Free Willy is a 1993 American family drama film, directed by Simon Wincer, produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Jennie Lew Tugend, written by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman from a story by Walker and distributed by Warner Bros. under their Family Entertainment imprint. The film stars Jason James Richter in his film debut, Lori Petty, Jayne Atkinson, August Schellenberg and Michael Madsen with the eponymous character, Willy, played by Keiko.

Free Willy
Free willy.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySimon Wincer
Screenplay by
Story byKeith A. Walker
Produced by
CinematographyRobbie Greenberg
Edited byO. Nicholas Brown
Music byBasil Poledouris
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 story is about an orphan boy who was ordered to clean up graffiti at an ailing amusement park as probation for vandalizing the observation area, and it was there that he befriended a captive orca until a dark secret revealed that the park's greedy owner plans to kill the whale for money.

Shot between May and August 1992 and released on July 16, 1993, the film received positive attention from critics and was a commercial success, grossing $153.6 million from a $20 million budget.

It grew into a small franchise, including a television series, two sequels and a direct-to-video reboot. It also inspired the rehabilitation and release of Keiko.


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, with a distinguishable set of three spots, is trapped and sent to the Northwest Adventure Park while his family is unable to help.

Sometime later in Portland, Oregon, Jesse, a troubled orphaned 12-year-old boy abandoned by his estranged mother six years before, is caught by police for vandalizing the theme park, alongside his friend Perry who escaped. On the night of his arrest, he encounters the orca whale. Jesse's social worker Dwight earns him a reprieve by finding him a foster home and having him clean up the graffiti at the park, as part of his probation. His foster parents are the supportive and kind Annie and Glen Greenwood, but Jesse is initially unruly and hostile to them.

While working at the park, Jesse sees the whale again. The whale, named Willy by the owners, is regarded as surly and uncooperative by the park staff, including his trainer Rae Lindley, but Willy takes a liking to Jesse's harmonica playing, and later saves Jesse from drowning one night, and the two start a bond, and Jesse also becomes friendly with Willy's keeper, Randolph Johnson, who witnessed Jesse's arrest the previous night and teaches him about his connection with Willy. Jesse is offered a permanent job at the theme park after probation, and also warms into his new home.

The owner of the Northwest Adventure Park, Dial, 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. Jesse, unable to get Willy to do tricks while dealing with pressure from the crowd, storms off in tears and plans to run away to find his mom. In a stress-induced rage, Willy smashes against the tank, damaging it. Later, while at the tank, Jesse says his last farewell but notices Willy's family calling to him from the ocean and realizes how miserable he is in captivity after discovering their voices responding to Willy's cry. Shortly after, Jesse spots Dial's assistant, Wade, and several colleagues sneaking into the underwater observation area. They deliberately 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 and Randolph hatch a plan to release Willy back into the ocean, and also brought Rae into the mix. They use equipment at the park to load Willy onto a trailer, and Jesse and Randolph use Glen's truck to tow Willy to Dawson's Marina. Wade meanwhile calls Dial to inform him that Willy is missing, thinking that Rae and Randolph did it. Dial tells him to call Wilson as he launches a search to find the fugitives. Jesse, Randolph and Rae try to stay on the back roads to avoid being spotted, but eventually get stuck in the mud.

With Randolph and Rae unable to move the trailer, Jesse calls Glen and Annie using a CB radio in the truck. Annie and Glen show up and help free the truck, and continue on to the marina to release Willy, making a stop at a car wash to hose Willy down. There, Dial, Wade, and his associates are blocking the gate. 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. Wade and the 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 breakwater, 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 breakwater 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 Willy calls out to Jesse in the distance.


Former Astoria mayor Willis Van Dusen made a cameo appearance as a fish vendor. Jim Michaels had a voice role as an announcer for the Northwest Adventure Park.


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 at the Hammond Marina in Warrenton, 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). Principal photography took place from May 18 to August 17, 1992.


Box office performanceEdit

The film was released alongside Hocus Pocus 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 behind the latter film, Jurassic Park, In the Line of Fire and The Firm at the box office before moving to number 4 by the following weekend and it stayed there for two more weeks. 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 positive reviews from critics. The Rotten Tomatoes website reported that 71% of critics have given the film a fresh rating based on 31 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6/10.[4] The site's critics consensus reads, "Free Willy tugs at the heartstrings skillfully enough to leap above the rising tide of sentimentality that threatens to drown its formulaic family-friendly story."[4] The film on Metacritic has a weighted average score of 79 out of 100, indicating "generally favorable reviews" from 14 reviews.[5]


Date Award Category Recipient(s) and Nominee(s) Result Ref.
15th Youth in Film Awards February 5, 1994 Best Youth Actor Leading Role in a Motion Picture: Drama Jason James Richter Won1 [6]
Outstanding Family Motion Picture: Drama Free Willy Won
1994 Kids' Choice Awards May 7, 1994 Favorite Film Free Willy Nominated
Favorite Movie Actress Lori Petty Nominated
1994 MTV Movie Awards June 4, 1994 Breakthrough Performance Jason James Richter Nominated
Best Kiss Jason James Richter and Willy Nominated
Best Song From a Movie "Will You Be There" by Michael Jackson Won
BMI Film & TV Awards 1994 BMI Film Music Basil Poledouris Won
Environmental Media Awards 1994 Feature Film Free Willy Won
Genesis Awards 1994 Feature Film Free Willy Won
Golden Screen, Germany 1994 Golden Screen Free Willy Won
  • ^1 — Tied with Edward Furlong for A Home of Our Own.

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

Home VideoEdit

Free Willy sold almost 9 million units on videocassette.[8]


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     [9]

The soundtrack was released in July 13, 1993 by Epic Records and MJJ Music.[10] It contained all the songs that were featured in the movie. Michael Jackson produced and performed "Will You Be There", taken from his 1991 album Dangerous, which can be heard during the end credits. The single version, under the title "Will You Be There (Reprise)", is also included. The song went on to become a top 10 hit in the Billboard Hot 100 charts and was certified platinum as well as winning the 1994 MTV Movie Award for Best Song from a Movie. The second single, a remix SWV's 1992 song "Right Here", which contained a sample of Jackson's song "Human Nature", also became a No. 2 hit for the group. New Kids on the Block recorded their first song since they briefly changed their name to NKOTB.[11]

Track listingEdit

1."Will You Be There (Theme from Free Willy)"Michael JacksonMichael Jackson5:53
2."Keep on Smilin'"
3."Didn't Mean to Hurt You"3T5:47
4."Right Here" (Human Nature Remix)SWV3:50
5."How Can You Leave Me Now"Paul FraizerFunky Poets5:43
6."Main Title" Basil Poledouris5:07
7."Connection" Basil Poledouris1:44
8."The Gifts" Basil Poledouris5:19
9."Friends Montage" Basil Poledouris3:40
10."Auditon" Basil Poledouris2:04
11."Farewell Suite
  • a. "Jessie Says Goodbye" – 3:37
  • b. "Let's Free Willy!" – 3:35
  • c. "Return to Freedom" – 4:49"
 Basil Poledouris12:01
12."Will You Be There" (Reprise)Michael JacksonMichael 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". Warner Bros. was so grateful for the whale, and so moved by the fan's ambition, they contributed to rehabilitate and (if possible) free Keiko. He 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.[12] 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.[13]

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).[14][13] 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.[15] 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.[16]

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. Archived from the original on July 28, 2018. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
  3. ^ "Free Willy". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on January 29, 2012. Retrieved April 4, 2010.
  4. ^ a b "Free Willy (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 4, 2021.
  5. ^ "Free Willy Reviews". Metacritic. Archived from the original on September 22, 2020. Retrieved August 8, 2020.
  6. ^ "15th Annual Youth In Film Awards". Archived from the original on 2011-03-04. Retrieved 2020-09-21.
  7. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2019-04-02. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  8. ^ "WB pushes 'Willy 2' vid". Variety. Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  9. ^ "Free Willy - Original Soundtrack - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic. Archived from the original on 11 September 2017. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  10. ^ Variety Staff (Jun 10, 1993). "'Willy' music launches MJJ/Epic". Variety. Retrieved March 30, 2021.
  11. ^ Young, Sage. "What The Whale From 'Free Willy' Taught Us About Orcas, Long Before 'Blackfish' Hit Theaters". Archived from the original on 11 September 2017. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  12. ^ Kurth, Linda Moore (11 September 2017). Keiko's Story: A Killer Whale Goes Home. Millbrook Press. ISBN 9780761315001. Archived from the original on 19 December 2020. Retrieved 11 September 2017 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ a b "BBC - Earth News - Killer whales: What to do with captive orcas?". Archived from the original on 16 August 2017. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  14. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 2017-09-22. Retrieved 2019-07-06.
  15. ^ Winerip, Michael (September 16, 2013). "Retro Report: The Whale Who Would Not Be Freed" (video (11:43)). New York Times. Archived from the original on 11 June 2015. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  16. ^ "From captivity to the wild and back: An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 April 2016. Retrieved 23 January 2018.

External linksEdit