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‘Free Willy’ (G)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 14, 1993

In this dino-obsessed summer, "Free Willy" is for my money the kids' movie of the season. Directed by Simon Wincer from a script by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman, the film has its own beguiling giant -- in this case, a 7,000-pound orca whale named Willy -- and its share of thrills, close calls and just enough uplift to meet the requirements of the genre. But it's more than that.

"Free Willy" is set in the complex, sometimes baffling world that we recognize from our own lives. The hero, for example, isn't an apple-cheeked angel; his name is Jesse (Jason James Richter), and at the beginning of the film he's a street kid, abandoned by his mother, panhandling for spare change, raiding restaurants or knocking off catering trucks for food with his urchin comrades.

One night, after he gets nabbed by the police for a graffiti raid on the whale tank at Northwest Adventure, a Seattle amusement park, he is told that he can either go to juvenile hall or move in with Glen and Annie (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson), his new foster parents.

Both choices make him want to puke. Plus he has to clean up the mess he made at the park. But since his back is against the wall, he decides to shack up with these new folks, at least until he can bust out and find his real mom, who, he keeps hoping, will someday rescue him from all these deadbeats and squares (i.e., grown-ups).

By presenting Jesse as a genuine malcontent -- surly, uncooperative and filled with resentment -- the filmmakers have provided us with the kind of emotional tension that is all too rare in films of this type. Nobody can reach Jesse, least of all his new "jailers," and if something doesn't turn him around soon, he may simply fall between the cracks of the system and become a kind of real-life "lost boy."

This turnabout comes, strangely enough, while he is working off his punishment at the amusement park. It's here that Jesse meets Willy, the 3 1/2-ton whale who's supposed to be the park's star attraction. Instead -- to his money-hungry owner's fast-growing chagrin -- he has locked himself in his dressing room (figuratively speaking, of course) and refuses to take the stage.

Like Jesse, Willy was separated early from his mother, leaving him emotionally damaged and virtually worthless to his greedy owner, who is beginning to think -- what with the insurance and all -- that this whale of a mistake is worth more dead than alive. Willy is also a malcontent, and when Jesse first approaches him, his loving but frustrated trainer, Rae (Lori Petty), warns the boy to keep his distance. "Most orcas are smart and nice," Rae tells Jesse, "but Willy is smart and mean." And so when Jesse accidentally falls into Willy's tank, we have every reason to fear for the worst.

Luckily, "Free Willy" treats its characters as something more than fish bait. Instead of making a meal of Jesse, Willy eases him over to the side of the tank and, instantly, the two become soul mates. At first no one can believe it. But after Willy starts doing tricks for Jesse, becoming the performer the park owners had always hoped he would be, they hire the boy to work with Willy full time, and before long they've worked up quite an act together -- good enough for the owners to smell money.

Though the developing relationship between the boy and his oversize friend is moving and fun to watch, the growing closeness between Jesse and his foster parents is even more satisfying. What a daring -- and perfect -- choice the filmmakers have made in casting Madsen as the father here. (He was Susan Sarandon's boyfriend in "Thelma & Louise" and was last seen slicing off a man's ear in "Reservoir Dogs.") As Glen, Madsen takes a revolutionary approach to parenting, at least for the movies -- he listens to Jesse and talks to him honestly. With his hangdog Elvis eyes and loping, half-drawled line readings, Madsen makes Glen appear effortlessly hip. As movie dads go, he's very laid back, as if perhaps he had a bit of an attitude problem himself when he was Jesse's age.

As Annie, Jayne Atkinson perhaps lays it on a bit thick with the sympathetic looks. But Lori Petty is spunky and bright in the (underwritten) role of Rae, and as the handyman who befriends Jesse, August Schellenberg adds a touch of low-key mysticism.

Glen and Annie have a harder time with Jesse than Jesse has with Willy. And what's great about this uncommon movie relationship is the emphasis it places on the fact that families are made and not born, that they are the products of hard work and compromise and trust that has to be earned. The problems these people face are the problems all of us -- adults and kids alike -- face. For once, we can look at a movie family and not have to wonder, "What's wrong at my house?"

This aspect of "Free Willy" deserves special attention mainly because it is presented with such knowing subtlety and feeling, but it would be a mistake to suggest that the picture is a solemn drama about "family issues." Nor would it be accurate to imply that these human details are dark notes jammed into a feel-good melody. Actually, the film's more serious side is beautifully balanced by the joy we experience as both Jesse and Willy come into their own.

The "freeing" of Willy, too, is handled in such a way that we don't have to give up all self-respect in order to cheer him on. Throughout the picture, Jesse's situation is nicely mirrored by Willy's. When Rae tells Jesse -- who is played with astounding authority by young Richter -- that Willy is a "special case," the boy replies, "Who isn't?" There's reverence for the family here, but not the blind reverence we're used to seeing. And though the film ends on a positive note, it places its conclusions in a realistic context. "Free Willy" suggests that, given half a chance, a full, productive life is possible -- not guaranteed, but possible. And rarely has such a modest suggestion seemed so exhilarating.

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