Free Willy

Free Willy. Le Studio Canal 1993.

Before watching the movie:

This was one of the big cultural moments in my early childhood that I was aware of even as it passed me by. Everyone was talking about Free Willy for some reason. I dimly recall it being on in the same room at one point, but I think it was in the way that one dips in and out of a movie someone else is watching while at a family gathering.

There’s a good movie finding its audience, and then there’s a cultural phenomenon. The latter I can understand for a lavish tentpole movie like Titanic, but this doesn’t seem to be that kind of visual-oriented extravaganza. It kind of looks like it has a similar domestic plot to the original, before the franchise fatigue Air Bud, actually, like if you took all the basketball out of that movie and swapped the dog for an orca, you’d come close to this movie. While cetaceans were popular in the 90s, I would’ve thought that more came out of the popularity of this movie than contributed to it. Well, I guess I’m about to find out.

After watching the movie:

Jesse, a kid abandoned to the foster system six years ago, prefers to escape whatever foster parents he’s been assigned to this time and link up with other delinquent orphans supporting themselves through grift and theft on the street. However, when he and a friend break into a building at Northwest Adventure Park and cover it in graffiti with found spray paint cans, Jesse is distracted by the startling discovery that this building houses an orca whale tank, and when the police arrive, doesn’t get away in time. Instead of juvenile detention, Jesse’s social worker arranges kind foster parents, the Greenwoods, and for the park to not press charges if Jesse cleans the graffiti. While cleaning the paint off the tank, Jesse is fascinated by the whale, approaching him gingerly and in a friendly manner, and finds that his harmonica soothes him. The park staff responsible for “Willy”, his veterinarian and trainer Rae and keeper Randolph, insist that Willy is too surly to let anyone get close, but when Jesse stumbles into the tank, Willy gently helps him to safety. This burgeoning connection leads Randolph to offer Jesse a job helping out for the summer, and Jesse learns that the reason Willy doesn’t like anyone is that he was stolen from his family in the wild much later in life than is considered ethical and is being kept in a tank much too small for his needs by the park owner, Dial, a businessman who refuses to spend any more money on Willy until he becomes the big attraction he expected him to be by doing a whale trick show. The friendship between boy and whale gives Jesse the ability to teach Willy tricks that Rae lacked the rapport to begin on, and with Rae’s help, Jesse and Willy begin to create the show that could be Willy’s ticket to better conditions. But Dial, increasingly frustrated with Willy’s noncompliance losing him money, is starting to think that Willy would be worth more to him dead thanks to his million dollar insurance policy.

This movie is unequivocally about a capital-holder abusing everyone his money puts under his control, and the failure of working within the system to rectify that situation. Dial only values the people and animals in his park to the extent that they can make him money, and refuses to care enough to do the right thing even when the experts who work for him tell him that Willy would be more disposed to be what he wants him to be if he improved Willy’s life first. Ultimately, Willy cannot be helped within the rules set by the abuser, and his support team has to take direct action, something that’s satisfying to watch, but I’m very concerned about the legal consequences that they’ll face afterward. The movie treats it like once Dial is thwarted, he’s completely defeated, but he seems to still hold most of the cards he did before. There are two sequels to this movie, but I doubt Free Willy 2 is about how they escape Dial suing them into oblivion for theft of his property.

This seems to be one of the rare stories where the foster system works roughly as intended. Jesse seems to have had a lot of bad experiences in the last six years, as have the other street urchins he works with, but we don’t see any of that in action, we just see Jesse, disillusioned and clinging to the hope that his mother will come back for him, acting out against a really nice and supportive couple who only get negative because of how much Jesse tests them. Jesse starts out learning to trust them, but they only have to come around to trust him because he’s spent the entire movie demonstrating that he doesn’t want to be there.

It was probably the hype, but as a feel-good family drama, this doesn’t seem especially life-changing. The most inspiring part, the most iconic moment, is literally the last sequence of the movie. Where I was expecting a story about turning popular opinion toward saving Willy, the Public only makes Willy’s situation worse. It’s just about boy and whale forming a bond stronger than the demands of the world they find themselves trapped in. The most moving part was the Michael Jackson song that played on the end credits.

This is probably still a very meaningful movie for kids watching it at an early age, but it feels a lot like the world has moved on from what was a more complicated, abstract problem at the time. Also Randolph’s Indian background feels a little tacked on because Native American mysticism was trendy at the time, especially for environmentally conscious media. I think maybe I might like this story better as a novel with more room for depth and nuance than a movie, and it’s almost detailed enough that I’m surprised the story is original to the movie. I missed out on connecting with this movie as a child (though it seems like it would’ve bored me as a child), and now as an adult viewer I find it lacking. But it also seems like a great movie to teach kids about worldly realities and ethical ideals.

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