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Free Willy



Free Willy
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Simon Wincer
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner
Jennie Lew Tugend
Written by Keith A. Walker
Corey Blechman (screenplay)
Keith A. Walker (story)
Starring Jason James Richter
Lori Petty
Jayne Atkinson
August Schellenberg
and Michael Madsen
Keiko (orca)
Music by Basil Poledouris
Cinematography Robbie Greenberg
Edited by O. Nicholas Brown
Distributed by Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Release dates
  • July 16, 1993 (1993-07-16)
Running time
112 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20 million
Box office $153.6 million

Theatrical release poster - Free Willy
Theatrical release poster
For other uses, see Free Willy (disambiguation).

Free Willy is a 1993 American family drama film that was released by Warner Bros. under its Family Entertainment label. The film stars Jason James Richter as a delinquent boy who becomes attached to a captive orca, the film's eponymous "Willy."

Followed by three sequels Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home, Free Willy 3: The Rescue, and Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove, and a short-lived animated television series, Free Willy was a financial success, eventually making a star out of its protagonist Keiko. The film's climax has been spoofed several times in popular culture.

Michael Jackson produced and performed "Will You Be There", the theme for the film, which can be heard during the film's credits. The song won the MTV Movie Award for "Best Song in a Movie" in 1994. It was also included on the film's album, Michael Jackson's Dangerous (with a longer introduction and ending) and All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film's first sequel.



The film begins with a pod of orcas swimming near the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. The pod is tracked down by a large group of whalers, and one of them, Willy (Keiko the orca), is snared in their nets and taken away to a local amusement park.

Sometime later in Astoria, Oregon, Jesse (Jason James Richter), a troublesome 12-year-old boy who has been on the streets since he was abandoned by his mother six years before, gets caught by the police for stealing food and vandalizing a theme park. Jesse's social worker Dwight earns him a reprieve by finding him a foster home and having him clean up the graffiti at the theme park. His foster parents are the kind and supportive Annie (Jayne Atkinson) and Glen Greenwood (Michael Madsen), but Jesse is initially unruly, hostile, and distrustful to Annie and Glen.

While working at the park, Jesse encounters Willy, the orca that was caught earlier. Willy is regarded as surly and uncooperative by the park staff, including his trainer Rae Lindley (Lori Petty), but he and Jesse strike up a bond. He also becomes friendly with Haida native Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), Willy's keeper. Jesse is able to get Willy to perform tricks and once his probation is finished, he is given a permanent job at the marina. Jesse also slowly warms to the Greenwoods and begins to settle into his new life.

The owner of the amusement park, Dial (Michael Ironside), sees the talent Jesse and Willy have together and makes plans to host "The Willy Show" in hopes of finally making money from Willy, who has thus far been a costly venture for him. On the day of the first performance, Willy is antagonized by the children banging constantly on his underwater observation area and refuses to perform. Willy smashes against the tank, causing damage to it. Jesse storms off in tears and plans to run away. Later, while at the tank, Jesse notices Willy's family calling to him and Dial's assistant Wade (Richard Riehle) and other men sneaking into the underwater observation area. They damage the tank enough that the water will gradually leak out in an effort to kill Willy and claim his $1,000,000 insurance policy.

Jesse, Randolph, and Rae hatch a plan to release Willy. They use equipment at the park to load Willy onto a trailer, and Jesse and Randolph steal Glen's truck to tow Willy to a marina. They try to stick to back roads to keep from being spotted with a gigantic orca, and eventually get stuck in the mud. Wade meanwhile notifies Dial that Willy is missing, and begin a search to find Willy.

Unable to move the trailer himself, Jesse calls Glen and Annie using a CB radio in Glen's truck. Annie and Glen show up and help free the truck, and continue on to the marina to release Willy. Dial knows where they are headed, and when they show up, he, Wade, and his henchmen are blocking the gate into the marina. Glen charges at them full speed in the truck, forcing the henchmen to scatter as the truck plows through the gate to the marina. Glen quickly turns the truck around and backs Willy into the water, flooding his truck in the process.

Willy is finally released into the water, but Dial and his goons attempt to stop them. During the struggle, Jesse gets Willy to swim away while the whaling ships close in with their nets. Jesse runs towards the seawall, calling for Willy to follow him, which steers him away from the boats. Jesse goes to the edge of the rocks where Willy swims up to him and tells Willy that if he makes the jump (it will be the highest jump Willy has ever attempted), he'll be free. Jesse says a tearful goodbye, but pulls himself together and goes back to the top of the rocks. He says a prayer that Randolph taught him from a story from his tribe and throws his arm in the air, giving Willy the signal to jump. To the amazement of everyone, Willy makes the jump and is finally free to return to his family. Everyone cheers, Willy leaps out of the water in celebration, and Jesse happily jumps up and down, but stops when he realizes that he'll probably never see Willy again. He goes back to Glen and Annie who hug him as they look out into the sea. Willy calls out to Jesse in the distance and both say their final farewell.

The movie ends with Willy, who has found his family, and the entire pod swimming and jumping through the ocean. A disclaimer states that during filming, no whales were harassed, mistreated, or harmed, and that the whales were handled by the American Humane Association (this message is obscured on the DVD release).



Most close-up shots involving limited movement by Willy, such as when Willy is in the trailer and the sequences involving Willy swimming in the open water, make use of an animatronic stand-in. Walt Conti, who supervised the effects for the orcas, estimated that half of the shots of the orca used animatronic stand-ins. Conti stated that the smaller movements of a real Orca actually made things difficult in some ways for him and his crew; they had to concentrate on smaller nuances in order to make the character seem alive.[1] The most extensive use of CGI in the film is the climax, filmed in Astoria, Oregon, where Willy jumps over Jesse and into the wild. All stunts with the orca were performed by the young orca trainer Justin Sherman.


Box office performance

The film was released by Warner Bros. on July 16, 1993 and grossed $7,868,829 domestically in its opening weekend.[2] It went on to make $76 million in its foreign release for a total of $153,698,625 worldwide.[2] Upon its initial release, Free Willy ranked number 5 at the box office before moving to number 4 by the following weekend. Afterward, its rank in the box office and began to gradually decline, with the exception of a three-day weekend (September 3 to September 6), in which gross revenue increased 33.6%.[3]

Critical response

Despite the film's strong earnings at the box office, critical response was generally mixed.[4] Free Willy currently holds a 57% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, based on 22 reviews, indicating mixed reviews.[5] The film on Metacritic has a 79 out of 100 rating.

References in other media

  • The aquatic star of this film was an orca named Keiko. The huge national and international success of this film inspired a letter writing campaign to get Keiko released from his captivity as an attraction in the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City; this movement was called "Free Keiko". Keiko was moved to The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Oregon by flying in a UPS C-130 Cargo Plane. In Oregon he was returned to health with the hopes of being able to return to the wild. In 1998 Keiko was moved to Iceland via an US Air Force C-17 to learn to be wild and after that to Norway where there were other orcas. Keiko eventually died of pneumonia in a Norwegian bay on December 12, 2003. A decade later in 2013 a New York Times video reviewed Keiko's only partly successful release.[6]
  • Free Willy has been parodied in several episodes of The Simpsons. The episode "The Boy Who Knew Too Much" features Homer Simpson watching a "director's cut" of the film, in which Willy fails in his attempt jump over the rocks and crushes Jesse.[7] In The Simpsons Halloween special "Treehouse of Horror XI", Lisa Simpson frees a dolphin from the Springfield aquarium and it jumps over a rock barrier in a similar fashion to Willy, except its tail hits Lisa in the face.
  • The animated series South Park spoofed this film in the episode "Free Willzyx".
  • The animated series Duckman spoofed this film at the beginning of the episode "Dammit, Hollywood". Duckman watches the film Lickety-Split's Oily Adventure, in which a marlin jumps over a wall of fire, and roundly boos the film at its conclusion; his friend Cornfed mentions that he also ran up and urinated on the screen while screaming "Swim in this, Lickety!" while it was playing.
  • The beginning of the song Jesse plays for Willy on his harmonica was referenced by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the title line of the title aria in Love Never Dies, his 2010 sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Incidentally, this musical is set at a seaside theme park owned by the Phantom, albeit on the Atlantic coast rather than the Pacific, and without killer whales.
  • The ending sequence of the film Cats Don't Dance includes parodies of classic movie posters, featuring characters from the film. The last one before showing Darla putting up a "The End" poster and the credits is of a parody of this film called "Free Tilly", starring Tillie and Pudge.
  • In the film Tommy Boy when Chris Farley's character is in a small sailboat with his girlfriend, three boys on the shore yell "Free Willy", in reference to Farley's weight.
  • In the episode of The Suite Life on Deck called "I Brake For Whales", a parody of Free Willy is mentioned by Bailey. The parody is called "Free Billy".
  • Comedian John Pinette did a routine in his album Show Me the Buffet, in which talks about the Free Willy movies and notes that the phrase "Free Willy" would be unpronounceable by the Japanese.
  • Free Willy is the favorite film of the gorilla Koko, known for her use of American Sign Language.[citation needed]
  • An episode of the stop-motion animated series Robot Chicken includes a spoof of the TV drama Alias ("Whalias") in which secret agent Sydney Bristow has been replaced with an orca wearing a wig and a red cocktail dress. At the end of the segment, the whale escapes from her pursuers by jumping over a sea wall.
  • The Bob's Burgers episode "The Deepening" parodies the film in a fantasy sequence in which Tina Belcher dreams of freeing a mechanical shark. The music in the sequence resembles "Will You Be There".
  • The opening montage of the Epcot attraction Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable includes a brief killer whale clip taken from the beginning of this film.
  • The film's climax is parodied in the Gravity Falls episode "The Deep End."
  • The 2014 movie Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has an extended sequence featuring a trapped baby great white shark ("Doby") who is raised by the protagonist (Ron Burgundy) and his son to adulthood and, once nursed to health, freed. Burgundy sings a song to Doby similar to the Free Willy theme. Later, Burgundy swims out to the grown Doby and is attacked.


  1. ^ Rickitt, Richard (2006). Designing Movie Creatures and Characters: Behind the Scenes With the Movie Masters. Focal Press. pp. 161–65. ISBN 0-240-80846-0. 
  2. ^ a b "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2010. 
  3. ^ "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2010. 
  4. ^ Wilmington, Michael (July 16, 1993). "MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Free Willy': A Fairy Tale of Innocence". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-12-01. 
  5. ^ "Free Willy (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 13, 2009. 
  6. ^ Winerip, Michael (September 16, 2013). "Retro Report: The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed" (video (11:43)). New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2013. 
  7. ^ Mirkin, David (2004). The Simpsons season 5 DVD commentary for the episode "The Boy Who Knew Too Much" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 
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