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Free Willy Blu-ray Review

Free Willy (1993) movie poster Free Willy

Theatrical Release: July 16, 1993 / Running Time: 112 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Simon Wincer / Writers: Keith A. Walker (story & screenplay), Corey Blechman (screenplay)

Cast: Jason James Richter (Jesse), Lori Petty (Rae Lindley), Jayne Atkinson (Annie Greenwood), August Schellenberg (Randolph Johnson), Michael Madsen (Glen Greenwood), Michael Ironside (Dial), Richard Riehle (Wade), Mykelti Williamson (Dwight Mercer), Michael Bacall (Perry), Danielle Harris (Gwenie), Isaiah Malone (Vector), Keiko (Willy)

Buy Free Willy from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD Instant Video

As a child, my family's moviegoing outings were close to non-existent, so I remember being quite bummed to learn that my mother had taken my two siblings to see Free Willy on a day when I was at basketball camp.
The movie never did become a favorite the way that the movie I would get to see on the big screen later that summer, Jurassic Park, did. But I did soon see Free Willy and enjoy it as one of the more popular and prototypical live-action family film of the '90s.

I've known for a while that Free Willy doesn't compare to the most enduring of '90s family films, like Cool Runnings, The Sandlot, and Mrs. Doubtfire (to limit myself to three from '93). But I've also meant to revisit it by adding it to my DVD collection for something like fifteen years. I never got around to doing that, even when the kid-oriented package with a bright blue handle and "fun activity book" inside was selling for just a few dollars at Big Lots. Nine years into Blu-ray's existence, Free Willy finally makes it to the high-definition format today and you can bet I wasn't going to miss this opportunity to review it and finally admit it into the ranks.

Jesse (Jason James Richter) and Willy (Keiko) share a playful moment in "Free Willy."

The human protagonist of the movie is Jesse (Jason James Richter), a Seattle badass who is around twelve years old. Jesse is familiar to police officers for running with a gang of young hoodlums who do things like steal sheet cake, graffiti where they please, and scatter when the law comes after them. Essentially an orphan since youth, Jesse clings to hope that his mother will return to take care of him, even though no one can seem to find any trace of her. After the latest sheet cake/graffiti incident, Jesse's social worker (Mykelti Williamson, Forrest Gump's Bubba) finds the troubled boy a foster home in the Greenwoods (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson), a kind, patient local couple with no children of their own.

Having a warm, loving foster home does not rid Jesse of his 'tude. But, while cleaning the aquatic park that he and his pals tagged, Jesse makes a new best friend in Willy, a giant Orca who has not been performing to the park's satisfaction. Give Jesse, the rebellious boy, a little time with Willy, though, and the killer whale is suddenly responding, his spirits evidently lifted. Willy's trainer Rae (Lori Petty) and the park's in-house sage Native American Randolph (August Schellenberg) are thrilled to see the two adolescents, troubled boy and whale, bond to each other's gain. Oh, and Willy saves Jesse's life one night when the boy sneaks in for an after-hours look at the whale.

Jesse is all set to lead Willy in a big show that has Northwest Adventure Park and the seats of Willy's stadium filled like never before. Unfortunately, Willy suffers from performance anxiety caused by savage kids banging on his glass non-stop during his show. The park's bad guy owners (Michael Ironside and Richard Riehl) may as well have mustaches to twirl given dialogue like "It'll make money. That, my friend, is what we're all about!" Figuring the whale is worth more dead than alive, they stage an incident in the night to collect insurance money. Only Willy, Rae, and Randolph find out and aren't able to stand by idly. They are going to free Willy!

Jesse (Jason James Richter) learns more about Orca whales from Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), a sage Native American who wears his love for Seattle sports teams on his head.

While the '90s kid in me clings to some deep appreciation for the film, the critic in me sees that Free Willy is pretty awful. It's melodramatic throughout,
breaking only for some unbelievable conflict and acting out. There's no way to make the character of Jesse work as intended; he's not believable as a seriously endangered streetwise punk, but you need him not to be so that he can become friends with a whale. It's as if the writers -- veteran character actor Keith A. Walker (penning his first and only screenplay) and TV-seasoned Corey Blechman -- knew they could churn out standard characters and a paper-thin good/bad narrative and still win over the public with the sight of a real 7,000-pound whale being playful and interacting with a boy. They were not wrong. Moviegoers gobbled up this sentimental, emotionally manipulative tale all summer long and into the fall. The film grossed $78 million domestically and another $76 million overseas, numbers you can double to establish the 2015 equivalent adjusted for inflation. Free Willy was the 11th highest-earning movie of '93, trailing only the PG-13 Jurassic and Doubtfire among films you could classify as family attractions.

The commercial success spawned two sequels over the next four summers: Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home, which opened decently but faded fast, in 1995 and Free Willy 3: The Rescue, which the public treated like the plague in 1997. Rescue's three-digit per-theater average on its first weekend in modest release still ranks as one of the worst debuts of all time. Time and nostalgia improve the reputation of every family film out there, as the kids who grew up with something secure for it a permanent fond place in their hearts. You see some evidence of that in Free Willy's IMDb user rating, which has climbed from a below-average 5.2 in 2004 to the nearly respectable 5.8 it currently holds and has since early 2014. Willy is not a new generation's The Goonies. Heck, it doesn't even generate the goodwill that contemporaries Hook and Hocus Pocus do.

Nonetheless, Free Willy has made it to Blu-ray, and faster than many of its fellow '90s kids faves, including The Mighty Ducks, Cool Runnings, Beethoven, Aladdin, Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield, The Goofy Movie, 3 Ninjas, Little Giants, Homeward Bound, Air Bud, Richie Rich, Andre, and The Big Green.

Probably as on its last DVD, Free Willy is fitted with the current Warner Bros. Pictures logo, changing it from the sky one it would have had in initial release. That's not a practice to be admired, but it's one some studios have been known to do.

Free Willy Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Castilian, Latin American Spanish, Portuguese, Thai)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Castilian, Chinese, Korean, Latin American Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Thai
Not Closed Captioned; Extra Not Subtitled
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98 / Release Date: August 4, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase
Still available as 10th Anniversary DVD ($5.97 SRP; January 28, 2003), in 4 Film Favorites: Free Willy Collection DVD ($17.94 SRP; September 7, 2010), and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as DVD with Fun Activity Book (March 2, 2010), Mini-Size Disc DVD (April 26, 2005), Original DVD (November 19, 1997)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though a relatively inexpensive production, Free Willy was still a major studio film and has the polished look of that. The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 presentation keeps it looking like a '90s movie, but one that hasn't been degraded by age or format. The element is pretty sharp and perfectly clean, illustrating that Warner has put in the necessary work to bring this one-time cash cow into high definition. The picture repeatedly is a bit darker than you'd expect it to be, but whether that is a feature of the original filming or imperfect color timing, I can't say. Most should be pleased as punch by this transfer, especially if they are used to seeing the movie on a worn-out VHS.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack hides the film's age, making it easy to mistake the mix for that of a brand new film. Whale sounds, score, and dialogue are mixed and distributed evenly, resulting in an experience you are sure to appreciate.

Wildlife cinematographer Bob Talbot discusses his love of animals in this short 1993 interview. Michael Jackson performs Free Willy's closing theme in his "Will You Be There" music video.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's handful of all-recycled, all-standard definition extras

begins with "A Conversation with Bob Talbot, Wildlife Cinematographer" (5:31), a promotional piece from the original 1993 release. Speaking from the sea, Talbot shares some remarks about his profession and his passion for animals.

Next and what for many will be the highlight comes the music video for Michael Jackson's end credits theme "Will You Be There" (3:49). This nostalgia-inducing short alternates between clips from the movie and of Jackson performing on stage in white shirts and black pants.

"Whale Ballet" montage (2:45) simply sets clips of Willy and fellow whales swimming to some score. I'm not sure what its point is, other than "Ooh, animals!"

Finally, we get Free Willy's ridiculously '90s original theatrical trailer (1:59), which you'll have to imagine running between trailers for Hocus Pocus and Surf Ninjas.

The common scored menu offers a 16:9 rendering of its familiar cover art. The Blu-ray resumes playback, but does not support bookmarking.

Orca friendship: the cure for orphans with attitude.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Free Willy still has its charms, namely in the appealing story of two outcasts (one of them, a whale) finding friendship amidst adversity. That said, you might have to be a kid of the '90s or the world's least cynical person to overlook the glaring dramatic faults of this unsubtle, unbelievable tale.

Warner's Blu-ray offers a satisfactory feature presentation plus the same four short extras of the movie's best DVD release. There's room to do much more, like telling the interesting story of Keiko, the whale who played Willy. Warner has done more for less notable catalog titles, but this will have to do, with Blu-ray rereleases being rare.

Buy Free Willy from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
New to Blu-ray: The Black Stallion Blast from the Past
1993: Hocus Pocus Mrs. Doubtfire Father Hood & Life with Mikey Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
Animal Films: Dolphin Tale Cheetah How to Train Your Dragon The Lion King Old Yeller
Lori Petty: A League of Their Own | August Schellenberg: Eight Below | Mykelti Williamson: Forrest Gump

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Reviewed August 4, 2015.



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