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Title: Free Willy

Movie: :3.5stars:
Video: :4stars:
Audio: :4stars:
Extras: :1.5stars:

HTS Overall Score:73

Ahhhh, “Free Willy”. If you can remember that far back (22 years to be precise), the 90’s was the last great heyday of the family movie. While there was plenty of hardcore R-rated material meant for adults, studios made a fortune off of making family friendly movies that got everyone from little Jonny and Laura, up to mom and dad fill with warm fuzzies. Adventures without consequences, action that never got too rough and those good old morality lessons. I like to describe the 80’s to be the decade of excess, where we got everything under the sun made. “Robocop”, “Terminator”, CEO’s and the middle class living it large, you name it was on celluloid. The 90’s was coming down off that swell, but was trying to be more socially conscious, and “Free Willy” was the title that was bandied around when normal folks thought of “tree huggers”. I still remember it being discussed by ultra conservatives how “Free Willy” was a propaganda piece by PETA, and the other side being furious that someone would try to make an eco conscious movie without their “standards” in play. In reality, I was just a teenage boy, not much older than Jessie himself and didn’t give two hoots about the controversy. I just had a blast watching a movie about a killer whale while my parents cooked homemade popcorn while we sat on their bed watching on our fantastically large 13 inch TV.

The year is 1993, and an ocean attraction park has received a new ward, in the form of a multi ton Orca “Killer” whale named Willy (played by Keiko the whale). This particular killer whale was picked up way past its use by date, and now the dilapidated park is trying their best to keep ticket sales coming in, by training Willy, without much success. Along comes Jessie (Jason James Richter), a foster waif who stumbles into the whale’s life after a night of vandalism on the water park. Staying with his new foster parents, Annie (Jayne Atkinson) and Glen Greenwood (Michael Madsen when he was baby faced), Jessie is forced to do community service by washing up all the damage he caused at the park. Under the watchful eye of the park’s caretaker, Randolph (August Schellenberg), Jessie soon finds out that he and Willy have a special bond. Both a bit rough around the edges, the two form a friendship that may save the whale’s life.

As much fun as teaching Willy new tricks is, the whale’s fate is determined by Mr. Dial (Michael Ironsides), a slick businessman who owns the establishment and one who only sees the whale as dollar signs. If Willy won’t perform and pull in the attractions, then he sees little use for the beautiful creature. Once Willy is seen as useless, Dial decides that it’s time for a little bit of an illegal way of boosting profits. This technique is in the form of trying to release the water from Willy’s cage and claim the insurance money once the creature is dead. Seeing the act in progress, Jessie warns Randolph, and the two, along with the animal trainer Rai Lindley (Lori Petty), desperately race against time to get the whale back into the ocean and reunite him with his REAL family.

“Free Willy” has never been high art, but it’s always been a fun little family adventure that seems to have aged rather well after seeing it for the first time in maybe 20 years. The cheese and stilted dialog of the early 90’s family friendly movies is present in the script, but the actors have a lot of fun with the concept and don’t let the beat drop for the full 112 minute run time. I chuckled at a few of the social “hot spots” that pop up during the movie. Like Jesse being a street waif in the foster system, a point that was pounded to death in the 90’s, and then there is the issue of freeing the whale. The 90’s had a lot of things going for it, but one thing I remember in particular was the whole freedom of animals movement that was rampant. In today’s culture many of the tropes may seem outdated, but back then they were a really big issue. The melodrama can make you roll your eyes a few times, and the absurdity of the third act could have killed the movie, but the relationship between Jesse and Willy is what really keeps the movie going. The childlike joy that Jesse gets out of being with the whale is written all over the child actor’s face (I’ll bet it must have been fun in real life too), and the electricity from their contact is enough to bring out your inner child.

Besides Jesse, the rest of the actors are really just doing the 90’s family schtick. Michael Madsen is actually the best secondary character, as the frustrated foster parent who’s trying to reach the young boy, all the while wrestling with the inner decisions of taking in a rough and tumble kid who’s been jaded by the system. Michael Ironsides is hysterically awesome as Mr. Dial, twirling his metaphorical mustache with scenery chewing glee that only Michael Ironsides can pull off. In fact he’s ever so slightly restrained, not going into the wildly over the top caricatures that he’s so famous for (I still remember every second of his insane role in “Highlander 2” as the villain).


Rated PG for some mild language

Video :4stars:
“Free Willy” hasn’t advertised a brand new transfer, so I can’t honestly say how old the master is, but it certainly looks good. The 2003 DVD was the last time I KNOW a new transfer was struck, but for all I know another one could have been struck for broadcast TV any time in the last few years. The disc itself is on a BD-50, which plenty of room to breathe considering there is very few extras, and all in Standard Definition. Colors are warm and vivid, with strong saturation throughout. I DID notice that the skin tones and hair colors sometimes had a bit of an orange push to them, but then it would go back to normal in the next scene. Blacks are good, a bit of crush here and there, but nothing wile and I did notice a teensy bit of aliasing. Grain is present throughout the whole movie, meaning no pesky DNR to scrub away detail, and the detail present is quite lovely. A-

Audio :4stars:
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track on board is more than capable, if not giving a rather mild 5.1 experience. The track is a bit front heavy, and isn’t really bombastic on the bass lines, but there is definite detail in the surrounds and some great directionality queues during the film. You can hear the shift as Willy swims in his cage, or when the rocks are rattling under the truck’s tire on the way to the bayside rendezvous. Dialog is strong, with clean vocal presentation and strong balance between the 90’s “adventure” score and the quieter moments. The LFE is mild, as I mentioned, but it is still present, and adds some weight to the more intense moments of the third act, or the whap of Willy’s tale on water as he performs. It’s not going to be a wildly intensive audio experience, but the track is more than capable to replicate the theatrical experience with aplomb.

Extras :1.5stars:

• Interview with wildlife cinematographer Robert Talbot
• Whale Dance Montage
• Music Video: Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There"
• Theatrical Trailer

Overall: :3.5stars:

“Free Willy” is not high art, as I mentioned above. It’s cheesy, it’s hammy, and it’s geared towards that old 1950’s post nuclear family model, hitting all the right heartwarming notes, from the troubled teen, to the poor entrapped animal, to even the adventurer in all of us by the third act. Some of it hasn’t aged the greatest, but a lot of it had, making it a fun little romp for those of you who have a nostalgic bent for the movie, or for those who want something clean and wholesome for a family movie night. With an ULTRA cheap price tag and solid audio/video presentations, I don’t think you can go wrong if you enjoy the movie. Recommended as a blast from the past.

Additional Information:

Starring: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Michael Madsen
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Written by: Keith Walker
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Thai, French DD 2.0
Studio: Warner Brothers
Rated: PG
Runtime: 112 minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: August 4th 2015

Buy Free Willy On Blu-ray at Amazon

Recommendation: Blast from the Past

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