When Jesse (Jason James Richter), a 12-year-old orphan boy, ends up working in a small aquatic amusement park, a curious connection ends up happening between him and a killer whale named Willy, who was recently removed from his habitat and brought to work in the park, but doesn´t adjust to his new prison and refuses to learn his acts. In the midst of this rebellion, the child emerges as the only human being who Willy listens to.
To understand the affinity between these two we must go back to Jesse´s past. After six years without his mother, the child continues to delude himself into thinking that she will come back to pick him up some day. Meanwhile, he lives on the streets along with other abandoned children, including Perry, his best friend, with whom he steals food to survive and makes vandalism in his bitter moments. A couple decides to adopt him but he doesn´t adapt, refusing to accept them as his parents. In short, a total “problem child”.
And amidst all this, Willy appears. A whale who, like him, is no longer with his family. Thus, complicity arises, and the beginning of a journey of two friends back where they belong. For one, it means accepting the fact that his mother will never return and that his new parents are indeed the ones who really care about him. For the other, an escape plan to return to the sea where his family still awaits.
But some rebellion will have to happen before getting there. In order to escape from the clutches of malicious corporatism, personified by the owner of the center, Dial (Michael Ironside), who will do anything to make money from the whale, Willy will have to really show his displeasure. He´ll train with Jesse and only Jesse, but his free spirit will remain firm. With all this, the writers want to send a clear message to the audience: killer whales (and all animals by extension) are not to be removed from their habitat and placed in pools to entertain humans. I´d like to see a SeaWorld employee watching the movie.
But I must return to the familiy subject, as it´s clear that this is the film´s main argument, above animal liberation. We see it in the social worker who encourages Jesse to embrace his new parents and toe the line. We see it in Perry, Jesse’s best friend, who ends up going to California to set up an illegal business, after society failed to take responsibility for him providing him a family. We see it in the continuous and desperate attempts of Jesse´s adoptive parents to get him to love them, and in the way Jesse tells Willy that he still misses his mother. We see it in the happy ending that awaits for those who return to a family. The importance of family unit and the consequences for those who lack one is Free Willy´s real message.
Speaking of activism for animal´s freedom, a huge project was created in order to reinsert Keiko, the real whale who played Willy in the film, back into the ocean.
Keiko (the whale who played Willy) in real life
The entity responsible for this was the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, which had the cooperation of government agencies and other private companies like Warner Brothers Studio and UPS. The organization received considerable voluntary donations to achieve its goal, but unfortunately Keiko failed to adapt fully to the ocean, moving to a bay provided by the Norwegian government until the end of his days.
To conclude, in case you get excited with the movie and want to spread its message of “animals in the wild” to the whole world, you must have one thing clear: if you visit zoos and amusement aquatic parks such as SeaWorld, you have little moral authority to preach.