Films about a boy and his dog have tugged at our collective heartstrings almost as long as Hollywood has been making movies, able to make us laugh in delight one moment, and bawl our eyes out the next. Could such a winning formula succeed if a kid was instead paired with a killer Orca? 1993 proved that the answer was a resounding “yes!” as film audiences flocked to theaters to witness the loving relationship between two societal misfits, a young delinquent named Jessie and his aquatic pal in the box-office blockbuster, Free Willy.
A whale named Willy is perfectly happy in his natural habitat until he is caught in the net of a hunting party. Left behind by his peers, he is captured and sold to a nearby aquarium. Incarcerated and away from his family, Willy is none too inclined to cooperate with his new trainers.
Meanwhile, a young streetwise orphan named Jessie has his own abandonment issues to deal with, and takes out his aggressions by stealing food and tagging the local aquatic park with spray-paint. When the authorities catch up to him, they place him in a foster home and order him to clean up his mess. While scrubbing away his artwork, he comes across Willy in one of the water tanks. Considered untrainable, it is a shock to both Jesse and Willy’s handler when the whale begins to respond to the young boy’s commands. The park hires Jessie to continue working with the whale and a new friendship is formed between man and beast. Things seem to be looking up for Jessie and his pal, until he learns that there is a plot to kill Willy for the insurance money. With nowhere else to turn, he enlists the help of his foster parents in a daring adventure to return his friend to his rightful habitat.
With a Top-10 theme song penned by Michael Jackson, absolutely beautiful cinematography and a heartwarming plot, Free Willy held its own at the box-office despite some stiff competition from summer blockbusters Jurassic Park and The Fugitive. All told, the film raked in a respectable $153 million worldwide, spawning two sequels and an animated series. A dog may be man’s best friend, but Free Willy showed that a kid and a killer whale could make for a pretty formidable pairing as well.
If Free Willy tugged at your own heartstrings in the 90s, we welcome your thoughts in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this endearing whale of a tale.