|Free Willy (10th Anniversary Edition)|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 28 January 2003|
In the tradition of "Flipper," "Free Willy" is the stirring tale of a boy and his deep and meaningful bond with his aquatic sea mammal pal. In this case, the boy in question is harmonica-playing troubled street kid Jesse (Jason James Richter). Abandoned by his mother, living by pan-handling and petty theft in the pacific Northwest, Jesse is caught by police while vandalizing the observation room of a struggling local theme park. Placed with the world's best foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson) by a gruff but well-meaning social worker (Richard Riehle), Jesse is sentenced to clean up the mess he made and finds a new sense of self-worth through his friendship with equally rebellious orca, Willy (Keiko the whale).
The anthropomorphized lead of the film Willy has been captured and sold to a penny-pinching theme park owner, who places the whale in a too-small dolphin tank and seeks to turn the pathetic park into a Seattle Sea World. However, Willy stubbornly refuses to do tricks, and is an endless source of grief to his trainer Rae (Lori Petty) and Randolph (August Schellenberg), the wise and spiritual Native American caretaker of the park. In true boy-meets-whale fashion, Willy and Jesse become fast friends. Jesse teaches Willy how to please the crowd, but it's not enough to satisfy the park's evil investor (Ironside), who has taken a large insurance policy out on the whale. When the baddies try to off Willy to collect the cash, Jesse decides they need to return Willy to the wild, where the whale’s family awaits.
The film offers few surprises (and a dose of cinematic Native American spiritualism that feels a bit heavy-handed), and spawned a number of sequels, becoming a family entertainment franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-1990s. Aimed squarely at youngsters, the unrelenting sentimentality and sappiness may send parents fleeing the family room. However, the film does a decent job of empowering its young protagonist, who is a fairly layered character for a film of this type. Richter turns in a solid performance as Jesse, and is aided by equally strong costars as Jesse learns to accept his new home and make a better life for himself.
Visually, the presentation is strong. The print is an excellent transfer, marred by no discernable flaws. The colors are vibrant and strong, with remarkably clear low-light scenes. Flesh tones and blacks are great throughout, and sharpness and detail are excellent. The 5.1 sound mix is focused in front, with dialogue and the swelling melodramatic score taking center stage. Dialogue is easily discernable throughout, and the surrounds are used well for effects, particularly during the action-packed last third of the film. Your subwoofer will even get a bit of a workout, as the intrepid kid and his pals race to get Willy back to the water.
The special features are anemic and disappointing – there is no commentary track or even a standard making-of special. Instead, there’s a brief chat with wildlife cinematographer Bob Talbot as he shares his life-long love of whales with the kids in a very brief segment. "A Whale's Tale" is an interactive whale guide, where kids can use the DVD remote to explore a CGI Willy. Next up is "Whale Ballet," a brief montage of whale shots from the film, set to composer Basil Poledouris' score. The music video of Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There" is a fairly standard "let's summarize the movie" offering, clumsily intercutting scenes from the film with video footage of Jackson in concert, and completely skippable, if you are so inclined.
While younger kids may want to thrill to Jesse and Willy's adventures over and over again, adults will most likely be satisfied after the initial viewing to leave Keiko and her human pals on the shelf.