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Film / Free Willy

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A 12-year-old street kid. A 3-ton killer whale. A friendship you could never imagine. An adventure you'll never forget.

Homer: Jump, Free Willy! Jump! Jump with all your might!
Woman on TV: Oh, no! Willy didn't make it! And he crushed our boy!
Man on TV: Eugh. What a mess.
Homer: Ohhhh. I don't like this new director's cut.

Free Willy is a 1993 family drama, directed by Simon Wincer, about a boy and his orca whale.

Jesse (Jason James Richter) is a young boy caught vandalizing a marine theme park. His social worker manages to find a way that he can escape punishment, by helping out at the underwater attraction. Over time he befriends Willy, an orca whale kept in the park after being captured and taken away from his family.

Dial (Michael Ironside), the owner of the park, sees the bond between Jesse and Willy and plans on making a show of those two together. It turns out that Dial is greedy and has evil ulterior motives for the orca. Jesse and his friends are determined to find some way to save Willy from his impending death (you can kinda guess how from the title).

At the time, the movie was subject to frequent parody (especially its climax). A movement to "Free Keiko", the animal actor of the movie also was brought about by it.


Even so, the film managed to spawn three sequels: Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995), Free Willy 3: The Rescue (1997) and a non-canon reboot, Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove (2010) with Bindi Irwin in the leading role. There was also, believe it or not, an animated adaptation of the series produced by Nelvana that ran on ABC in the 1995-96 season, and a really weird one at that.

Tropes used by the film:

  • A Boy and His X: A Boy and His Whale
  • Adults Are Useless: Just where were the adults supervising those noisy children in the underwater observation area, when they were screaming and banging on the glass, causing Willy to freak out?
    • On the other hand, when Jesse sees that Willy's tank has been sabotaged, he immediately runs to Randolph for help, knowing he can't deal with this alone.
      • Trainer Rae acquits herself well during the climax, too.
    • Jesse initially sees his foster parents and caseworker as this, but they're actually an aversion, as they care about him and want what's best for him; Jesse is just an angry kid and (somewhat understandably) has trouble trusting adult authority figures.
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  • Animated Adaptation: As stated before, this one was very strange even by the standards of 90's animated adaptations. Let's see, Jesse turns out to be a "Truth-Talker", there's a Lost World-style island where (supposedly) recently extinct Arctic animals (ie. Wooly Mammoths) thrive in secret, and, well... there's an antagonistic character called "The Machine". He is a cyborg who lives in a big techno-submarine underwater and wants to wreck the environment, but has a huge grudge against Willy; in his Corrupt Corporate Executive identity of Rockland Stone, Willy had interfered with his first submarine and hurled him into a propeller, forcing the cyborg implants onto him to keep him alive. No, this was real; you can see him at around the 18 second mark in the opening credits. Because why not replace the "let's keep Willy away from humans who want to mistreat him" conflict from the films with "there's an underwater G.I. Joe-reject villain who hates Willy and wants to destroy him, Jesse, the environment and the last enclave of Ice Age megafauna"?
  • Award-Bait Song: By Michael Jackson! Will You Be There was one of his most significant hits in the 1990's.
  • Big Bad: Dial, owner of the park that imprisoned the titular orca Willy who plots to kill him to collect the insurance money for himself.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Perry, the oldest of the street kids in Jesse's gang.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Willy is finally free to be with his family, having outwitted Dial and the whalers. However it quickly dawns on Jesse that it could be ages before he ever sees his best friend again. It is indeed a very sad goodbye for the two of them. Thankfully, the two of them now both have a place they can finally call home.
  • Brutal Honesty: Jesse desperately clings to the belief that his mother will one day return to him. When the Willy Show is a disaster and he threatens to run away yet again out of anger, Dwight lays it hard into him that his mother is never coming back, and to walk out on the couple who have been the first true parents he's ever had in his troubled life would be a mistake he can't afford to make. Jesse tells him to "shut up" and leave him alone.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Smart idea to bang on Willy's tank, kids! It's not like he'll do anything to scare you off.
  • Captivity Harmonica: Jesse plays harmonica. Played with in that as a youth he's obviously not in jail (or if he would be it would be in juvie), but is placed with a foster family that he initially rejects and forced to work at a water park to make up for earlier vandalism. The sounds attract the killer whale he ends up befriending.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Elvis was telling the truth about learning karate.
  • Clueless Aesop: The whole notion of freeing an animal who was forcefully taken out of his environment and separated from his family to live a life in captivity doesn't exactly work out too well when one remembers that this film was made possible by using an animal who actually was forcefully taken out of his environment and forced to live a life in captivity (although animatronics were used for scenes where Willy was actually in danger). Producers likely realised this as animatronic whales were used for the sequels. Also, releasing a captive animal to the wild is potentially dangerous because they haven't learned the necessary survival skills, and indeed, Willy's actor Keiko died several years after being released, never fully being free of human contact and assistance. While he could feed himself he always sought out humans and didn't join any nearby pods. The film does handwave this a bit early in the film when Rae says Willy was captured at "too old" of an age to be trained, implying he knows how to survive in the wild.
  • Commonality Connection: Willy misses his orca family in the wild, just like Jesse misses his mom.
  • Cool Car: Glen's Chevy pickup truck from the first film; Dial also drives a corvette.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Dial in the first movie.
    • And The Machine's alter-ego, Rockland Stone.
  • Darker and Edgier: The third movie. Willy actually nearly kill one of the whalers that was hunting his mate.
  • Death Glare: Dial's default expression; after all, this IS Michael Ironside we're talking about.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Jesse, who suffers from abandonment issues, is initially cold and indifferent towards both his foster parents and his employers at the water park. He eventually comes around though, especially with Willy's help and starts adapting more comfortably into his new life.
  • Didn't Think This Through: A justified example. Jesse, Randolph and Rae can't stop to properly form a plan to free Willy as his tank is too badly damaged (and actually breaks completely as they are removing him). As a result, they run into many obstacles, such as not having a proper vehicle to tow Willy (resulting in them stealing Glen's truck) and blocked roads.
  • Dramatic Shattering: Jessie throws a baseball (Glen and Annie's present for him) at his bedroom window because they were arguing over him. Especially when Glen said he was happy when it was just the two of them.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Both Willy and Jesse, who have both lost their families under especially tragic circumstances. Willy endures the constant abuse and neglect of Dial after being forced into captivity by a group of whalers, and because he's not drawing in the crowds is left to fend for himself in a tank that was not designed to support a mammal of his size. Meanwhile Jesse is having constant run-ins with the law and suffers from a crippling case of Parental Abandonment, and struggles to trust others after a lifetime on the run. It's only after the two of them cross paths that they find some solace in their difficult situation, and when Willy's life is threatened Jesse spares no expense to make sure his friend lives to find freedom again.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Jesse spots Willy's family in the distance from atop the water park, and it's this revelation that prompts him to abandon his grudge against Willy and to set him free when he realizes Dial intends to have him killed.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Jesse, as it's shown with his kindness towards animals, fish and marine life, especially Willy.
  • Happily Adopted: It's not quite official, since Jesse is technically still a foster kid rather than legally adopted, but by the end of the first movie, he's come to accept Glen and Annie as parental figures and Glen who was reluctant to adopt him calls him "my boy"; in the second movie, it's shown that Glen keeps a family photo in his wallet that includes Jesse. The end of the second film also suggests that Glen and Annie are prepared to take in Elvis long-term as well so that he and Jesse can stay together, but the third film (in which Glen and Annie don't appear) doesn't give any indication of what happened with that — in fact, Elvis is never mentioned.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Free Willy. Um... (It is funny because Willy means 'penis.')
  • Hope Spot: Jesse finally gets Willy to perform effectively for the park owners; they're impressed enough to give Willy his own show to help rake in new business for the park, which Jesse and his friends hope will mean giving Willy a better life in the long run. It sadly doesn't last though when the show goes awry and the tank is damaged in the confusion that follows.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Subverted. The only human who's really a jerk is Dial. Oh, and the whalers who captured Willy in the first place and, to a lesser degree, the kids who beat on the walls of Willy's tank.
    • The Machine and the humans who do his dirty work for him in the cartoon.
    • On the other hand, in Real Life the movie title has often been used as an insult to fat kids everywhere.
  • Humiliation Conga: Of the undeserved variety, and Played for Drama. Jesse suffers a huge one when the Willy Show goes awry due to Willy refusing to perform. After having trained relentlessly and assuring Dial that they could make the show a real success (and in turn earn the money to help Willy), the whale is too agitated by the banging on his tank by the kids down below to respond to Jesse's calls. The audience then begins clapping not to applaud them, but to hurry them up. The claps turn to boos and Jesse rushes off the set in tears, and leaves the park feeling betrayed.
  • I Choose to Stay: Jesse has mixed feelings about his living situation, but he comes to care for his friends and foster family enough to decline fellow Delinquent Perry's offer to run off to L.A. together. Later, he almost decides to go to California after all, but relents due to the sad sounds Willy makes.
  • I Know Kung-Fu: Elvis tells Jesse he knows karate. Jesse assumes it's another lie, but it's revealed to be true when Elvis karate kicks one of the whalers in the butt.
  • I Was Named "My Name": Averted by The Book of the Film, in which it's revealed that Willy's "orca name" is Three Spots (referencing the dots under his chin), and the name change is listed among the many ways that life in an aquarium is highly confusing and frightening.
  • In Name Only: The Bindi Irwin movie.
  • Insurance Fraud: The reason Dial wants to kill Willy is for his million dollar insurance. In fact, Dial would have let Willy be rescued at the end if the insurance covered "theft".
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Jesse finds himself under the wing of Randolph, an older man who works as Willy's keeper.
  • Jump Scare: At the start of the film when Jesse vandalizes the observation area, a flash of lightning greets him face to face with Willy's jaws.
  • Karma Houdini: All four movies have the heroes do things that would either get them arrested or sued in order to save Willy and/or other whales from humans that would harm them, but never do they get in trouble with the law.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The kids in the observation area banging on Willy's tank; while most probably did not know the stress they were actually causing him, some did seem to take a little too much pleasure in slamming the glass to get his attention.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The crowd of kids in the observation area, whose relentless banging on the glass causes Willy a great deal of stress and ruins the show; it becomes so much that Willy ends up slamming the glass, scaring everybody out.
  • Magical Native American: Largely averted by Randolph, who shares some Native stories about orcas with Jesse, but has much more to do in the story.
  • Missing Mom: Jesse was abandoned by his mother when he was only six, which informs much of his character and why he bonds with a six-ton whale.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: During an argument, Annie thinks Glen is having a hard time with Jessie is because of how much he reminded Glen of himself.
  • Only in It for the Money: Dial, the aquarium owner, only sees Willy as one of two things: a financial asset when he performs and a financial liability when he doesn't. To this end, he sabotages Willy's tank so he can collect on Willy's $1 million insurance policy. In fact, when Jesse, Randolph, and Rae abscond with Willy in order to reunite him with his family, the only reason Dial even bothers trying to get him back is because the policy doesn't cover theft.
  • Obviously Evil: Willy's corrupt owner Dial, seeing the actor who plays him.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Glen, at the end of the first movie.
    • Willy in the second and third movie as well.
  • Parent Service: Rae's sexuality and attractive appearance aren't emphasized, but she wears a sports bra while working at the Aquarium in a few scenes and the outlines of her nipples are briefly visible through her tank top in another.
  • Police Are Useless: Justified case of this, as Randolph refuses to bother as he knows they can do nothing to help Willy, and would probably only slow down their efforts to save him.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Dwight, the social worker. He is forced to be harsh on Jesse due to his constant run-ins with the law, but he is committed to giving Jesse a sporting chance at a better life in spite of his abrasive and reckless nature. After all, Jesse didn't deserve to be abandoned by both his parents.
  • Scenery Porn: Most of the film is set in Portland, Oregon; it spares no expense in showcasing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
    • The first three minutes of the film focuses on scenes of orca whales swimming gracefully along the coast.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: All of the adults who pitch in to save Willy. As brilliantly summed up by Randolph:
    Randolph: I never liked this job anyway!
  • Shown Their Work: As it turns out, Willy's distress at the kids banging on the windows of his tank was quite justified, as the soundwaves amplified by this can cause dangerous degrees of stress in whales.
  • Spoiler Cover: That poster for the 1993 movie pretty much tells you how it's going to turn out.
  • Title Drop: "Let's free Willy!"
  • Too Dumb to Live: The kids in the observation deck who keep banging on the glass as Willy swims by, clearly making him distressed as he is unable to perform. The same goes for the adults, who barely make any effort to get the kids to calm down, which leads to Willy slamming the tank as he becomes agitated. He ends up damaging the tank and everybody rushes out in a panic in fear of it imploding.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Not to mention the poster, the music video, the damn title...seriously, if you're watching this movie for the first time and have any doubt that Willy gets freed, you're as obtuse as hell.
  • Truth in Television: As it turns out, banging on the tank really does cause serious harm to marine mammals like Willy, as it amplifies the sound waves and can create great stress on their senses.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Machine's alter ego before Jesse got proof linking him to weapon smuggling.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The kids who were with Jesse disappeared without the audience knowing what happened to them. Though they briefly met up with Jesse in the middle of the film.

Tropes in the third film:

  • Beware the Nice Ones: This movie marks the first-time that heroic and noble orca Willy unambiguously tries to kill a human, a whaler who has made repeated attempts to kill him.
  • Broken Pedestal: Max has a great relationship with his father in the first few scenes and is excited about his first voyage on the family fishing boat. His sense of respect for his father is badly damaged after the first time he sees him poach a whale.
  • Evil Poacher: The antagonists are fishermen who are illegally killing protected whales and selling them to Japan as sushi. They get a slightly more sympathetic portrayal than usual, as John is a loving Family Man, his crewmen are mostly nice to Tag Along Kid Max, they never try to kill any of the human protagonists, and they eventually get a Heel Realization. Nonetheless, they are brutally killing intelligent mammals in violation of the law and John even acknowledges there's no real purpose to it beyond the money, while his ancestors could at least say and believe that they were lighting up the world by harvesting whale oil for lamps.
  • Heel Realization: John and his whaling crew finally realize that the whales are more than unintelligent "fish" and that hunting them is wrong after Willy saves John's life due to pleas from Jesse and Max even though Willy tried to kill John a couple of minutes earlier.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Captain Drake is in charge of the research vessel Jesse and Randolph are working on and spends most of his time telling them not to do much to stop the whaling because it isn't their job and the research boat is too expensive to risk damaging.
  • Put on a Bus: Glen, Annie, and Elvis don't appear in this film, although the former two are mentioned, as Jesse is living and working away from home during the movie.
  • Shown Their Work: Especially for a movie in 90's, the depiction of Orcas and how they are effected by captivity is pretty accurate. This was also the first bit of media that accurately explained how Willy's collapsed fin is not normal in the wild, which Sea World and other theme parks denied, but is a result of being kept in a small pool. The way Willy reacts to the kids banging on the glass is also very true with orcas and other cetaceans like dolphins.

Alternative Title(s): Free Willy 3 The Rescue, Free Willy Escape From Pirates Cove