Starring: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson
Director: Simon Wincer
Running Time: 112 mins
Free Willy is an American film about a boy who develops a strong bond with a beloved killer whale at an aquarium, but soon pushes to rescue him from his exploitative owners.
Although it’s far from the best family movie you’ll ever see, there is something about Free Willy that makes it a beloved classic. It’s cheesy, a little boring at times and ultimately fairly predictable, but it’s built on a foundation of immense heart, delivering an ultimately inspiring and soaring tale of friendship.
Let’s start on the bright side, with the film’s earnest, passionate and undeniably uplifting tale of friendship between a young boy and a captive killer whale. At its heart, it’s a beautifully pure story, telling the tale of a pair both on the edge in life, being rescued by one another.
And that’s one of the most striking things about Free Willy. It’s a family film, without a doubt, but it’s not just a fluffy, easy-going watch with a young lead and an animal sidekick.
Instead, it’s a film with a little more depth and drama to it. Yes, there are times when it’s cheesy and simplistic, but there’s more to the story than just a cute partnership, rather a tale of self-discovery for a young boy who starts our story off on the edge of society, and a whale’s journey to freedom.
I can’t say that the film’s greater dramatic depth has a great effect, as despite its inspiring and heartwarming feel, Free Willy is never the most emotionally affecting film, only briefly grabbing you in its renowned final stages.
And the reason for that is, despite a tale that offers a lot more than your average family movie, Free Willy is still a fairly simplistic watch. Its narrative depth notwithstanding, the core premise boils down almost entirely to a relationship that – while heartwarming – is far from the most dynamic or engaging.
The killer whale who plays Willy is outstanding, and a far more engaging and memorable on-screen animal presence than most, but there’s not an immense chemistry between him and Jason James Richter in the lead role, meaning that their friendship is never the moving tale it should be.
The film relies heavily on big, dramatic moments to bring its emotional depth and the power of that friendship home, but with weaker drama at its core, those main moments come off in frustratingly cheesy fashion, and do little to really grab you.
So, overall, Free Willy is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s an inspiring and heartwarming tale of friendship that goes further than the basic nature of most family films. On the other hand, it’s still a fairly simplistic watch, with often frustratingly cheesy moments and a lack of great on-screen chemistry. And that’s why I’m giving it a 7.0.