Analyzing the Free Willy films and their relevance to Killer Whales. (Spoilers)


This is going to be a first for my blog as this article is going to include a movie review, three in fact. Yes, the trilogy of films that began in the summer of 1993, featuring humans interacting with strange and elusive animals realized with groundbreaking animatronics and contributed to my love of Godzilla… the Free Willy trilogy. The reason I am doing the Free Willy movies is that they are probably my favorites outside of the Godzilla films. As some may know, I am pursuing a career in marine biology and particularly interested in studying whales. This distinguishes me from most other animal-loving Godzilla fans as they tend to lean more on paleontology and are accordingly Jurassic Park fans. About 2-3 years before I became a Godzilla fan, these movies were some of my favorites and contributed greatly to my understanding of whales. The Free Willy films and my commitment to marine biology are to me what the Jurassic Park franchise and paleontology are to many other Godzilla fans. The first movie is fairly well-known but does not carry the reputation I think it deserves. Its two theatrical sequels remain pretty unknown, if my Twitter conversations are of any indication. I intend to discuss these films in a relatively dignified manner. Hopefully, this article will help provide some better context for both these movies and my own interests. Usual rules regarding the scientific and movie facts apply. The analyses will involve spoilers, if you want to hear my spoiler-free opinions of these movies, check out my letterboxd list.

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Free Willy (1993)


12-year-old juvenile delinquent, Jesse (Jason James Richter), is arrested after stealing food and vandalizing the killer whale exhibit of a local theme park. His foster-care agency sends him back to the park to clean up his mess while under the supervision of the theme park’s whale-keeper, Randolph (August Schellenberg). During this time, Jesse is placed in the care of a new foster-family, Glen and Ann Greenwood (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson). By the time his punishment is over, he develops a bond with the asocial, 12-year-old orca, Willy. With Jesse being the only person the whale is receptive towards, Randolph and animal trainer, Rae (Lori Petty), decide to have Jesse be Willy’s assigned trainer. However, Willy’s premiere with Jesse goes awry, resulting in Willy damaging his own tank. The park’s owner (Michael Ironside) decides to let Willy die as water leaks from his tank so he can profit from the insurance money. Finding out the truth, Jesse, along with his co-workers and new family, stage a plan to release Willy back into the ocean to reunite with his family.


This section is going to serve as the real meat of this article as there is a lot to go over. I will start by providing some historical context behind humans’ perception of orcas and how it evolved along with the captivity industry.

A harsh stigma against orcas has long persisted in the Western civilizations, spanning as far as the ancient Greeks. The main cause of this negative outlook on the orca is its reputation as an apex predator, specifically its attacks on other cetaceans. The Ancient Greeks, and Romans by association, did not take too kindly to killer whales feeding on their revered dolphins. The killer whale’s binomial nomenclature reflects this. Its genus name ”Orcinus” pertains to death and the Roman god of the underworld, Orcus. This perspective among Westerners lasted throughout the Middle Ages and influenced their treatment of orcas well into the twentieth century. Even the scientific community failed to remain objective when evaluating these creatures. While most other cetacean species were broadly studied for their biology and social behaviors, killer whale research was mainly limited to inspecting stomach contents, reinforcing its reputation as a savage killer. They were also regarded as being great potential threats to humans. Ironically, wild killer whales are not known to attack or kill humans. To date, there are a mere handful of instances where humans were harmed by wild killer whales: most of them incidental, and none fatal. This contrasts with the relatively more consistent records of attacks by other predators, such as ”man-eating” shark species. They were seen as a nuisance by fishermen and it was socially accepted and downright encouraged behavior to shoot and kill orcas for sport, even within the U.S. Navy.

This hatred for killer whales contrasts greatly with perceptions held by indigenous cultures such as the Haida and Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest. Both of these cultures hold the orca in high regard, and for the Haida, it is arguably their most sacred animal. Randolph Johnson, Willy’s keeper, is of Haida heritage and the movies accurately references ”scanna/sganna” as the Haida term for a killer whale. He describes to Jesse a variant of an actual Haida-Tlingit creation myth for the orca. Randolph tells the story of a young man, Natselane (/ntsˈklɑːn/ noht-sy-KLAH-nay). He gets lost at sea during a hunting trip and resides on a shore somewhere in search of his hunting partners. All Natselane finds is a log, which he uses to carve a beast, he then places it into a pool of water. When the beast sinks into the pool, Natselane recites a prayer he had never heard before. The carving then comes to life and becomes the first killer whale. Natselane then rides the whale to return home. Overall, this is a fair retelling of the story, as the Natselane story is a form of oral tradition, which are inherently subjected to change over generations. This insight is interesting, as the change and diverging variation of orally-passed down stories are clear examples of cultural evolution. This forms a type of cohesion in comparing the cultural behaviors of humans and orcas, a topic for later. I like how the movie tells a version that can be easily be used to draw parallels with this movie’s plot. I am not exactly sure about the authenticity of the prayer due to the lack of sources. The IMDB trivia for this movie claims the prayer is actually Haida as well and roughly translates to ”To be free”, though I cannot substantiate that with certainty. However, given how much else this script got fairly accurate, I would not be surprised if that is indeed the case. Maybe I will try to learn Haida one day myself and return to this movie. A well-conserved part of the Natselane story that the movie does not mention is that the young man gives orders to the beast to never harm a human before letting it free in the end. This was likely how the Haida and Tlingit rationalized why such an otherwise fierce predator hardly attacks humans in real life.

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The large shift in the public perception of orcas by Westerners is rooted at the beginning of killer whale captivity. In 1961, the Los Angeles Marineland made an attempt to capture and place a female orca in captivity. However, she soon died in her tank after repeatedly ramming herself against its walls. The second killer whale to ever be captured and placed in captivity was Moby Doll, who was initially intended to be killed so his skeleton could be used to fashion a life-sized model for the Vancouver Aquarium. Since Doll survived being harpooned, his captors set up a makeshift pen for it near a dock and the whale attracted much popularity. Moby Doll was named under the assumption that he was female, but after his death three months into captivity, the necropsy revealed he was just a young male. Doll was the turning point that led to the public fascination in orcas and sparked the birth of a market for killer whales as entertainers. While this would lead to much conservational harm to orcas, it was also the start of more serious scientific interest in understanding them. As it turns out, this long-ignored species would prove to be among the most fascinating.

Orcinus orca, the killer whale, is a species of dolphin that is distributed worldwide. They are very intelligent social creatures who are the apex predator of every ecosystem they occupy. It is a diverse species with unique dialects, diets, and cultural behaviors across the many populations inhabiting the world’s oceans. The species is so diverse, in fact, there is evidence supporting that the ten ecotypes can be classified into four or more species of killer whales when using the typical standards to interpret speciation in cetaceans. There is a hypothesis that the evolution of the ecotypes is mediated by a process called ”cultural hitchhiking”. Researchers such as Hal Whitehead have studied whales with strong social structures like orcas and sperm whales; they found that the population genetics of these species appear to be driven strongly by the passing on of learned behaviors that improve fitness rather than directly by genes that code for adaptive traits. This research could prove insightful for the discussion on whether or not humans are still evolving.

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The most popular of the orca ecotypes is the ”Resident” population of orcas endemic to the Pacific Northwest region of North America. This ecotype has two defining characteristics: their strict fish diet, with a preference for salmon, and their very tight social structures. Their pods are matrilineal, where adults of both sexes remain with their maternal natal group throughout their lives and mate outside their pods.

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Resident orcas serve as the main target of the net capture operations that ran rampant during the 1960s and early 1970s within the booming market for captive orcas. Many orcas were harmed or killed in the process. In response, some whales that were released from the nets learned to avoid these ships and even utilized strategies involving ”decoy whales” who would distract the hunters as the juveniles escape with their caregivers. Cries were shared between whales who were being separated from their relatives. The discovery of the dead bodies fueled rage from the public, which encouraged the federal government to enact the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972. This prohibited the capture of whales, but Sea World was provided an economic-hardship exemption by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1974. Furthermore, a breeding and import-export industry of captive orcas was maintained.

Now, with all of that out of the way, let us start with the movie. The opening sequence of the film was accomplished by seasoned wildlife cinematographer, Bob Talbot, who had a special liking for whales and was motivated by this film’s conservation-heavy themes and how it represented killer whales, specifically their social structure. Feel free to look at this interview here:

The social structure of orcas is an integral part of their evolution. As Talbot states, the impact of capturing whales extends not only to the captive individual but the mourning pod. There are studies supporting the existence of fitness costs to orcas that experienced human-related mortalities within their pods. Killer whales’ cooperation-based evolution fairly mirrors humans, evidence of this being how we are both among the few species where the females have very extended post-reproductive lifespans. The significance behind female animals living for decades after menopause is that natural selection normally promotes stable adaptations that facilitate the passing of genes (i.e. producing offspring). As a consequence, most organisms do not outlive their reproductive lifespans as their continued survivorship no longer contributes to their direct fitness. Research examining this conundrum in humans and orcas supports the hypothesis that these lifespans evolved because elder female orcas were beneficial for the rearing of calves. Orcas are cooperative breeders, meaning non-parent individuals aid in raising the offspring, likely an adaption that combats the high mortality rates of calves. The elderly, non-reproductive females provide an evolutionary advantage as experienced caregivers for their grandchildren. This would mean that evolution allowed for the existence of whale grandmothers because they can still contribute to their indirect fitness by maintaining the survivorship of their descendants that can still reproduce and pass down their grandmother’s genes.

Once the opening sequence ends, we are shown Willy being separated from his pod in a net-capturing operation. This scene was realized not with any real orcas, but through the efforts of Walt Conti and his team at Edge Innovations. Warner Bros. contacted Conti to construct an animatronic whale for some of the movie’s critical scenes. Conti made his mark in animatronics in 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home with his groundbreaking 4ft humpback whale animatronics. Both Conti and the filmmakers wanted a free-ranging life-sized animatronic for Free Willy, which has never been done before. The challenge for this film was to scale up the 4ft animatronics to a 22 ft orca, which was not simple since a lot of the internal design parameters did not scale linearly. The 35 lbs of skin for the Star Trek whales became 4,000 lbs for Willy. All the considerations needed to make the animatronic as convincing as possible were divided into multiple tasks. An aerospace-level design was necessary to maintain proper buoyancy and movement, military and aerospace vendors were sourced for parts, casts from an orca skull was used to form the mouth interior and teeth, measurements were taken from the whale-actor, Keiko, to gain an accurate resemblance, and the electronics and control system was developed in-house.

All the planning and effort paid off as the final product was extremely convincing and self-contained outside of a small umbilical cable. It could realistically move its neck, spout, swim, etc. This accomplishment was especially impressive as there was no precedent for such an effect, as Jaws was accomplished using separate models for different parts of the shark’s body. This animatronic was used for many of the close-up shots and the film’s ending, totaling half of Willy’s screentime. Conti and Edge Innovations’ work was a success and continued to improve their technology as they worked on the sequels. 15 animatronics were constructed across the three films. Jurassic Park is often cited as being the big leap for special effects of 1993, but I honestly believe Edge Innovations’ effort and skill is arguably just as impressive within the field of animatronics. Even though the life-sized animatronic was the only one explicitly mentioned on Conti’s website, it seems the movie also uses 1/3 scale models for Willy and his family for certain shots. There is information showing this to be the case for the sequel.

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Now it is time to discuss the most important part of this movie’s production, Keiko! Keiko was born sometime around 1977 off of Icelandic waters. In 1979, he was captured and placed in an aquarium, then known as ”Siggi” and later ”Kago”. In 1982, he was sold to Marineland Ontario and again in 1985 to Reino Aventura, Mexico City. Kago was then renamed ”Keiko”, a feminine Japanese name that meant ”Lucky one”. Leading killer whale expert, Erich Hoyt, met Keiko while working on a comprehensive report on the captive orcas across the world for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Warner Bros. was having trouble finding a cooperative whale for their movie and contacted Hoyt to see if he could offer any input. Hoyt recommended Keiko as his early-life capture resulted in him being very receptive to human contact. The dilapidated conditions he lived under in Reino Aventura also aided in adding authenticity to the struggle of the character he would portray. The tank we see Willy swimming in was actually Keiko’s home. Being an inherent fish-eater caught off Icelandic waters, Keiko certainly belonged to the Type 1 Eastern North Atlantic ecotype of orcas. They can be thought of as the Atlantic equivalent of the resident Eastern Pacific ecotype that Willy belongs to. However, unlike Willy, Keiko was very cooperative with humans. As for his health, Keiko suffered from a collapsed dorsal fin, a trait shared by nearly all the male orcas in captivity. A lot still remains unknown regarding the causes of this condition, though it is widely speculated to be the result of the limited space captive whales are provided. The lack of water pressure against the fin may have resulted in the loss of the fibrous connective tissue and may, in general, be an indicator of poor health. While dorsal fin abnormalities are not too uncommon, full collapses like these are quite rare amongst wild orcas, within the <1% frequency range depending on the population. The movie addresses this in a scene between Jesse and Rae. Keiko also possessed skin lesions around his pectoral fins and above his flukes that are clearly observable in the movie. These are from a papillomavirus infection.

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During the theatrical release of the film, the end credits had a 1-800 number that invited audience members to donate towards whale conservation if interested. The public’s affection for Keiko resulted in the raising of over $1 million. However, this also came with unexpected inquiries from people curious about Keiko’s return to the wild. This eventually resulted in the Free Willy/Keiko foundation forming in 1995. In 1996, Keiko moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and received a large, new expensive tank along with a team of trainers and medical professionals to keep him happy and healthy. He was also put on the track for rehabilitation into the wild, the first for any long-term captive orca. By then end of the year, Keiko gained 1000 lbs, his lesion cleared up, and he was able to hold his breath for up to 13 minutes, 10 minutes longer than before. In 1998, he was returned to Icelandic waters, initially confined to a pen where he was taught to hunt wild fish. During his rehabilitation, he made some contact with wild orcas, but never fully integrated. He fully left his pen in the summer of 2002, where he migrated to a fjord in Norway, preferring the company of humans rather than wild orcas. He died at the age of 26 in Taknesfjord, Norway in 2003, suspected to be due to pneumonia. To date, he is the second longest-living, long-term captive male orca.

Keiko’s $20 million rehabilitation garnered a mixed reaction. Erich Hoyt recalls being critical of the move, and currently recognizes Keiko’s release as a learning process. Unlike Willy, who was a short-term captive and captured at a physically mature state, Keiko was captured at a young age and had to face many challenges of being properly-equipped for the wild during rehabilitation. Perhaps it would be better if long-term captives were simply provided improved conditions such as large-scale natural pens rather than aiming for full integration into the wild. Nonetheless, Hoyt recognizes that Keiko was still responsible for getting the public focused on the whale-captivity industry for over a decade. In 2019, Canada passed into law the S-203 bill, also known as the ”Free Willy Bill”. It aims to ban the capture or breeding of cetaceans into captivity. This law also prohibits both the importing and exporting of cetacean individuals, sperm, or embryos.  Those exempted from the penalty of possessing captive whales are the pre-existing owners of captive whales, those conducting scientific research with a permit/license, or those rehabilitating a cetacean in need. It cannot be denied that Keiko and this movie left a strong legacy in the effort to end entertainment captivity.


Overall, I very much adore this film. I think outside of being among the numerous environmentally-conscious 90s kids movies, it very much embodies a lot of the history and science of orcas and humans, which I find impressive. On top of that, I am still very much invested in Willy and Jessie’s relationship. Across the film, Jessie struggles to adapt socially due to his complex regarding his mother, whom he wishes to be reunited with after she gave him up to foster care and eventally goes under the radar of the authorities. His deprivation from the maternal bond he yearns for allows him to connect with Willy. The way the movie encourages you to compare the plights of Willy and Jessie really got me fascinated in animal behavior over a decade ago. This film reminds me that despite ethology often being described as the science of animal behavior, the scientific community is in agreement that human cognition evolved from animal cognition. As a consequence, ethology also has a broader definition of being the study of both human and animal behavior from an evolutionary context. So the juxtaposition between the human drama and orca drama feels very fitting as orcas are very behaviorally comparable to humans. There is much scientific and philosophical discussion surrounding the evolution of humans’ social behaviors and how they pertain to our ability to recognize individuals, form emotional bonds, trust and doubt, and even our development of the construct of morality. Instead of making me think ”Orcas are like us” it is more like ”We’re like them”. Free Willy is not just about a human bonding with a vulnerable animal, this is the story of two vulnerable animals.

I also love the movie’s use of the Natselane myth, it is an example of how I prefer spiritualism to be integrated into stories, where its effect on the characters and world is more figurative or psychological rather than being explicitly supernatural. I particularly appreciate how this movie’s variant of the story can be interpreted in a way that blurs the human’s and orca’s roles. Superficially, one could interpret Jesse as Natselane and Willy as the original orca, but the roles can easily be analyzed the other way around.  Willy’s journey in this film began with him being lost from his own group, like Natselane. He then encounters Jesse, who becomes the key to getting Willy back home. When viewing the story this way, it can be seen how this movie ultimately portrays humans and orcas as equally vulnerable, at least emotionally.

I very much resent how this film’s reputation is mostly centered around the wall-jumping scene at the end and Michael Jackson’s involvement in the soundtrack, as I feel focusing on that undermines a lot of the context and scientific/historical depth that can be viewed from this film.

The only thing I can say against Free Willy is that in the tradition of most films of its genre, the villain is a very one-dimensional greedy capitalist archetype. However, it does not truly bother me because it is ultimately not an ill-fitting archetype, and he does not receive any excessive focus to where his lack of depth can prove distracting.

This is a five-star film for me.

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Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995)


Two years after the events of the first film, Jesse and the Greenwoods prepare for a camping trip near the San Juan Islands, but not before Jesse receives news from social services that his mother has passed away and left behind a half-brother, Elvis (Francis Capra). As Jesse struggles through the emotional turmoil of losing his mother and dealing with a brother he never wanted, he joins up with Randolph who runs a whale-watching station with his goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt). Jesse also reunites with Willy, as the latter is now living with his pod and accompanied by his mother, Catspaw, his sister, Luna, and his little brother, Little spot. The summer reunion takes a sharp decline when a tanker has an accident that results in the release of crude oil into the surrounding area, trapping Willy and his siblings. Jesse, Randolph, Nadine, and Elvis aim to help these whales as the disaster continues to escalate.


The beginning of the movie starts with another sequence of wild orcas roaming free, once again provided by Bob Talbot. Some shots have a whale visually-edited with a collapsed dorsal fin and chin spots to resemble Keiko. However, Keiko is not used in either this movie or the next one. From here on out, all the whale-characters are completely reliant on Edge Innovations’ animatronics, which are realistic enough to where you can barely tell most of the time.

Willy is out in the wild with his family, J-pod. This real-life pod is part of the southern population of resident orcas, keeping things consistent with the last film. Randolph is seen in a boat named the Natselane, both a callback to the first film and the character’s heritage. Willy’s two siblings , Luna and Little spot, are likely Willy’s maternal half-siblings rather than full-siblings, as killer whales engage in promiscuity as their normal mating behavior. This is where members of both sexes engage in matings with multiple partners and do not form extended bonds. This parallels Jesse and Elvis, who are also maternal half-siblings. As members of the same pod, they engage in shared cultural behaviors, such as ”beach rubbing”. This is a cultural practice observed by actual killer whales, where they rub their bodies against the smooth pebbles of certain beaches, likely for pleasure. However, there is a very minor inaccuracy regarding this. Beach rubbing is a practice that only northern resident orcas have been observed partaking in. Willy’s pod is explicitly referred to as J-pod, part of the southern resident orca population. Ultimately, an extremely negligible error as J-pod is still within the same ecotype, and it may be the case that this fact was not clear in 1995. It would have been a more condemnable mistake if the movie portrayed Willy as an offshore or transient orca.

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The main threat of this movie is the oil spill that contaminates the harbor Willy and his siblings are residing in. The oil spill is based on the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, the largest of U.S. history. In March of 1989, the tanker struck the Bligh Reef of Prince Williams Sound Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. The local and federal government was relatively ill-equipped to expediently handle the spill and much of the local wildlife suffered. The consequence of this spill led to Congress passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which required the Coast Guard to have more strict regulations for oil tankers, oil tank operators, and the owners. Willy’s sister Luna suffers from an infection after the crude oil got into her lungs and was not receptive to the antibiotic administered to her. To help out, Randolph prepares an old herbal remedy for Luna called ”Skookum”, which he demonstrates has a ridiculously strong taste. I could not find anything about a particular medicine, but the name ”Skookum” is an actual indigenous term that comes from the Chinook language. Chinook began as a pidgin language used by indigenous populations of the Pacific Northwest such as the Haida. ”Skookum” can translate as ”strong”, ”brave”, or ”powerful”, so it seems the writers chose an appropriate name for the medicine. As Randolph applies the Skookum onto Luna’s mouth, he does a Haida prayer. Now for this, I was able to get some concrete details regarding its authenticity, not necessarily through a translation, but through the credentials of the writer of this prayer. The prayer is listed as ”My Spirit Calls Out” in the song section of the end credits. The author is credited as K’aw Daa Gangaas, who is also known as Woodrow Morrison Jr. He is a Haida Elder and trained oral historian. Morrison has worked as a cultural consultant for multiple tv shows and movies. So by Occam’s razor, the prayer he wrote was likely legitimate, and possibly so was the prayer from the last movie that returns here.

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When trapped in the oil spill, Willy, Luna, and Little spot gain attention from the public. In response, the owner of the oil company offers to take the whales into captivity under the guise that it will only be temporary rehabilitation until the oil spill clears. However, he is caught in a conversation with a local fisherman where it is revealed that he intends to profit off the whales by selling them in the entertainment market: $1 million each for Luna and Little spot, and $2 million for Willy. The fisherman notes that as a young adult male, Willy is quite viable for breeding purposes. Now, this addresses one of the more problematic aspects of killer whale activity. As alluded to earlier in this article, other than capturing wild whales, theme parks and aquariums also resort to breeding whales to maintain their numbers, making a male’s sperm very valuable. The two-faced nature of this deal naturally sets Jesse off after all he has done to help Willy the first time and the complex he has regarding family unity.

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I very much love this film as much as I enjoy the first one. Conceptually, this sequel was not necessary, but it still felt like a fulfilling second chapter. The outdoorsy setting aids in preventing this film from feeling too similar to the original and is cohesive with how Willy is now in the wild again. The focus on the oil spill allows the series to appropriately address other relevant conservation threats to whales. I feel Elvis shares decent chemistry with Jesse and added to his older brother’s development regarding his own complex with family. Jesse’s scenes with Nadine as slightly flirtatious fellow nature-lovers were also enjoyable. This movie had the largest budget out of all of the trilogy and it shows in its scope and animatronic work. And once again, it seems like the film placed a good focus on convincingly portraying orcas, this time in their habitat. The sense of urgency with the oil spill also makes things feel more exciting during the middle portion of the film than in the original. Overall, it really feels like an earnest sequel despite its admittedly stupid-sounding title that would invite cynicism.

Now that is not to say this film is completely successful in avoiding feeling very similar to its predecessor. Free Willy 2 also shares the same issue of having a one-dimensional capitalist as the villain, only adding a layer of initial fake concern for the whales to bolster a sense of betrayal towards the film’s third act. Though side by side, it is hard to confidently state which film I prefer between the two.

As well as with the original, I rank this movie with five stars.

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Free Willy 3: The Rescue


After another two-year gap, Jesse joins up with Randolph on a research vessel of marine biologist, Drew Halbert (Annie Corley), to investigate a recent decline in the orca population. The two re-encounter Willy in the process, who attends to his pregnant mate, Nicky. Meanwhile, the story introduces a new protagonist, Max Wesley (Vincent Berry), son of a fishing boat captain. Max joins his father, John Wesley, on a fishing trip where John and his crew illegally hunt orcas to sell their meat in foreign markets. Jesse, Randolph, and Drew initiate a plan to expose John’s crimes while Max struggles between his concern for the whales and the well-being of his father.


Unlike the first two films, this movie does not exactly start using wild-life footage, that comes later for brief moments. Bob Talbot is credited again in this movie, though it seems this time the film re-uses a lot of the wild orca footage used for Free Willy 2. The lower production values also extend to the relatively blander cinematography save for some really decent moments. However, this does not include Edge Innovations’ animatronic work, which still aims to impress.

The main focus of this plot deals with the state of not just Willy’s immediate family, but also the local orca population at large. This is a relevant issue given that Willy is part of the southern resident orca population, which even now is experiencing a decline due to various factors such as salmon depletion, pollution, boat traffic, etc. Many efforts are currently being made to help save this population. This movie particularly looks at an illegal whaling operation. Now there is a kernel of truth to this as killer whales are one of the species known to have been hunted in the latter half of the twentieth century in places like Japan or Greenland for food. Sometimes they are also hunted by local fishermen to ease off competition for fish. This movie elaborates that these whalers are trying to profit off an underground whale meat market to foreign nations such as Norway and Japan. The latter country does indeed have a history of suspected illegally-acquired whale-meat showing up in their markets.

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Now unlike the antagonists of the last two films, who were both primarily motivated by the financial gain of exploiting orcas, this movie presents how cultural attitudes also influence John’s actions. It is discussed how Max and John belong to a long line of whalers and that the traditional significance of whaling skews John’s view of whales as being commodities for hunters to take advantage of. Now, this is also relevant to certain whale and dolphin-hunting practices that exist today. A prominent example would be the unregulated hunting of pilot whales and other small cetaceans in the Faroe Islands. There is much controversy in addressing the impact of  this custom . An average of 920 small whales and dolphins are captured yearly. Its impact on the environment is difficult to assess as long-finned pilot whale population estimates remain data deficient. The natives have been observed to be very defensive when outsiders criticizes this practice. There is no doubt that the cultural importance of this practice is a large barrier in addressing the matter.

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The last thing I want to mention is an error this movie makes about orca mating behavior that is not as minor as the beach rubbing thing from the previous movie. Willy is very attentive towards his sexual partner, Nicky, during the gestation of their calf. This heavily implies that they are in a monogamous relationship. Killer whales, especially residents, are not known to form lasting bonds with their reproductive  partners because they return to their natal pods after mating with those outside of their own pods, to prevent inbreeding. Monogamy can only form in animals where the mates are in proximity to each other. As a consequence, male resident orcas do not raise their own offspring. Although this does not mean the males are not nurturing, as they still aid in caring for their sisters’ children as doting uncles.There is also a brief scene where Randolph offers oranges to Willy and Nicky as treats, which I doubt would happen with actual orcas, but it was meant to be a playful scene, so I won’t mind too much.

The birth of Willy’s calf, Max, was partially realized using brief clips of a captive orca named Bjossa giving birth in 1995. Unfortunately, this real-life birth was unsuccessful due to complications. Though the scene within the movie is quite beautiful and still uses animatronics to pull off most of the birth and shots with the calf.

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Overall, I think I have always considered this my least favorite in the trilogy, but it is still a pretty good sequel in my book. This movie’s biggest fault is the step back in presentation from the original film and having a relatively greater amount of dull moments. Other than that, it still maintains the series’ tradition of addressing relevant threats to cetacean conservation in a fairly dignified manner. Given the standard the first film set, a movie with the title Free Willy 3 is by no means a product that I think reflects badly on the original film. It left a good impression on me as it was the first film in the series I ever saw. Also, this movie actually outdoes its predecessors in an important area, its antagonist. Instead of another angry businessman getting his comeuppance, the movie makes John Wesely part of the family drama in a way that is cohesive and relevant to the conservational issue it is addressing.  I feel this redeeming quality really works to prevent this film from feeling like a pure step-down.

A decent deal of earnestness can still be felt in this movie, though I can also see that this series was running out of steam. I am indeed glad the theatrical series ended here. This was certainly a fulfilling ending.

I will give this film 4 stars. It went two steps back, but not without making one step forward.

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I tend to hold these films in higher regard than most, but that honestly should be expected for those who know me as a cetacean enthusiast. These films truly were my Jurassic Park. They did not get me into whales, but they certainly reinforced my interest. The original film was truly a strong effort that aided in getting the public aware about the killer whales and their cognitive and social sophistication as animals. The two sequels, while ultimately unnecessary, were admirable efforts in their own right and did well in maintaining a certain dignity and relevance to the story it was continuing and portraying killer whales as interesting animals. I do not think the theatrical sequels insulted the integrity of the original in the slightest.

No.. no… it was the animated series that did it!

This makes the 2010 direct-to-video sequel with Bindi Irwin look like a masterpiece. Now that I will eventaully get to reviewing down the line.

If this article was successful in getting you interested in killer whales, I highly recommend the book Orca: The whale called killer. The author, Erich Hoyt, is the person who recommended Keiko to Warner Bros. He is renowned for the seven years he dedicated towards studying the northern resident orca community and his work has been foundational. I read one his older editions, but I now own his fifth edition that was just published last year. Here, he mentions his time with Keiko and covered a lot of the topics in this article and was easily one of my most important sources.


Perception of Killer Whales and most of the other listed topics

Hoyt, E. (2019). Orca: The whale called killer (5th ed.). Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books.

Haida dictionary and Variants of Natselane and the Creation of the Orca

Click to access Haida_dictionary_web.pdf

Cultural hitchhiking coevolution in sperm whales and orcas.

Net Capture

Effects of human-induced mortality events on the social structure of surviving orcas.

Post reproductive killer whale grandmothers improve the survival of grand offspring.

Walt Conti’s animatronics


Collapsed Dorsal fins in wild cetaceans

Free Willy Bill

Beach Rubbing

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Definition of ”Skookum” and the Chinook language

K’aw Daa Gangaas/ Woodrow Morrison Jr

Southern resident orca population crisis,Whales%20in%20the%20Salish%20Sea.

Killer whale hunting and Faroe Island hunting of pilot whales

Click to access AWI-ML-Small-Cetaceans-Report.pdf

Illegal trade of whale meat in Japan

Record of Bjossa’s births

Click to access Williams-2001-Dying-to-entertain-you.pdf

Author: CallmeJoe

A 23-year-old College Graduate in Biology who's primarily a fan of Godzilla and other properties.

2 thoughts on “Analyzing the Free Willy films and their relevance to Killer Whales. (Spoilers)”

  1. Fantastic article, well written, insightful, informative and full of interesting facts. Thought provoking with a great take away.

    Liked by 1 person

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