Does 'Free Willy' Still Hold Up, 23 Years Later? Or Were We Just Dumb Kids?

It was like 'Blackfish' for kids, right?


Welcome to Childhood Fact Check, where we revisit (and maybe ruin) our childhood faves. Today we take a look at Free Willy (1993), the epic adventure of boy and whale.

Although I definitely watched this many times as a kid, when it comes down to it, I don’t remember much. There was definitely a gruff old man (GOM) and annoying, punk-kid hero (PKH) who come to a hard-earned mutual respect. Obviously, the whale is named Willy and the kid sets him free at the end, with assistance from Michael Jackson. Other than that, beyond a few scenes in which they hose down a big animatronic whale on a truck and it looks real sad in a pool, it’s pretty much long gone from my memory.

Time to fix that.

Let’s watch

The movie opens with some majestic footage of orcas in the wild. This is good stuff. Quality hook. But then our villains appear, catching young Willy with their nets! Willy cries plaintively for his family as the men yell ‘yeah, yeah’, gruffly and asshole-ishly.

Next we meet our punk-kid hero, Jesse. He is tough because he’s from the streets, but also sensitive because he is, like, ten, at most. He comes face to face with Willy before the police catch him. Turns out he has perfectly nice foster parents who are trying their best. He also plays harmonica, because of course he does.

Our PKH has been ordered to clean up graffiti at the park where Willy lives. We meet the GOM, Randolph. He’s probably gruff because PKH waltzes right into his sweet house and starts dicking around with his belongings. He’s actually not as gruff or as old as I thought.

We learn more about Willy from Rae, the hot-whale trainer, the Bad Guy wears a suit and scowls, foster dad makes an effort, literally every line of dialogue is either “yeah” or straight exposition. “Willy’s a killer whale, so will he kill us?” No, kid, he will straight-up save your ass when you fall in the tank.

Surprise: Willy’s owner doesn’t care about whale feelings, he only cares about money. Jesse starts training Willy to do tricks because they have a bond, an uplifting montage ensues, and Willy’s cartoon-villain owner starts to see dollar signs.

But Willy fails to perform. He hates the crowds – and wow, putting that much pressure on a sensitive, angry kid also backfires. Jesse plans to run away, the Bad Guy concocts a plan to kill Willy for insurance money.

Jesse catches them breaking Willy’s tank, with the help of GOM, Rae, and his foster parents, they do it, they free Willy! Yeah!

###The Verdict

The film was not nearly as entertaining as it was when I was a kid. I expected it to be cheesy and wooden in retrospect, which it is; but it was also too long. I’m surprised I found it so exciting as a kid considering the amount of dialogue, and how much of the plot is about Jesse moping. Obviously it still makes you root for Willy, probably more so now. While this movie definitely made a generation love orcas, it probably inspired more kids to want to be orca trainers than activists.

Best line: [PKH] “Let’s free Willy!” [GOM, after less than half a second of thought] “Eh, I never liked this job anyway.”

Best unintentionally funny line: “We gotta wet Willy!” (Then they take him through a carwash).

Best part: Duh (see below)

Should an adult rewatch this? No. It’s very slow and if you forgot 80% of the movie it was for a reason.

What if that adult is drunk? Worse, you will either cry or fall asleep.

Should your future kids watch it? Yes, because lessons in empathy are A+. Unless SeaWorld is totally defunct already and your kids already know that shit was wrong, in which case it might make you have the ‘inherent cruelty of humans’ talk way earlier than you planned.

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