The Movie Moments Homepage / Reviews & More

Netflix Daily Pick: Bonding Together in ‘Free Willy’ (1993)

Great family adventure film about a boy and a big fish.

Free Willy is a 1993 family/drama about a boy who learns that a beloved killer whale is to be killed by the aquarium owners, and risks everything to free it.

Today’s Netflix pick is a family film that kinda made big waves, if you’ll pardon the wording, on release, the touching story becoming a huge hit with a younger audiences, who found a lot to identify with and morse so, became inspired by the unique relationship of a boy and killer whale. While critics didn’t quite warm to it, theatergoers did, in droves, helping to boost this to being one of the post popular movies of the year. It’s Free Willy and it’s what you’re watching tonight. Here’s why.

THE STORY: Directed by Simon Wincer, Free Willy follows the adventures of Jesse (Jason James Richter), a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his mother who gets caught vandalizing an aquatic theme park. He ends up in a new foster home with supportive foster parents Annie (Jayne Atkinson) and Glen (Michael Madsen) Greenwood, though he’s given the condition that he must clean up the damage he’s caused. At the park, he meets Willy, a temperamental orca that actually saves Jesse from drowning, which inspires the two to become more friendly. Jesse also gets to know trainer Rae Lindley (Lori Petty) and the animal’s keeper, Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), eventually earning a real position at the park, though he soon uncovers a dangerous plot by the amusement park’s owner that changes everything.

Free Willy
Free Willy, 1993 © Warner Bros.

WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: While reality might be far-fetched for adults, Free Willy is a great experience for children, full of high adventure and rousing moments. A kid and an unusual animal friend became an almost reckless trend in the 90s after the success of Free Willy, but this is where the genre really took off (though perhaps that could be traced back to E.T. – The Extraterrestrial). Either way, Free Willy establishes an easy-to-follow formula that certainly inspires imagination in children while making sure to have plenty of positive roles for adults, something many tend to get loose with, often painting grown ups as dolts.

Free Willy
Free Willy, 1993 © Warner Bros.

Free Willy was a touchstone moment in the 90s, a kind of kid-friendly response in a way to Jurassic Park, which opened only a few weeks earlier. The movie spawned three sequels and great interest in killer whales, that in many ways led to further appreciation and awareness of the animal’s behaviors and conditions in captivity, something that came around again with 2013’s disturbing documentary Blackfish. A terrific family adventure film filled with warmth and a non-violent message, this is an easy pick for a family movie night. It’s streaming on Netflix right now.