Some of the most transporting movies ever made have been about the primal bond between children and animals. In such rapturously emotional fables as The Yearling, National Velvet, and The Black Stallion, the youthful protagonists see in their critter companions something no adult ever could: a mirror image of their own untamed spirit a reflection at once pure and delicately erotic. (It's as if kids, in their very innocence, lived closer to their wild animal hearts than we lustful adults do.) There are scattered moments in Free Willy when one senses this kind of bond. The movie is about the friendship between a 12-year-old boy, Jesse (Jason James Richter), and a beautiful killer whale named Willy, who has been captured and placed in a marine park so that he can become a trained performer.
Willy is very smart, but he won't cooperate with anyone but Jesse. When the two are alone, he turns into a spontaneous performer, leaping into the air, singing along with the kid's harmonica, even nodding his head to say ''yes.'' When the moment arrives for him to do his first public show, however, Willy refuses to perform; he's a beast who won't be tamed. It's an irony too significant to ignore that the movie, which proselytizes against penning up whales in order to make them do cute tricks for humans, spends much of its time making Willy do cute tricks for humans.
When Willy pushes his rubbery nose to the edge of the tank to touch his new friend, he's every kid's dream pet: sleek and exotic yet huggable, too. But a lot of Willy's antics like that head-nodding business are of the only-in-the- movies variety. Essentially, Free Willy is a glorified Flipper episode. The movie floats along on Willy's boisterous animal magnetism, but its human drama is only serviceable. It seems that Jesse and Willy are both spiritual orphans searching for a family. Jesse's mother disappeared years ago, and he has been placed in a foster home with a well-meaning couple (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson) who can't seem to connect with him; Willy, meanwhile, wants to be with his fellow whales in the Pacific Ocean. Jason James Richter is a sensitive young actor, with an inquisitive face that never begs for adoration. Yet the scenes between him and Michael Madsen, as his gruff auto-mechanic foster father, are too crudely written to hook us.
Since the concept is all in the title, there's not much suspense about where things are heading (I heard a woman on line at the multiplex discussing the scenes she was planning to cry at). Still, one twist is rather telling. The story, as presented, would seem to be heading toward Jesse's realization that it's a crime to keep a beast like Willy in a tank. Instead, the film puts the hard sell on us: It has the villainous marine-park owners try to kill Willy for the insurance money. When Jesse finally gets Willy to the ocean, there's a miraculous image of the whale leaping out of the water and right over the boy. Still, the question lingers: If those nasty park owners had treated Willy better, would Jesse have even thought of setting him free? B-