It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Free Willy" tells the story of a boy and his whale, and if that sounds like an unwieldy adaptation of the sturdy old formula about a boy and his dog, it is. Whales are not as charismatic as dogs, not as easily trained, and cannot be hugged. Yet "Free Willy" works its way around the physical reality of its animal lead, and somehow becomes one of the summer's best family pictures.
The movie stars Jason James Richter as Jesse, a 12-year-old who is going through a stormy period in his life. He has just moved into a foster home, and although his new parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson) are patient and loving, he finds it necessary to test them by rebelling. He's unruly, insulting, distant, and disappears for hours at a time.
One day Jesse is caught spraying graffiti at the ramshackle "adventure park" near his home and is ordered to clean the graffiti as punishment. While washing his work off the walls of the seaquarium, he becomes aware of Willy, an orca whale who has recently been captured. And one night, running away from home and sitting in the moonlight near Willy's tank, he finds that the whale seems to react to the sound of his harmonica.
It's the start of a beautiful friendship. The boy and the whale both feel homeless, cut off from their real families - Willy because he has been captured, Jesse because his birth mother has gone away and there is no reason to believe she will return.