Plot: What’s it about?
Aside from being a punch line on Saturday Night Live (in reference to former President Clinton), Free Willy is actually a watch able movie. Yes, really. Granted it’s meant for families and the little tykes, but its one of those movies, like Star Wars, that has meaning and promotes generally good morals. Now the Summer of 1993 saw many a big budget movie, obviously headed by Jurassic Park. However movies like The Firm, Sleepless and Seattle and Mrs. Doubtfire (released in the Fall) did some big numbers as well. Free Willy was somewhat of a "sleeper" hit, but found its audience and even spawned (no pun intended) two sequels. Aside from having two "tough guys" in the cast, Michael Madsen and Michael Ironside, they managed to play somewhat decent parts. But the question is begged, what do we care about some whale who was taken away from his family? Evidently a lot of people do and it’s now the 10th anniversary of the movie (has it been that long) with a new Special Edition DVD to commemorate the release.
The movie, geared for kids, isn’t that hard to follow; I’m sure this was the premise all along. We meet Jesse (Jason James Richter) as he has just been forced to move away from his real family. His new foster parents are nice enough, fun-loving and caring, though Jesse feels it necessary to rebel against them; that’s what 12 year-olds do. As he sprays graffiti on the walls, he is forced to clean it up for his punishment. Naturally, this is in an aquarium and he finds himself startled to come face to face with Willy, an Orca whale. Very early on in the movie, we see that Willy can react to the tunes in Jesse’s harmonica. The staff of the aquarium, who had previously been unable to "communicate" with the whale, sees Jesse as a whale trainer and not as the delinquent that he was just a few days before. Naturally you have the owners of the park who try and exploit the child in order to get what they want (and naturally Michael Ironside plays the one of the bad guys…no one does it better).
Yes, the plot has been done before, think Old Yeller if he weighed a few thousand pounds! This leads us to the inevitable conclusion (hint: look at the box cover), but getting there is half the fun. Free Willy was a kind of movie that no one really expected to do well, but it was aimed at the younger demographic. Never underestimate the power of kids as a target market. The cast is surprisingly well-rounded with Lori Petty playing a worker at the aquarium, Michael Madsen and Ironside playing roles as well (Madsen had previously been seen in Reservoir Dogs, about the exact opposite of his role here). Kids who were the age of Jesse are now in or graduating from college now, the world changes, but this isn’t that bad of a movie and if you’ve never had the chance to see it, then I’d have to say there are worse ways to pass a few hours. Recommended.
Video: How does it look?
Warner seems to have learned their lesson from the numerous online petitions in regards to their earlier "family" releases. Some might remember the controversy with titles like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Space Jam. In any case, Free Willy has been shown in it’s original, somewhat wider, aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image has had an all-new digital transfer (as proclaimed on the back of the box) and it doesn’t look too shabby. As you can imagine, there are lots of shots of water, underwater and such. The fleshtones seem to be a bit oversaturated, but that’s to be expected with the somewhat muted palette used here. Edge enhancement and dirt are kept to a minimum, though there are points in which some is evident. A good-looking transfer that most will be delighted with.
Audio: How does it sound?
I was actually a bit surprised when the movie started, as throughout there was a level of depth that I didn’t really expect. I last saw this when it came to home video (most likely early in 1994) and wasn’t the home theater nut that I am now. The LFE is very active and helps out when Willy splashes in the water (why do whales do that). Dialogue, as you can imagine, is very clean and the surround effects do their fair share to help out. It’s not the best soundtrack in the world, but I was taken back a few steps as to how clean this Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds. Good job.
Supplements: What are the extras?
While this was proclaimed as a "Special Edition", there isn’t really a lot here and, in fact, the majority of the supplements are geared towards the educational and those of a younger nature. There is a 6 minute conversation with Rob Talbot, who helped film the opening sequence for the movie. He expresses his love for the whale and was obviously the right choice to help out here. "A Whale’s Tale" is a text-based version geared to help the kids learn about what it is that whales do and what their function is. A whale montage gets a bit old, but nonetheless does deliver as promised, just don’t fall asleep! A game, that sadly I couldn’t figure out, is also included entitled "Escape the Nets" in which you use your remote to avoid being caught. Good thing I’m not a whale, or I’d be a gonner. The music video "Will You Be There" by Michael Jackson is included and is scary, it makes me think that at one time he had a thing for whales. Seriously though, remember when Michael Jackson still actually performed? Some trailers for other Warner family titles are included as are trailers for all three Free Willy movies. DVD-ROM supplements include some more games and weblinks.