A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
In FREE WILLY, 12-year-old street kid Jesse (Jason James Richter) is caught by police after joining his buddies in spray-painting a marine amusement park. With the blessing of a new foster dad (Michael Madsen), Jesse must work at the place and clean up the damage. There he meets an unlikely fellow rebel: Willy, an ill-tempered killer whale, netted from nearby Pacific coastal waters. Jesse befriends the moody animal, and secretly trains Willy to do tricks. The park's owner, seeing a chance to profit, has Jesse and Willy perform for customers, but Willy, aggravated by the crowds, doesn't cooperate. Management sabotages Willy's tank, to collect on an accidental-death insurance policy. Jesse finds out and rallies some fellow employees and his law-and-order foster family. In an exciting predawn mission they "free Willy" into the open sea.
Is it any good?
Free Willy's plot is predictable, none-too-original, and the title gives away the end. But FREE WILLY works swimmingly, thanks to well paced, rousing direction and a fine ensemble cast, led by the very good child actor Richter. Even with its excessive ecological propaganda, the script buoys up with surprisingly credible bonding between the alienated delinquent and a penned-up creature who, like King Kong or E.T., isn't bad; he just wants to go home. It's a cheerable, feel-good moment when the father joins his adopted son in the finale.
Longtime screen villain Michael Ironside plays the standard Hollywood-issue evil businessman, and parents should be aware of the animal-liberation indoctrination in the premise. At least the filmmakers followed their own preaching, and campaigned for the freeing of Keiko, the actual killer whale who stands in for an animatronic Willy in many scenes.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about orca biology and behavior -- you might follow up with some online whale research together.
There's also plenty of save the whales stumping, which might excite any budding activists.
Talk about right and wrong? Is it okay for them to do whatever it takes to save Willy?
- In theaters: January 1, 1993
- On DVD or streaming: January 1, 2000
- Cast: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Michael Madsen
- Director: Simon Wincer
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Friendship, Ocean Creatures, Wild Animals
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: emotional intensity
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.