The first flick I ever actually pushed to go and see at the cinema, I remember my parents being less that excited to take their little chap to a showing of the so-called 'whale movie'. Yet – like every other audience member – upon exiting, their eyes were far from dry.
Directed by Simon Wincer and produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Jennie Lew Tugend, Free Willy was one of the definitive family flicks of the 1990s – standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jumanji, Mrs Doubtfire, and a plethora of other Robin Williams gems. It almost feels wrong, in fact, that the late, great powerhouse had nothing to do with this one.
Released in 1993, Free Willy starred Jason James Richter in his feature film debut, along with Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg, Michael Ironside and Michael Madsen. Famously, this flick follows the tale of a troubled young lad from the wrong side of the tracks (Richter) who befriends a captive orca whale – Willy – at a struggling amusement park. When he discovers that the park's owners plan to dispose of Willy and cash in the insurance, a scheme is hatched to save him.
With a complete unknown front and centre, anticipation was high as to how this one would do. But with one of nature's most incredible creatures in the true spotlight, could Free Willy yield some whale-sized bank at the box office?
Street kid Jesse (Richter) has a grudge against the world after he was abandoned by his mother, and frequently runs afoul of the law. After he is caught vandalising a local marine adventure park, Jesse is given a chance to avoid time at juvenile hall by cleaning and painting the park's observation area. Here, he makes a very unlikely friend.
Orca whale Willy is drawn to Jesse's harmonica playing and the pair of ill-tempered outcasts quickly form a strong bond. Noticing their growing connection, park trainer Rae (Petty) and caretaker Randolph (Schellenberg) offer Jesse a summer job helping to train Willy, whose owner Dial (Ironside) may be persuaded to improve the whale's conditions if he starts to draw in a crowd with performances.
Though Willy's training goes well, a disappointing show leads the greedy Dial to re-think Willy's future. When Jesse comes to realize his new pal's life is in danger, he vows to stop at nothing to get him back to the ocean where he belongs. But will the heart of this young boy be enough to save his friend?
A summer blockbuster in a year that also included the release of Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Sleepless In Seattle and The Fugitive, Free Willy was praised by critics and was a commercial success, grossing $153.7 million from a $20 million budget.
The film gave birth to a franchise that including an animated TV series, two direct sequels and a direct-to-video reboot. More importantly, it inspired the rehabilitation and release of Keiko – the whale that had starred as Willy in the film.
With a strong performance from Richter as the likable and quite believable Jesse, along with a typically dastardly turn from Ironside, Free Willy will forever hold a place on the cinematic altar of anyone born in the 80s.
Contrary to what a certain Mr Spielberg once suggested, sometimes it is safe to go back in the water.