On July 16, 1993, Warner Bros. unveiled the drama Free Willy in theaters, where it would go on to gross $154 million globally and pave the way for two theatrical sequels. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Willy, an orca whale, doesn’t take kindly to his theme park confinement. “Willy’s a special case,” a trainer says. “Aren’t we all?” counters troubled foster kid Jesse.
This movie itself is a very special case, a wonderful, timeless story of a boy’s struggle to become part of a family.
The Donner/Shuler-Donner production should cause a tidal wave of appreciative family box office for Warner Bros. Like a Disney classic, the studio should rerelease Willy seven years down the line.
In this plucky tale, predator whale Willy and deserted, 12-year-old Jesse (Jason James Richter) are dispositionally and socially two peas from the same pod. Willy has been separated from his pod — whales live in tight family units — while Jesse was abandoned as a baby by his mother.
The boy has bounced around foster homes, hustled along the streets and, finally, landed one last chance: Shape up and live with yet another set of foster parents (Michael Madsen, Jayne Atkinson) or proceed directly to juvie hall.
Nicely counterpointing the whale’s captive existence with Jesse’s troubles, screenwriters Keith Walker and Corey Blechman have crafted a wise, well-modulated story in which the boy senses a kindred spirit in the killer whale.
As the boy reaches out to the whale, he for the first time comes to experience true feelings of caring and family.
While the moral message is crystal clear, director Simon Wincer maintains a terrific entertainment-educational balance, never letting Willy submerge in overt message-dom or preachy moralizing.
Willy‘s strength resonates via superb technical contributions. Basil Poledouris’ score is one of the year’s best, a blend of rich reeds and strings that wonderfully conveys the strength of seemingly isolated beings in nature. Similarly, Robbie Greenberg’s cinematography is subdued yet pristine, evoking the story’s powerful inner connections.
Richter is terrific as the troubled, tempestuous youngster. He seems like a real kid, no cutesy screen entity. Madsen’s performance as the blue-collar foster parent shows the depth of real parental love. — Duane Byrge, originally published on July 2, 1993