu-ray releases also had a music video of the Michael Jackson song, "Will You Be There".


Free Willy: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
various artists
Released1993 (1993)
ProducerJoel Sill
Gary LeMel
Jerry Greenberg
Singles from Free Willy: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  1. "Will You Be There"
    Released: June 28, 1993
  2. "Right Here (Human Nature Remix)"
    Released: July 10, 1993
Professional ratings
Review scores

The Free Willy movie soundtrack was released on July 13, 1993, on CD and audio cassette by MJJ Music and LaFace Records in association with the Epic Records sub-label Epic Soundtrax.[18] It contained all the songs that were featured in the film. Michael Jackson wrote, produced and performed "Will You Be There", originally taken from his 1991 album Dangerous, which can be heard during the end credits. The single version, under the title "Will You Be There (Reprise)", is also included. The song went on to become a top 10 hit in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and was certified platinum as well as winning the 1994 MTV Movie Award for Best Song from a Movie. A remix of SWV's 1992 song "Right Here", which contained a sample of Jackson's "Human Nature", became the group's highest charted single to date and the second biggest hit off the soundtrack when it also landed in the Hot 100 chart at No. 2. New Kids on the Block recorded their first song since they briefly changed their name to NKOTB.[19]

Track listing[edit]

1."Will You Be There (Theme from Free Willy)"Michael JacksonMichael Jackson5:53
2."Keep on Smilin'"
3."Didn't Mean to Hurt You"3T5:47
4."Right Here" (Human Nature Remix)SWV3:50
5."How Can You Leave Me Now"Paul FrazierFunky Poets5:43
6."Main Title" Basil Poledouris5:07
7."Connection" Basil Poledouris1:44
8."The Gifts" Basil Poledouris5:19
9."Friends Montage" Basil Poledouris3:40
10."Auditon" Basil Poledouris2:04
11."Farewell Suite
  • a. "Jessie Says Goodbye" – 3:37
  • b. "Let's Free Willy!" – 3:35
  • c. "Return to Freedom" – 4:49"
 Basil Poledouris12:01
12."Will You Be There" (Reprise)Michael JacksonMichael Jackson3:42
Total length:59:26


The aquatic star of the 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". Warner Bros. was so grateful for the whale, and so moved by the fan's ambition, they contributed to rehabilitate and (if possible) free Keiko. He 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.[20] In 1998, Keiko was moved to Iceland via a US Air Force C-17 to learn to live in the wild. After working with handlers, he was released from a sea pen in the summer of 2002 and swam to Norway following a pod of wild orcas.[21]

His subsequent return to humans for food and for company, and his inability to integrate with a pod of orcas confirms that the project had failed according to a scientific study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science (July 2009).[22][21] Keiko eventually died of pneumonia exacerbated by a deformed fin in a Norwegian bay on December 12, 2003.

A decade later in 2013, a New York Times video reviewed Keiko's release into the wild.[23] Reasons cited for Keiko's failure to adapt include his early age at capture, the long history of captivity, prolonged lack of contact with other orcas, and strong bonds with humans.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Free Willy". The Numbers. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 24, 2022.
  3. ^ a b Thompson, Anne (July 30, 1993). "Free Willy: Sleeper hit". Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Free Willy (1993)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  5. ^ Rickitt, Richard (2006). Designing Movie Creatures and Characters: Behind the Scenes With the Movie Masters. Focal Press. pp. 161–65. ISBN 978-0-240-80846-8.
  6. ^ a b "Free Willy (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 4, 2021.
  7. ^ "Free Willy Reviews". Metacritic. Archived from the original on September 22, 2020. Retrieved August 8, 2020.
  8. ^ "Home". CinemaScore. Retrieved October 18, 2022.
  9. ^ "15th Annual Youth In Film Awards". Archived from the original on April 3, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2020.
  10. ^ "It's time for Kids' choice T.V. awards". Associated Press. April 27, 1994. Retrieved July 8, 2023 – via The Victoria Advocate.
  11. ^ "1994 Movie Awards". MTV. Archived from the original on April 23, 2008. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  12. ^ "BMI Gives Awards for Television, Music". Billboard. Vol. 106, no. 22. May 28, 1994. p. 72. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  13. ^ "EMA Awards - Past Recipients and Honorees". Environmental Media Association. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  14. ^ "Genesis Awards go to 'Free Willy,' TV shows". UPI. March 2, 1994. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  15. ^ "WB pushes 'Willy 2' vid". Variety. September 4, 1995. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  16. ^ "Top Video Sales For Week Ending December 11, 1993" (PDF). Billboard. December 11, 1993. p. 121. Retrieved February 5, 2024.
  17. ^ "Free Willy - Original Soundtrack - Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Archived from the original on September 11, 2017. Retrieved September 11, 2017.
  18. ^ "'Willy' music launches MJJ/Epic". Variety. June 10, 1993. Retrieved March 30, 2021.
  19. ^ Young, Sage (August 24, 2016). "What The Whale From 'Free Willy' Taught Us About Orcas, Long Before 'Blackfish' Hit Theaters". Bustle. Archived from the original on September 11, 2017. Retrieved September 11, 2017.
  20. ^ Kurth, Linda Moore (September 11, 2017). Keiko's Story: A Killer Whale Goes Home. Millbrook Press. ISBN 9780761315001. Archived from the original on December 19, 2020. Retrieved September 11, 2017 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ a b "Killer whales: What to do with captive orcas?". BBC News. February 25, 2010. Archived from the original on August 16, 2017. Retrieved September 11, 2017.
  22. ^ Simon, M. (2009). "From captivity to the wild and back: An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale". Marine Mammal Science. 25 (3): 693–705. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2009.00287.x. S2CID 13673341. Archived from the original on September 22, 2017. Retrieved July 6, 2019.
  23. ^ Winerip, Michael (September 16, 2013). "Retro Report: The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed" (video (11:43)). The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 11, 2015. Retrieved September 17, 2013.
  24. ^ "From captivity to the wild and back: An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on April 4, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2018.

External links[edit]