As a kid, I can't tell you how many times I've seen the film being promoted, referenced, and parodied. I was never really interested in seeing the movie; in fact, I actually had it on VHS. However, now that I've reached adulthood, I'm now wondering if it is as good as people say it is, or if it's just overrated? Well, join me as I review "Free Willy", after seeing it for the first time.
A young boy named Jesse (Jason James Ritcher) is a trouble making kid who was abandoned by his Mother a few years back, and has to live with Foster Parents that love him, but sadly he doesn't and is hoping that his Mother will return someday. Due to his vandalizing crimes, he has to perform community service in a theme park by cleaning up the graffiti on the Whale’s Tank. While cleaning the tank, Jesse befriends a Whale named Willy.
Oh, I so wish it was that Whale!
While Jesse and the Whale, give a good performance, the rest of the supporting actors are very bland and forgettable. I honestly can't find a single performer in this movie that do just as good of a job as our two leads, nor can I find anything interesting about their character. Even their dramatic moments (Along with our two stars) feel really phoned-in, instead of feeling depressing. The nworker who knows a lot about Whales played by August Schellenberg bores me; the women who trains the sea animals played by Lori Petty is so forgettable, that I hardly remember her performance and character after viewing the movie; the kids social worker played by Mykelti Williamson is a cardboard cut out of a person in high authority that tries to help the lead, with nothing interesting or new about the character or performance; and the evil greedy business men who run the park, are cliche, boring, and forgettable. You also have Jesse's Foster parents that try to reach out to him, which you know our lead will eventually reach out to them. While they too are just as fascinating as the supporting cast, my main attention out of these two characters went to Michael Madsen as the Foster Father. Now, I'm sure Michael Madsen is a great guy and a loving Father in real life; but here, after constantly seeing him as a tough bad guy throughout his film career, it's really hard for me to separate his tough and intimidating approach as a Foster Father who's trying to connect to a kid. Whenever the kid does something bad, or says something mean to him, I expect him to either curse the kid out by dropping a bunch of F-Bombs, or simply beating or slapping the crap out of him. That scene when Jesse breaks his bedroom window, or when he steals his truck, I'm expecting him to do something extremely brutal to him, which is odd since when he was filming the famous torture scene in "Reservoir Dogs", not only was he reluctant from doing it because of how violent it was, but it was also the fact that the person he was torturing had a kid, which he at the time just became a Father. Even Madsen himself says "The oddest thing is when children recognize me from "Free Willy" and their parents recognize me from "Reservoir Dogs". The kids are, like, "There's Glen!" and the parents are, like, "Don't go near that guy!"". Again, I'm sure he's a nice guy, but I'm sorry, no matter how hard I try when I see him as this character, I can't let go of seeing him as his old tough guy self. In the words of Madsen himself, he is indeed "a leading man trapped inside a bad guy's body".
The film itself, aside from a few cute scenes between Willy and Jesse, it does have a few things going for it. The cinematography is good, and does at times look artsy. The music, while not too memorable, is still nice. I think the best scenes that where the cinematography and the music blend perfectly together are the scenes with Willy and his Family swimming together, as we hear the theme song in the opening; and hear "Will You Be There" by Michael Jackson during the end credits. Those scenes in my opinion are the best scenes in the movie. As for the climax when our heroes try to "free Willy", it wasn't as thrilling or exciting as I hoped it would be. The only huge obstacles they come across is a tree, nothing more. There's no chase or anything to hold you on the edge of your seat. There's a moment when they go inside a Car Wash to hose Willy down, but that's it. When Willy is finally in the water, we of course, go to the film's iconic scene that's been referenced and parodied countless times, and despite the fact that Willy could have jumped over the nets, instead of 7 feet of rocks; it's still a cool scene. Seeing Willy leap out of the water; to seeing a cool slow-mo shot of the kid underneath Willy, is both awesome and very uplifting. Buuuut with that said, when we see the Whale diving into the water, the CGI for the Whale is so phony and cartoony looking, that this epic and iconic scene, leads to easily the worst effect in the whole entire movie.
So after finally seeing "Free Willy" for the first time, is this something that I regret not seeing during childhood? My answer to that is no. The plot is cliched and predictable; the drama in the film is for the most part as I said, very corny and forced; and the characters are boring and uninteresting. However, I don't think the film is bad, because the relationship between the kid and the Whale for the majority of the film is cute; the non-CGI Whale is very well trained; and the music and cinematography are really nice and atmospheric at times. If you want to know the truth, what really interest me the most in the film, wasn't the kid's relationship with the Whale, it was actually the first time we met the kid as he's running away from the cops; conning people for money; stealing food; causing mischief; carrying around his trusty Harmonica; and hanging with his buds by a skate park. I seriously wished the film was more about this kid running away from his Foster Family, to find his Mother, which he eventually learns the sad truth, hates the way he's living, and goes back home to his new family. Yeah, that plot is quite cliched too, but the way the film executed the scenes with the kid running away in the opening, seemed more fun and engaging, than a kid befriending a Whale. Again, its not a bad movie, I just don't find it to be as good as people build it up to be, and if you love it that's fine. Personally if I want to see a film about a Whale named Willy, that's fun, emotional, and nostalgic, I'll watch the short Disney cartoon "The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met".