The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Free Willy’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Free Willy.”

The info:

The Movie: “Free Willy”

Starring: Jason James Richter, Lori Petty, Michael Madsen

Director: Simon Wincer

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) When a boy learns that a beloved killer whale is to be killed by the aquarium owners, the boy risks everything to free the whale.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 57 percent

Our take:

Brown: So last week on the JOE-DOWN, Froemming happened to (I think inadvertently) pick one of my favorite movies in “Escape From New York.”

So, I should do him a solid and pick one of his favorite movies, right?!

Nope. He gets a love story between a boy and a whale.

All I remember about this movie from the mid-’90s is how the entire movie was pointless to watch because ALL the marketing was based around the whale jumping over the kid to freedom. And if you watch the trailer, it literally hits every bullet point this movie’s plot has.

But it has a whale! An adorable, noble creature! Surely, we won’t rag on nature, will we, Froemming?

Froemming: I have a complicated history with this movie. I was probably 11 or 12 years old. It was Christmas. My uncle, who is really a nice guy, got blackout drunk at the St. Cloud Media Play, which is now defunct. In his drunken stupor, he decided to buy me three films for Christmas: “Free Willy,” “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” and “Silence of the Lambs.”

One of those films is not like the others. But hey, there was an animal in the titles, so “E” for effort I guess?

And no, my parents didn’t let me keep “Silence of the Lambs.” My dad had already traumatized me by having me watch “Twin Peaks” with him the year or two before. Something I told “Twin Peaks” co-creator Mark Frost at a book signing last year and he said he hoped I got good therapy over the years.

But hey, let’s get into the story of the world’s most ungrateful brat and the orca he befriends!

Brown: Well, you get that story if you don’t turn off the movie thinking you accidently picked a whale documentary. I timed it, the first 2 minutes, 20 seconds is nothing but whales jumping out of the water. All it needed was a Morgan Freeman voiceover and it would be something straight out of Animal Planet. No credits, no title screen. Just whales.

And then we get some plot advancement as a couple ships start chasing a pod of whales. And right away, you can tell how subtle the movie is going to be when the main whaling ship is called the Pequod like in “Moby Dick.”

My question is this: How did these people not get in trouble? This was right off the Washington state coastline… we aren’t going to alert the Coast Guard to a bunch of whalers? Can we at least get the “Whale Wars” folks out here for this? Anyone?!

Froemming: It was the early ‘90s man, before PC Culture told us being an (REDACTED) was wrong.

And yes, the opening felt like forever because of all this stock footage of whales.

But you knew these whalers were bad hombres because of the menacing music and one was sporting a bandana.

And they capture poor Willy and sell him on the black market to long-time JOE-DOWN movie villain, Michael Ironside as Dial. Yes, his name is Dial.

We then see a bunch of snot-nosed brats running wild in Seattle (this is Seattle right? I couldn’t tell with all the sunshine Seattle never gets) and stealing cake.

Now, I didn’t mind the cake-stealing scenario if it were not for the moment one of these kids put ketchup on his cake. That — that is worse than the crime of actually stealing the cake!

Brown: Wait, they put ketchup on the cake? I didn’t realize that. I now support the death penalty in Washington.

And yes, they were in Seattle. One of the characters, Randolph, wears a Seattle Supersonics hat the whole time. That’s how you can tell…

So our feral pack of kids are chased by multiple policemen over cake theft and end up at the aquarium. And what does any non-law abiding kid do while hiding from police in the ‘90s? TAG EVERYTHING WITH GRAFFITI!

Froemming: Were you as puzzled as I was that the police tracked down a bunch of minors who stole a cake? That seems just odd.

Brown: I’m upset we didn’t get SWAT. They ruined someone’s birthday by stealing that cake!

So our main felon, Jesse, is spray-painting the observation area for what ended up being Willy’s tank. The cops finally track down Jesse and he gets to talk to Bubba Blue Dwight, his social worker. So we find out here that Jesse is not going to juvi because he’s going to clean up the places he tagged. We also find out he’ll be staying with a foster family because his mom bailed on him years ago.

After I got over my anger of the parent bailing on Jesse because it was more or less the plot of “Angels in the Outfield,” I instantly feared for Jesse’s life because one of his foster parents was Quentin Tarantino stalwart Michael Madsen.

Froemming: I referred to him as Mr. Blonde throughout my notes. And when he gets sassed at by Jesse in this film, I secretly hoped he was going to pop on “Stuck In The Middle With You” and terrorize a stranger to blow off steam, because let’s face it, Jesse is grating. Like, I just hated this character.

Now, Jesse goes to work at amusement park, where he keeps walking away from his work to watch Willy, an orca just as depressed as I was as I watched this film.

Brown: No, we need to go back to Jesse and how much of a melodramatic ass he is.

So he gets taken in by Annie and Glen Greenwood, who live in a nice home on the coast. They give him a big meal, some new Nikes and the nicest room in the house. And all Jesse does is scowl and tell them to leave him alone.

Be grateful, you moody twerp. Know how much I’d have to pay for a studio apartment with the kind of oceanside view you had?

Also, because we’re still in a pre-internet world where “Oliver Twist” was probably still on people’s minds, Jesse is an orphan who plays the harmonica a lot. Why not have him hop a train and head to California while we’re at it?

But somehow, the power of the harmonica was enough to grab the attention of our orca lead. Sure, whatever.

Froemming: Well, Jesse sneaks out of the house to play his stupid harmonica for poor old Willy, and while there he slips and falls into the tank just as Willy’s keeper, Randolph Johnson, heard a noise and pops out to find nothing.

I enjoyed the character of Randolph Johnson, until the film demanded to shoehorn in some Native American mysticism with the guy. We really didn’t need that and it just seemed like a dumb stereotype thing to do. He was fine as just Willy’s keeper.

Anyway, Willy rescues Jesse and plops his body above water. Randolph drives Jesse home to his foster parents, one whom I assume has to wake up early for a jewelry heist in the morning.

Brown: That, or Glen was burying the Bride alive because he didn’t want to meet the wrong end of a sword and have his brother Bill get killed.

So two things that recur in this movie that made me laugh every time.

  1. Randolph makes some claim to Jesse that if you make eye contact with a whale it can see into your soul. For the rest of the movie, whenever the two looked at each other, I kept thinking of Frank Reynolds and the rabbit from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
  2. So Willy cries throughout the movie, we find out because he wants to be reunited with his family. And every time that whale cries, he sounds like Paul Bearer from ‘90s-era WWF. Like, a dead-on impression.

I’m also not buying that Willy would save Jesse from drowning in the pool. Willy is a wild animal, and I’ve seen nature footage of orcas devouring seals. That kid would be dead. But Willy can’t be a villain because we have Michael Ironside in this film.

Froemming: As I mentioned, Ironside plays Dial, who owns the amusement park. Randolph got Jesse a summer job after the dumb kid fell into an orca tank, leading me to believe his judgement is impaired somehow.

We learn that Dial has Willy in a tank meant for dolphins, which is too small for a whale the size of Willy. We also learn that Willy is grumpy and hates people, which I could relate to.

But Willy takes a shine to Jesse, which I don’t buy. And Jesse learns about Willy’s situation from Rae, in the only role I have ever seen Lori Petty not be a weirdo in.

So, Jesse begins training Willy with the aid of Rae and Randolph, showing marine biologists they don’t need a stupid college degree to do such a thing. They just need gumption and a harmonica.

Brown: It’s all about having a connection with the animal. Rae and Randolph think Willy is too ornery to be an attraction at the amusement park. But through the power of harmonicas and abandonment, the two wayward souls bound and Willy obeys Jesse’s orders. So because Willy transforms into Shamu all of a sudden, Dial thinks this can make for a profit. See, Rae and Jesse want to do it because it could mean that Dial would build a bigger tank for the whale.

Dial, he’s so one-dimensional, he literally says at one point that “Money, that’s what we’re all about.”

After feeling uncomfortable because I think Rae tried to seduce Jesse the whole movie, we still see Jesse struggling to adjust to foster care life.

Froemming: Jesse holds on to the dream that his mom will return, which we learn not even the federal government can find her.

What the (REDACTED) was Jesse’s mom into that has the feds searching for her? That is the story I wanted to watch, not brooding Jesse refusing to play catch with Vic Vega.

But Jesse is somewhat warming up to his foster parents, because he has something preoccupying his time other than being a raging jerk. He is going to the market to steal salmon for Willy, because that is Willy’s chocolate.

Brown: Because when you’re slim on plot, you start a training montage with a stolen salmon to fill running time.

Froemming: He is training Willy to do tricks. His dopey friend shows up for a pointless side plot about getting a job with questionable people. Jesse has the world in his hands.

That is, until the day of Willy’s big performance.

Now, I am no expert, but every time I have gone to a zoo, there are signs and people telling children and adults to NOT POUND ON THE GLASS. Sound carries in the water, but since Dial apparently cheaped out on security, a bunch of screeching children pound on the glass as Willy and Jesse are trying to put on the show.

Brown: Right?! At least put a sign up that says “Please don’t spook Willy by hitting the glass.” But Dial is too cheap for that.

Froemming: Exactly. So the show goes downhill right away because Willy is spooked. And of course Jesse takes it personally, thinking Willy did this to embarrass him. Which, because of how much I disliked this character, I secretly wished that was the case.

Brown: OK, so during this performance, Willy slams into the glass in the observation area, which causes a small leak. This inspires one of Dial’s assistants to tell him this because Willy has a $1,000,000 insurance policy, which the movie just throws at us 20 minutes before the ending. No mention of this beforehand. It’s a movie about a whale, so we need some sort of idiotic conflict for the climax.

Froemming: What (REDACTED) insurance company covers a black market whale? You need papers and whatnot for that. I call BS on this.

Jesse is at home, being all sad and angry and starts arguing with Mr. and Mrs. Blonde. This turns into the foster parents yelling at one another about having this ungrateful little jerk in their home.

What does Jesse do? He throws his present, a baseball, through his window. A window I’d imagine that costs a lot of money.

Brown: Jesse gets a (rightful) reaming from his social worker, making Jesse realize that A. his deadbeat mom is not coming back, and B. he has it good with the Greenwoods, so shut up kid. I mean, he lays into this kid and I could not be happier.

But because Jesse is so incredibly pig-headed, he’s going to run away. Presumably with his friend that is leaving Seattle for Venice, Calif. and acts like he’s got some huge work ahead of him.

Hey friend, you’re like 12, what are you going to do? Well, he’s going from Seattle to California in the early ‘90s, so I’m guessing something with heroin.

Froemming: We finally know who killed Kurt Cobain.

Brown: Jesse goes to say goodbye to Willy, but he sees shenanigans when Dial’s cronies start weakening the observation area’s glass to cause the tank to drain and likely kill Willy in order to collect on the insurance policy.

Never mind that an insurance company would investigate such a high-end policy and find clear foul play from these morons, I guess.

So, it’s no time to run for Jesse. It’s time to FREE WILLY (roll credits).

Froemming: My problem with this scenario: Instead of committing a ton of crimes in order to FREE WILLY, why didn’t Jesse, Rae and Randolph call the police and tell them Jesse saw the goons messing with the tank? Dial and his crew get arrested for insurance fraud and probably trying to kill an orca. Willy is given to some animal charity group that will take care of the guy and everyone wins.

But nope, we get these three ding-dongs committing grand theft auto of Mr. Blonde’s truck, stealing an animal and aiding and abetting a minor in a crime. All three would probably be thrown in jail/juvi.

Brown: This is all I could think of as the crew tried to free the whale:

But the reality is they have to ratchet the drama by having all these little problems arise. They have to keep their Willy wet. They have to stay off main roads. There’s a tree in the road. We have to get it done before sunrise or else Willy will dry up.

Look, the movie is called “Free Willy.” We all saw the trailer. We all saw the music video for the Michael Jackson song in this film. All of these obstacles are mere bumps in the road. We’re saving this (REDACTED) whale.

So after the Greenwoods are brought in to help their jail-bound foster kid, the gang arrives at the marina.

Froemming: Dial must be clairvoyant, because he and his goons are waiting for them at the marina. Really good guess there guys.

But they are not dealing with any old schmuck, they are dealing with Mr. Blonde, a man who has no issues cutting people’s ears off to a jaunty, Dylan-esque tune from the 1970s. And he plows right through the gate, somehow not killing anyone.

Mr. Blonde then uses his incredible driving skills to back his wrecked truck into the water so they can set Willy free. But Dial and his crew are not going to go out without a fight.

Brown: You know what this movie needs? MORE OBSTACLES!

Willy’s in the water, but the only way to get out of the marina is blocked by a pair of boats with nets, ready to catch Willy once again. I don’t know if the bay is deep enough for Willy to swim under the boats, so I’ll let that go.

We can’t end a movie with Michael Ironside succeeding, so Jesse races towards a point in the bay and gives Willy some words of encouragement.

*Deep breath* IT’S A (REDACTED) WHALE! Quit treating it as an animal of deep, cognitive thought. The only reason he does tricks for you is for mackerel. If he were a wild whale, Willy would drag itself onto land and chomp Jesse like a wounded sea lion.

Froemming: Well, that sure turned dark pretty quick, Brown.

Anyway, with everyone punching each other out in the water like civilized adults do, Jesse gets Willy to perform one last trick: To get his orca friend to jump over the barrier and be reunited with his family.

And the little (REDACTED) pulls it off.

Well, Willy is free and everyone in this marina is facing prison time for their ill-advised actions and life choices. As Jesse and the Blonde family stare out to the ocean, we hear Willy sing out his farewell to these terrible people.

I think it is time for us to jump the barrier to freedom with recommendations.

Brown: Not before I get one more “Simpsons” reference in here.


Brown: No. Not even as a kid’s movie. No child needs to see Jesse and think, “That’s a kid I can relate to.”

Froemming: I enjoyed it as a child, but not much as an adult. I’d say you can skip this one.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down:

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