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Free Willy is a 1993 American family drama film directed by Simon Wincer, produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Jennie Lew Tugend, and written by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman from a story by Walker. The film stars Jason James Richter as a foster boy who befriends a captive orca.

Free Willy
Free willy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySimon Wincer
Produced by
Screenplay by
Story byKeith A. Walker
Music byBasil Poledouris
CinematographyRobbie Greenberg
Edited byO. Nicholas Brown
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • July 16, 1993 (1993-07-16)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$20 million
Box office$153.6 million

The film received positive attention from critics and was a commercial success, grossing $153.6 million from a $20 million budget. It eventually grew into a small franchise, spawning three sequels and a video game companion.

Michael Jackson produced and performed "Will You Be There", the theme for the film, which can be heard during the film's credits. The song won the MTV Movie Award for "Best Song in a Movie" in 1994. It was also included on Jackson's album, Dangerous, and All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film's first sequel.

As of March 20, 2019, Free Willy, along with its following two sequels, is one of the few Regency Enterprises productions not to be owned by the Walt Disney Studios through 20th Century Fox, due to the rights still being held by Warner Bros.



Near the coastline of the Pacific Northwest, a pod of orcas are peacefully swimming. The pod is tracked down by a group of whalers, and one of them, Willy, is trapped and sent to an amusement park.

Sometime later in Seattle, Jesse (Jason James Richter), a troubled 12-year-old boy abandoned by his mother six years before, is caught by the police for stealing food and vandalizing the theme park. Jesse's social worker Dwight (Mykelti Williamson) earns him a reprieve by finding him a foster home and having him clean up the graffiti at the theme park as part of his probation. His foster parents are the supportive and kind Annie and Glen Greenwood (Jayne Atkinson and Michael Madsen), but Jesse is initially unruly and hostile to them.

While working at the park, Jesse encounters Willy. Willy is regarded as surly and uncooperative by the park staff, including his trainer Rae Lindley (Lori Petty), but Willy takes a liking to Jesse's harmonica playing, and later saves Jesse from drowning, and the two start a bond, and Jesse also becomes friendly with Willy's keeper, Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg). Jesse teaches tricks to Willy, and is offered a permanent job at the theme park after probation. Jesse also warms into his new home.

The owner of the amusement park, Dial (Michael Ironside), sees the talent Jesse and Willy have together and makes plans to host "The Willy Show" in hopes of finally making money from Willy, who has thus far been a costly venture for him. On the day of the first performance, Willy is antagonized by children banging constantly on his underwater observation area and refuses to perform. In a stress-induced rage, he smashes against the tank, damaging it. Jesse storms off in tears and plans to run away. Later, while at the tank, Jesse notices Willy's family calling to him from the ocean and realizes how miserable he is in captivity. Shortly after, Jesse spots Dial's assistant, Wade (Richard Riehle), and several colleagues sneaking into the underwater observation area. They damage the tank enough that the water will gradually leak out and kill Willy, allowing them to cash in on his $1,000,000 insurance policy.

Jesse, Randolph, and Rae hatch a plan to release Willy back into the ocean. They use equipment at the park to load Willy onto a trailer, and Jesse and Randolph use Glen's truck to tow Willy to a marina. They try to stay on the back roads to avoid being spotted, but eventually get stuck in the mud. Wade meanwhile informs Dial that Willy is missing, and launches a search to find the fugitives.

Unable to move the trailer himself, Jesse calls Glen and Annie using a CB radio in Glen's truck. Annie and Glen show up and help free the truck, and continue on to the marina to release Willy. Dial knows where they are headed, and when they show up, he, Wade, and his associates are blocking the gate. Glen charges at them full speed in the truck, scattering the blockade. Glen smashes through the gate, turns the truck around and backs Willy into the water, flooding his truck in the process.

Willy is finally released into the water but does not immediately move, seemingly having been on dry land for too long. Dial and his confederates attempt to stop them, but Jesse and his friends fight back, trying to hold them off long enough for Willy to swim away. With Jesse's encouragement, Willy finally begins to swim, slipping away from the battle and heading for the marina entrance. Before he can make it into the ocean, however, two of Dial's whaling ships suddenly appear, sealing off the marina with their nets. Jesse runs towards the dyke, calling for Willy to follow him, drawing him away from the boats. Jesse goes to the edge and tells Willy that if he makes the jump, it will be his highest, and he'll be free. Jesse says a tearful goodbye, but pulls himself together and goes back to the top. He recites a Haida prayer Randolph had taught him, before giving Willy a signal. Willy makes the jump over the dyke and lands in the ocean on the other side, finally free to return to his family. Jesse goes back to Glen and Annie, who hug him as they look out into the sea. Willy calls out to Jesse in the distance, and both say their farewell.



Most close-up shots involving limited movement by Willy, such as when Willy is in the trailer and the sequences involving Willy swimming in the open water, make use of an animatronic stand-in. Walt Conti, who supervised the effects for the orcas, estimated that half of the shots of the orca used animatronic stand-ins. Conti stated that the smaller movements of a real Orca actually made things difficult in some ways for him and his crew; they had to concentrate on smaller nuances in order to make the character seem alive.[1] The most extensive use of CGI in the film is the climax, filmed in Astoria, Oregon, where Willy jumps over Jesse and into the wild. All stunts with the orca were performed by the young orca trainer Justin Sherbert (known additionally by his stage name, Justin Sherman).


Box office performanceEdit

The film was released by Warner Bros. on July 16, 1993 and grossed $7,868,829 domestically in its opening weekend.[2] It went on to make $76 million in its foreign release for a total of $153,698,625 worldwide.[2] Upon its initial release, Free Willy ranked number 5 at the box office before moving to number 4 by the following weekend. Afterward, its rank in the box office began to gradually decline, with the exception of a three-day weekend (September 3 to September 6), in which gross revenue increased by 33.6%.[3]

Critical responseEdit

The film has received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Free Willy currently holds a 57% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, based on 22 reviews, indicating mixed reviews.[4] The film on Metacritic has a 79 out of 100 rating.


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Free Willy: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
Various artists
Released1993 (1993)
ProducerJoel Sill
Gary LeMel
Jerry Greenberg
Singles from Free Willy: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  1. "Will You Be There"
    Released: June 28, 1993
  2. "Right Here (Human Nature Remix)"
    Released: July 10, 1993
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic     [6]

The soundtrack to Free Willy was released in 1993 by Epic Records. It features songs by Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block, and SWV.[7]

Track listingEdit

1."Will You Be There"Michael Jackson5:53
2."Keep on Smilin'"New Kids on the Block4:36
3."Didn't Mean to Hurt You"3T5:47
4."Right Here" (Human Nature Remix)SWV3:50
5."How Can You Leave Me Now"Funky Poets5:43
6."Main Title" (Score)Basil Poledouris5:07
7."Connection" (Score)Basil Poledouris1:44
8."The Gifts" (Score)Basil Poledouris5:19
9."Friends Montage" (Score)Basil Poledouris3:40
10."Auditon" (Score)Basil Poledouris2:04
11."Farewell Suite: Jessie Says Goodbye/Let's Free Willy!/Return to Freedom" (Score)Basil Poledouris12:01
12."Will You Be There" (Reprise)Michael Jackson3:42
Total length:59:26


The aquatic star of the film was an orca named Keiko. The huge national and international success of this film inspired a letter writing campaign to get Keiko released from his captivity as an attraction in the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City; this movement was called "Free Keiko". Keiko was moved to The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Oregon by flying in a UPS C-130 cargo plane. In Oregon, he was returned to health with the hopes of being able to return to the wild.[8] In 1998, Keiko was moved to Iceland via a US Air Force C-17 to learn to live in the wild. After working with handlers, he was released from a sea pen in the summer of 2002 and swam to Norway following a pod of wild orcas.[9]

His subsequent return to humans for food and for company, and his inability to integrate with a pod of orcas, however, confirms that the project had failed according to a scientific study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science (July 2009).[10][9] Keiko eventually died of pneumonia in a Norwegian bay on December 12, 2003.

A decade later in 2013, a New York Times video reviewed Keiko's release into the wild.[11] Reasons cited for Keiko's failure to adapt include his early age at capture, the long history of captivity, prolonged lack of contact with other orcas, and strong bonds with humans.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Rickitt, Richard (2006). Designing Movie Creatures and Characters: Behind the Scenes With the Movie Masters. Focal Press. pp. 161–65. ISBN 978-0-240-80846-8.
  2. ^ a b "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
  3. ^ "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
  4. ^ "Free Willy (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  5. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  6. ^ "Free Willy - Original Soundtrack - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  7. ^ Young, Sage. "What The Whale From 'Free Willy' Taught Us About Orcas, Long Before 'Blackfish' Hit Theaters". Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  8. ^ Kurth, Linda Moore (11 September 2017). Keiko's Story: A Killer Whale Goes Home. Millbrook Press. ISBN 9780761315001. Retrieved 11 September 2017 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ a b "BBC - Earth News - Killer whales: What to do with captive orcas?". Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  10. ^ Simon, M. (2009). "From captivity to the wild and back: An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale". Marine Mammal Science. 25 (3): 693–705. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2009.00287.x.
  11. ^ Winerip, Michael (September 16, 2013). "Retro Report: The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed" (video (11:43)). New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  12. ^ "From captivity to the wild and back: An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale" (PDF). Retrieved 23 January 2018.

External linksEdit