Powerful, heartbreaking, disturbing doc about captive orcas.
  • Review Date: January 14, 2014
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Release Year: 2013
  • Running Time: 83 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages
The movie essentially calls for an end to aquatic theme parks and for freedom for whales. Even though the parks give people a chance to see these magnificent whales close up, the treatment of the whales is not worth it. It makes an argument about the whales being miserable and tortured while in confinement, and that this misery leads to outright danger for humans. It also argues that the park owners do their best to hide all this information from both the public and from employees, with the goal of keeping the parks open and making money.
Positive role models
It could be argued that simply showing up and being interviewed for this documentary makes these people heroes. Many of them admit to having been fooled or misled while working at SeaWorld, and they're now willing to set the record straight. Their motivations seem to stem mainly from care and concern for Tilikum and the other whales.
First, there's the whale-on-whale violence. Female whales are described as "raking" Tilikum, and the various, horrible teeth marks -- and a shot of profuse bleeding -- are shown. Then, there's the footage of humans being harmed by whales, either grabbed and dragged underwater or bitten. Overall, events are more described than shown, but there is a generous amount of (real) blood shown, as well as some fairly disturbing video footage of attacks in progress. There are harrowing, verbal descriptions of dead whales and swallowed human body parts.
No human sex, but there's a frank discussion about the breeding of the whales, including mentions of sperm as well as a shot of trainers extracting the sperm from what could be a whale penis.
There is one use of the word "s--t" (as in "scared s--tless"), as well as uses of "damn," "hell," "oh, God," and "butt." One character uses the humorous phrase "whole fam damily" (a play on "whole damn family").
SeaWorld is mentioned by name, and some television ads are shown. The movie mentions the selling of tickets as well as stuffed toy whales, and there's a shot of a young girl cuddling her new stuffed toy. By no means is this film an ad for SeaWorld, however; rather, it tries to keep people away.
Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Blackfish is a documentary about captive whales that perform at theme parks and sometimes attack and kill humans. The movie claims that whales in the wild are generally peaceful, intelligent, and emotional creatures and that their treatment at the hands of corporate theme parks possibly created anxiety and frustration that led to the attacks. It contains some disturbing imagery, including wounded whales, some real blood (from both whales and humans), and video footage of actual attacks. More violence is verbally described but not shown. There is frank discussion of the breeding of whales, including a shot of what could be a whale's penis. The movie contains some occasional strong language, including one use of "s--t" and some uses of "damn" and "hell." SeaWorld ads are shown, and some of their products (stuffed toys whales) are shown. It's not for young kids, and it can be disturbing, but this is a powerful, effective documentary for teens and up.

What's the story?

The story focuses mainly on Tilikum, an orca (or "killer whale") captured as a baby and raised eventually to become a performer at (and a breeder for) SeaWorld. Tilikum's early life consisted of being "raked" (attacked with teeth) by female whales and kept in small, dark pens. Subsequently, several park trainers were attacked, and some killed, notably Dawn Brancheau in 2010, which caused some controversy and investigation. Experts say that whales are clearly intelligent, emotional animals and are probably frustrated and tormented by this treatment. Representatives of SeaWorld refused to be interviewed, and the movie makes SeaWorld look like a company bent on making money over protecting its employees and the well-being of its whales.

Is it any good?

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite packs an incredible amount of information and emotion into the 83-minute BLACKFISH. It's probably just as well that SeaWorld representatives declined to be interviewed. As it is, her message comes across clearly and without anger. She does interview several former employees, who seem mortified about having believed the company line and saddened that they took part in this particular treatment of Tilikum and other whales. 
We learn about how whales in the wild have never been known to attack humans and how -- despite SeaWorld's claims -- they live much longer there than in captivity. We learn that the whales are extraordinarily intelligent and emotional creatures and how their attacks are possibly based more on frustration than aggression. Overall, BLACKFISH is brutal -- it shows several attacks and wounds -- and heartbreaking; it conjures up great sympathy for these magnificent, mysterious creatures. You'll never see a whale the same way again.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the movie's violence. Could this story have been told as effectively without the blood, attacks, and injuries shown?
  • Does this movie make a good argument for closing sea parks for good? What could be an argument for keeping them open?
  • How does Blackfish compare with The Cove, a movie about the mistreatment of dolphins? What makes humans do these sorts of things?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:July 19, 2013
DVD release date:November 12, 2013
Cast:Jeffrey Ventre, John Hargrove, Samantha Berg
Director:Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Studio:Magnolia Pictures
Run time:83 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images

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  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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What parents and kids say

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Parent of a 17 year old Written bycmharrington February 22, 2014

Talk with your teen about the power of the media!

This film completely changed my perception of orcas in captivity. While it is important to note that the film IS propaganda, the question of validity remains. The film presents an excellent opportunity to teach our kids to think for themselves, and not to be manipulated by the media. It's a great conversation starter for tweens and teens, in which parents can encourage them to question information presented to them as factual. Just because it's a "documentary", doesn't necessarily make it true. Parents and kids can easily research both sides of the story (Sea World's response is on their website, as well as a follow-up on and come to their own conclusions. I, personally, am deeply saddened by the false impressions I previously held of happy, healthy orcas in captivity. The evidence presented in Blackfish is undeniable, from their collapsed dorsal fins to their scarred-up skin. Decide for yourselves!
What other families should know
Great messages
Kid, 10 years old February 13, 2014


parents need to know that this is a very sad movie about a killer whale named Tilikum who is captured by seaworld. this movie isn't very violent as common sense said and I don't know how common sense says there are positive messages in this movie because there really isn't. I also don't like that they kept a whale in captivity and didn't let him go and I also felt really angry about how seaworld lies and blame deaths on the trainer who had died from being drowned by the killer whale. It is really upsetting to think about it but worth watching even though the movie is not very good any way
What other families should know
Too much violence
Kid, 11 years old September 13, 2014

Orca cruelty

This movie is very sad but important to watch. It tells about how seaworld abuses captive orcas and the seaworld workers lying about how orcas live longer in captivity (which they dont) and whenever an orca kills a trainer they blame the trainer (sad) and how they capture the orcas. I found out about this movie from the peta website
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much violence


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