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‘Free Willy’ (G)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 16, 1993

It sounds like it won't add up to much -- a boy, a whale and a G-rated movie. But "Free Willy" is a sweet, floundering splash of joy, with all the emotions you could ask for in a children's movie. This is the one to take your kids -- and yourself -- to.

The central love affair -- between 95-pound Jesse and 3 1/2-ton Willy -- takes place at a Seattle water park. Jesse (Jason James Richter) is a 12-year-old wandering waif constantly in trouble with the cops for petty crimes. Under his unruly sullen exterior burns a candle of hope that the mother who dumped him on a doorstep will return.

But until that time, he intends to hang with his fellow Lost Boys and resist all friendly overtures by grown-ups. His life changes one night when he's busted for breaking into the Northwest Adventure Park and spraying graffiti on the side of a glass and metal structure.

Turns out it's a holding tank for an enormous 22-foot long killer whale (hey, that's orca whale, politically incorrect breath) called Willy. He's a big, scary mammal and the kid is initially terrified. But Jesse, forced by the authorities to wash off his handiwork, becomes drawn to the waterbound animal, much more drawn than he is to people. They're both wild souls, resentful of captivity and doggedly unwilling to cooperate with their handlers.

Jesse has his share of them, including volunteer big-brother Dwight (Mykelti Williamson), who seems to give him finger-wagging advice every day. Now, because of the spraying escapade, he's been dispatched to live with car mechanic Glen (Michael Madsen) and teacher-wife Annie (Jayne Atkinson). They're extremely nice. They ply him with presents. They give him a room with a view. But they want him home by 7, in bed by 10, and they'd appreciate a little love and respect. It's out of the question.

Jesse gets a break when kindly Native American caretaker Randolph (August Schellenberg) offers him steady work at the water park. Now Jesse can see -- and work with -- his newfound pal every day. As trainer Rae (Lori Petty) watches open-mouthed, he makes speedy headway with the big fella. He steals Willy's preferred fish from the local market, pats his snout and before you can say "transitional sequence," he's getting Willy to do fin high fives, turn somersaults and even flop out of the water onto a platform.

Meanwhile, the scheming park owners (Michael Ironside and Richard Riehle) watch this developing relationship closely. Willy's going to be useful to them one way or another -- either as a crowd attraction or (with a little underhanded tampering) as an insurance claim.

On one level, "Willy," scripted by Corey Blechman and Keith A. Walker, and directed by Simon Wincer, is your basic boy-and-his-dog scenario, with a child-versus-grown-up subplot thrown in. But it has greater dimension than that. A sort of "Turtle Diary" for young 'uns, it focuses strongly on human relationships. There are extremely touching moments between Jesse and mystical Randolph, who seems to understand just about everything; and, more tellingly, between Jesse and mechanic Jim.

In the latter role, Madsen is the movie's best surprise. A dangerously good actor, with even greater performances to come, he turns a potentially thankless role -- the parent in a kid's movie -- into something deeply affecting. In "Willy," he's like a young Robert Mitchum: detached yet sensitive, deadpan but acutely attuned. You dream of a Dad this cool.

The undeniable main attraction, of course, is the Willy-Jesse affair. Willy, whose real name is Keiko, is a great big, pattable, fish-feedable lug, with a fin that curls to one side like a cowlick. He wags his tongue, plays peek-a-boo with Jesse and, in the movie's most touching moments, makes eerie, plaintive noises for freedom. It's the kind of noise ancient sailors would have mistaken for crying mermaids. Thanks to this watery fantasy, those cries are heeded. From the very beginning (and notwithstanding the giveaway title), you just know Willy's going back home.

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