Newcomer Jason James Richter starred as Jesse, a rebellious 12-year-old boy abandoned by a runaway mother and living on the streets in an Oregon town.
After being caught spraying graffiti on the aquarium viewing windows of the (fictional) Pacific North West Adventure Park, Jesse is placed with new foster parents, the Greenwoods – teacher and would-be journalist Annie (Jayne Atkinson) and auto mechanic Glen (Michael Madsen) – and ordered to clean up the graffiti.
That’s when he encounters Willy – a four-ton, 21-foot male orca (in reality, an orca named Keiko, who had been captured in the Atlantic Ocean near Iceland in 1979).
Before long, Randolph – the aquarium’s all-knowing Native American handyman (August Schellenberg) – offers Jesse a job for the summer and then fills him in on tribal folklore about whales.
Jesse is a rebel, but he also has a sensitive side – which we know because he plays the harmonica. It is this instrument which first attracts the attention of Willy.
At first, Jesse doesn’t like the whale, calling him a “grouch” and “nasty”. But when the boy accidentally falls into the tank, Willy promptly saves his life and, before long, allows him to pet him.
The trainer, Rae (Lori Petty), tells Jesse that nobody can get Willy to perform, and the greedy owner (Michael Ironside) refuses to expand the tank, eventually hatching a plan with the park’s general manager (Richard Riehle) to kill the whale for an insurance claim.
And so Jesse determines to free him from captivity. The title of the film, of course, gives away the ending, which involves Willy’s breathtaking leap to freedom in a misty-eyed dawn.
Two animatronic robots (built for the film by Walt Conti) were also used to portray Willy – a complete rubber-coated whale and a top section with propellers to imitate swift swimming.
Free WIlly was filmed in Portland, Oregon, and Mexico City. Original director Robin B. Armstrong was fired after making several demands to rewrite the script in April 1992 and was replaced by Australian director Simon Wincer five weeks before production began.
Following the release of the film, widespread concerns were raised about Keiko’s welfare and conditions at the Reino Aventura marine park in Mexico City (he was housed in a too-small tank originally designed for dolphins), eventually resulting in Warner Bros. and the International Marine Mammal Project collaborating to return him to the wild.
After spending 22 years in captivity, Keiko was flown to Iceland in 1998 in a US Air Force C-17 and, in 2002, became the first captive orca to be fully released back into the ocean.
Keiko died of pneumonia on 12 December 2003 in a bay in Norway at the age of 27.
An animatronic whale played Willy in two sequels in 1995 and 1997. An animated TV series was also produced in 1994.
Jason James Richter
Willis Van Dusen