A term that is often thrown around would certainly be ‘Oscar-bait’. Now, the definition of this term is quite self-explanatory, but let it be said that there is a difference between an Oscar-bait e and a movie with Oscar-winning qualities implemented. Movies with Oscar-winning qualities are, ultimately, not a bad thing at all. It’s perfectly fine for a director to make a movie hoping to garner awards. It’s not fine, however, for a film to be made in a way that panders to the Oscar Award’s panel of judges, without any regard for a proper establishment of characters, a well-written screenplay, and a good story.
Enter Free Willy, the story of an orphan, Jesse (Jason James Richter) whose mother has abandoned him, leaving him to steal, vandalise, and panhandle, effectively terrorising the community. After being caught by the police, Jesse is forced to perform community service at a water park that he had broken into. At the water park, Jesse befriends Willy, an orca who had been separated from his family. Jesse trains Willy and befriends Willy’s keeper, Randolph Johnson, (August Schellenburg), Rae Lindley (Lori Petty), the whale trainer, and Jesse’s foster parents, Glen (Michael Madsen) and Annie (Jayne Atkinson) Greenwood. Everything seems to be going perfectly, but wait! Greedy business men conspire to exploit the relationship between Jesse and Willy for financial gain. After a failed show, they realise that they may as well kill Willy to claim a million-dollar insurance policy, so it’s up to Jesse, his foster parents, Rae, and Randolph to free Willy and send him back to the sea.
Now, understand that this film has some competency. For one, the relationship between Jesse and Willy is very well executed. From a technical standpoint, the film is also fantastic. You can hardly tell between the scenes where the film’s production team used a real orca or an animatronic. However, the good does not even come close to outweighing the bad.
The fundamental issue seems to be the horrendous character ‘arcs’. Jesse starts out as an unlikable brat. His rudeness stems from the absence of his biological mother, which is constantly mentioned throughout the film. However, Jesse after meeting Willy and the foster parents, implying that he has finally found a place in his life where he can be happy… except he doesn’t. Jesse still is shown to retain several unlikable qualities even after the introduction of Willy and the Greenwoods. At the start of the film, Jesse is shown to steal and panhandle. Even after meeting Willy, Jesse is still shown to rob a fishery just to bring extra food to Willy. Jesse’s insolence is also depicted throughout the film. Jesse is shown to go on a temper tantrum after Willy is unable to perform. He pushes away all of the adults and runs away, only to come running back to beg for help from the foster parents to save Willy. Simply put, Jesse irritating at the start of the movie and aggravating by the end.
Jesse’s inane whining is also highlighted by Richter’s acting, which ranges from decent at best to laughable at worst. While Richter may not necessarily be at fault here (after all, the scenes where Jesse throws a fit are horrendously written), but it is undeniably true that the tantrum scenes are outright absurd. There’s this one particularly egregious scene when, after Willy ruins the show, Jesse runs outside, filled with anger and sadness. There, Richter is able to fully show his asinine acting by kicking dirt and grunting “Uhhh!” “Euhhhh!”And then there is this scene that shows Richter ‘kicking’ a trash can in anger. It actually takes Richter a few tries to kick the trash can down, and it looks absolutely ridiculous, effectively highlighting just how many levels of hilarious stupidity this movie can descend.
And while the film is not too busy portraying the main character as this caricature of a bratty teenager, it’s spending it’s time underdeveloping the other characters. The foster parents have absolutely nothing to do in this film, except, in the end, to assist Jesse in rescuing Willy. Apart from being kind and nurturing, they have absolutely no personality to speak of. There is this one minute segment where they argue about raising Jesse, but this scene is never revisited, never expanded upon, proving how unnecessary it is. Randolph is an even more useless character. Schellenburg has next to no lines in this movie. His only purpose is to allow Jesse to train with the orca. Speaking of training the orca, Rae Lindley may just be the most useless character in the movie. Unlike the Greenwoods, or Randolph, who, at least, contribute to the plot, Rae has absolutely no bearing on the plot. In fact, the film never really shows her training Willy, which may confuse the viewers as to why she’s even in the movie. And that confusion would be perfectly justified – there seems to be absolutely no reason for her to be in the film. These character motivations are also utterly nonsensical. It makes sense that the greedy businessmen would want to exploit Willy for financial gain, as it would be plausible that Jesse would be compelled to free Willy, but why in the world would Randolph, or Rae, want to free Willy? Let us remember that Randolph is Willy’s keeper and Rae his trainer (despite not doing any training of any sort). Their livelihoods depend on Willy, so why would they even consider helping Jesse? For that matter, why would Randolph or Rae even consider letting Jesse train Willy? Their water park is proving to be a financial deficit (that issue is never solved, either), so wouldn’t it make sense that they should be trying their hardest to make Willy a successful attraction, rather than having some over-emotional teenager toy around with the orca? Which also brings me onto another question: Who, in their right minds, actually believe that Jesse is fit to train Willy? He is not a professional trainer, and he most likely has never seen an orca before. Indeed, upon viewing the film, Jesse doesn’t actually train Willy at all; they just waste time and stupidly meander. To highlight the film’s laziness, the aforementioned questions are not even addressed, much less answered.
The film’s plot is a horribly formulaic bore. It follows the cliche story line, which goes like this: Act 1 introduces all of the characters and sets up the conflict. Act 2 is about the main characters trying (and failing) to resolve the conflict, and then splitting up or leaving each other. Act 3 is when the characters get back together, make amends, and reach the resolution. And indeed, Free Willy follows the guideline perfectly: Act 1 introduces the greedy businessmen, Willy, Jesse, and all of those other astoundingly pointless characters. Act 2 ends after Willy ruins the show, prompting Jesse to storm off, displaying that insipid ‘tantrum’. Act 3 is when Jesse decides to reconcile with his foster parents (after losing his temper at them as well) and Willy, then bring Willy back to the ocean. While I despise this type of story, there are at least some movies that are able to execute it (reasonably) well, such as Zootopia (2016). But Free Willy seems to be one of the worst paced films I have ever encountered. The film introduces the character in an incredibly stilted, brisk fashion, as all of the characters are introduced consecutively. This takes about 20-30 minutes, but keep in mind that the first act should be about 40 minutes. Nextly, there’s the second act. If we consider the second act to start from when Jesse lands a job to train Willy and end when Jesse storms off, then the second act would be an hour and ten minutes, leaving a measly 20 minutes for the third act. As a result, the characters are introduced in a very awkward fashion, and then we are treated to one hour and ten minutes of incredibly boring scenes of Jesse training Willy, only for the film to be wrapped up in a very rushed manner. In this sense, it’s no wonder why the film yields so many questions, whilst not having the time, nor the care, to even bother answering them.
Free Willy is the perfect example of how the motivation to win awards may blind writers and directors into churning out horrendous slop. It’s also the perfect example of how a film can be ruined due to a mixture of frustrating incompetence and insipid pretentiousness, with a lack of care to develop characters or an even remotely interesting idea to top it off.