If you were born, as I was, in the mid-80s, perhaps you will recollect this nugget of pure cinematic gold: Free Willy. It was released in 1993, the same year as The Sandlot, Cool Runnings, Groundhog Day, Hocus Pocus, Homeward Bound, Jurassic Park, Look Who’s Talking Now, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Once Upon a Forest, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, Surf Ninjas, The Three Musketeers, Coneheads, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3, and So I Married an Axe Murderer; all of which loom over my childhood like influential guardian angels, ensuring my development into a conscientious, upright human being (other, less notable films released that year include The Piano, Philadelphia, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Schindler’s List). It was the 90s, a time of environmentalist propaganda foisted on upon our innocent selves (think Ferngully). We loved it.
Ah, Free Willy. It’s a classic tale of a boy and his whale. Blond, twelve-year-old orphan Jesse is running the streets like a mad ruffian until he gets busted vandalizing the tank of Willy, resident Killer Whale. Luckily a Social Worker brings him to his new foster parents: Annie and Glenn Greenwood. Jesse-the-asshole shows his gratitude through loving dialogue:
Annie probably has a line in there somewhere but I was too distracted by the giant jean camel toe that is her existence. Mostly you wonder why they aren’t beating the assholiness out of Jesse. But I digress. Meanwhile, Dwight-the-Social-Worker sets Jesse up working for the company that serves as stand-in for SeaWorld, replete with villainous business owner slash would-be whale assassin by the name of Mr. Dial.
While cleaning up the graffiti on the Orca’s cage, Jesse gets to know Willy, who is also somewhat of a hooligan (Willy too disregards authority). Randolph, the obligatory Native American, lets Jesse in on the sad truth: Willy has also been separated from his mother and longs to return to her. A friendship is born: Jesse plays the harmonica to Willy and in return, Willy saves Jesse from drowning. Soon Jesse is able to connect with this whale on a level he’s never had with a human being. Which is why it cuts us to the core when Willy, overwhelmed and stricken with stage-fright, puts the kibosh on the show for which Jesse and Willy have been training. You can almost hear Willy saying “I ain’t no sellout.” Mr. Dial, a modern-day Ahab, decides to take drastic measures to solve this problem: Kill the whale.
Randolph: Dial is trying to collect the insurance money. Willy’s worth a million dollars.
Jesse: A million dollars? Randolph let’s free him!
Jesse: Let’s free Willy! We can take him by the bay, and put him back in the water.
Randolph: I don’t like this job anyways!
Soon we’re on a rip-roaring adventure with Jesse, Willy, and the gang as they make a mad dash for the shore. Mr. Dial is right behind them. After fisticuffs between the gang and Mr. Dial’s gangsters, Willy is released into the bay. But wait! Mr. Dial in his infinite foresight, already had fishing vessels in the bay! Just before Willy makes a gravity-defying leap over a solid stone jetty, Jesse cries “Don’t forget me, okay? I won’t forget you.” And Willy is off to his real mother, something that can never happen for Jesse. In the final scene we cut to the Orca party montage. Willy and Mom are splashing along to “Will You Be There” by Michael Jackson as the credits roll.