Free Willy

A wayward boy befriends a moody killer whale.
  • Review Date: June 17, 2004
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Family and Kids
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Running Time: 112 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Depictions of trespassing, vandalism and living rough on the city streets. Climax has good guys breaking the law in order to save Willy the Whale.

Positive role models

Jesse is a street-wise delinquent who learns about friendship and love from Willy the whale.

Violence & scariness

One brief fistfight.

Sexy stuff
Not applicable

None, unless you count the boy hero's angry use of "screw."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this movie is farfetched, but it's also very enjoyable. Plot complications (like insurance fraud) may be a little complex for many younger viewers. But kids, particularly animal lovers, will want to see this.

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.

Families can talk 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?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:January 1, 1993
DVD release date: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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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • 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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Written byAnonymous October 3, 2014
age 8+

Perfect kid's movie

This is one of my favorite animal movies because there is not much violence (a boy is caught by police, there is a fight in the water) or language (one "crap) and it's also about the human-animal bond.
What other families should know
Great messages
Parent of a 2 and 4 year old Written byr.A.i. November 29, 2010
age 7+

too much unnecessary raw facts of life

The main character has been abandoned by his mother. My 5-year-old did not need to know that mothers sometime abandon kids who need to live on the streets. Running from the police, breaking in, spray painting: all not behaviors that a child should see. I'm just overwhelmed by producer's stupidity in thinking: Let's show something bad and then tell them it's bad so that they can learn what is good.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much swearing
Safety and privacy concerns
Parent of a 6 and 8 year old Written byDanzaJoy January 19, 2011
age 9+

Know what you are getting into before showing to kids under 10

I watched this film when my kids were 6 and 7. I didn't know the full story. It was much darker than I expected and ended up being a big trigger for my 6-year old fost-adopted daughter still grieving the move from her foster family to our forever family. In the end, perhaps her tears were cleaning but I wish I'd know in advance to be prepared. The child acts outside of the law, sometimes with adult support so I have mixed feelings about that: integrity outweighs rules but a challenging nuance for younger kids.
Kid, 9 years old December 13, 2009
age 2+


kind a boring


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