Jesse is a young street kid who vandalises a local marine park. As a punishment, he is forced to go back to the park to clean up his graffiti. While he's there his is entranced by an orca, Willy. After Willy fails to perform, the cruel park owner has plans to sell him, but Jesse has other ideas.
Dissect any kids-oriented Hollywood offering these days and the same clichés come away in your hands: dysfunctional child, no "mom" or "pop", finds a soul-mate in something no one else understands (in this case, a whale, could be E.T.), gets his act together, rejects tearaway chums, rejects then accepts father-figure, fights and triumphs over the money-grubbing baddies, makes a big sacrifice and ends up a distinctly better human being. The only thing that separates these movies is how the filmmakers tell the story, and fortunately Free Willy is told with an unusually truthful eye and just the right amount of blub-inducing poignancy. Resident of an unnamed town in the Pacific North-West, Jesse (the excellent Richter where do they find these pint-sized talents?) is the kid with no mom or pop who ends up making amends to the community by cleaning off the graffiti he sprayed all over a marine park that's home to a three-ton killer whale called Willy. Stuck with hopelessly miscast Michael Madsen and Helen Mirren-lookalike Jayne Atkinson for foster parents, Jesse begins to connect with Willy, joyfully realising that the grumpy Orca (they only ever call it an "Orca" in the film, is that a P.C. thing?) will do tricks only for him, and not so joyfully realising that just like himself! all Willy needs to have a crack at happiness is to be reunited with his family, currently frolicking out in the bay. Some of the performances are disturbingly ropey (especially from Madsen, so good as a foul-mouthed Reservoir Dog, so useless at saying "Heck!"), there aren't enough proper laughs, and the whole thing follows an incredibly well-worn track, but the lad is immensely likeable, the ending's both awe-inspiring and genuinely moving, and the killer whale is great value throughout. Know any kids under 12? Take 'em
Despite a clichéd plot and some ropey performances, this is still a well-made and entertaining children's film.