"Free Willy" has all the ingredients of a good family drama, and will especially win the hearts of animal lovers.
The sequence of events and the characters within the movie are not surprising, but importantly they not offensive either. Jason James Richter plays Jesse, a dysfunctional kid who's caught spray-painting the observation deck of the local aquatic park. Abandoned by his mum, he's fallen in with a bad crowd and his last chance is to live with foster parents Michael Madsen and August Schellenberg. He's not about to try and make friends though, and sullenly returns to the park to clean the mess he made.
In the tank lies an orca whale, as angry and uncooperative as young Jesse. A mutual bond quickly develops, and 'Willy', the orca, soon starts to take an interest in performing again, just as Jesse starts to straighten himself out too. It's a typical boy-comes-good drama and the scenes between Jesse and Willy are played with remarkably little syrup and some genuine warmth.
Sadly, Willy is worth more dead than alive, and park owner Michael Ironside (poor fella is always the bad guy) wants the money. As you can imagine, Jesse sets out to foil the dastardly plan. While the adults in the audience may find it all a little predictable, kids should be able to appreciate the excitement, though Willy's well-timed wails are so heart rending that they should send the young ones into fits of sobs. A few dried tears and a happy ending later, all should be ready for the next two sequels.
"Free Willy" is on BBC1 at 2.30pm, Monday 16th April 2001.