The film received positive attention from critics and was a commercial success, grossing $153.6 million over $20 million, and has a small cult following. It eventually grew into a small franchise, spawning three sequels and a video game companion.
The film begins with a pod of orcas swimming near the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. The pod is tracked down by a group of whalers, and one of them, Willy, is trapped and sent to an amusement park.
Sometime later in Seattle, Washington, Jesse, a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his mother six years before, is caught by the police for stealing food and vandalizing the theme park. Jesse's social worker Dwight earns him a reprieve by finding him a foster home and having him clean up the graffiti at the theme park as part of his probation. His foster parents are the supportive and kind Annie and Glen Greenwood, but Jesse is initially unruly and hostile to them.
While working at the park, Jesse encounters Willy. Willy is regarded as surly and uncooperative by the park staff, including his trainer Rae Lindley, but he saves Jesse from drowning, starting a bond, and becomes friendly with his keeper, Haida native Randolph Johnson. Jesse teaches tricks to Willy, and is offered a permanent job at the theme park after probation. Jesse also warms into his new home.
The owner of the amusement park, Dial, sees the talent Jesse and Willy have together and makes plans to host "The Willy Show" in hopes of finally making money from Willy, who has thus far been a costly venture for him. On the day of the first performance, Willy is antagonized by the children banging constantly on his underwater observation area and refuses to perform. Willy smashes against the tank, damaging it. Jesse storms off in tears and plans to run away. Later, while at the tank, Jesse notices Willy's family calling to him and Dial's assistant Wade and other men sneaking into the underwater observation area. They damage the tank enough that the water will gradually leak out in an effort to kill Willy and claim his $1,000,000 insurance policy.
Jesse, Randolph, and Rae hatch a plan to release Willy back into the ocean. They use equipment at the park to load Willy onto a trailer, and Jesse and Randolph use Glen's truck to tow Willy to a marina. They try to stay on the back roads to avoid being spotted, but eventually get stuck in the mud. Wade meanwhile informs Dial that Willy is missing, and begins a search to find Willy.
Unable to move the trailer himself, Jesse calls Glen and Annie using a CB radio in Glen's truck. Annie and Glen show up and help free the truck, and continue on to the marina to release Willy. Dial knows where they are headed, and when they show up, he, Wade, and his henchmen are blocking the gate. Glen charges at them full speed in the truck, forcing the henchmen to scatter. Glen turns the truck around and backs Willy into the water, flooding the truck in the process.
Willy is finally released into the water, but Dial and his goons attempt to stop them. During the struggle, Jesse gets Willy to swim away while the whaling ships close in with their nets. Jesse runs towards the seawall, calling for Willy to follow him, steering him away from the boats. Jesse goes to the edge and tells Willy that if he makes the jump, it will be his highest, and he'll be free. Jesse says a tearful goodbye, but pulls himself together and goes back to the top. He recites a Haida prayer Randolph had taught him, before giving Willy a signal. Willy makes the jump and is finally free to return to his family. Jesse goes back to Glen and Annie, who hug him as they look out into the sea. Willy calls out to Jesse in the distance, and both say their farewell.Jason James Richter as JesseKeiko the Orca as WillyLori Petty as Rae LindleyJayne Atkinson as Annie GreenwoodAugust Schellenberg as Randolph JohnsonMichael Madsen as Glen GreenwoodMichael Ironside as DialMykelti Williamson as Dwight MercerDanielle Harris as GwenieRichard Riehle as WadeMichael Bacall as Perry
Most close-up shots involving limited movement by Willy, such as when Willy is in the trailer and the sequences involving Willy swimming in the open water, make use of an animatronic stand-in. Walt Conti, who supervised the effects for the orcas, estimated that half of the shots of the orca used animatronic stand-ins. Conti stated that the smaller movements of a real Orca actually made things difficult in some ways for him and his crew; they had to concentrate on smaller nuances in order to make the character seem alive. The most extensive use of CGI in the film is the climax, filmed in Astoria, Oregon, where Willy jumps over Jesse and into the wild. All stunts with the orca were performed by the young orca trainer Justin Sherbert (known additionally by his stage name, Justin Sherman).
The film was released by Warner Bros. on July 16, 1993 and grossed $7,868,829 domestically in its opening weekend. It went on to make $76 million in its foreign release for a total of $153,698,625 worldwide. Upon its initial release, Free Willy ranked number 5 at the box office before moving to number 4 by the following weekend. Afterward, its rank in the box office began to gradually decline, with the exception of a three-day weekend (September 3 to September 6), in which gross revenue increased by 33.6%.
The film has received mixed to positive reviews from critics. Free Willy currently holds a 57% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, based on 22 reviews, indicating mixed reviews. The film on Metacritic has a 79 out of 100 rating.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The soundtrack to Free Willy was released in 1993 by Epic Records. It features songs by Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block, and SWV.
The aquatic star of the film was an orca named Keiko. The huge national and international success of this film inspired a letter writing campaign to get Keiko released from his captivity as an attraction in the amusement park Reino Aventura in Mexico City; this movement was called "Free Keiko". Keiko was moved to The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Oregon by flying in a UPS C-130 cargo plane. In Oregon, he was returned to health with the hopes of being able to return to the wild. In 1998, Keiko was moved to Iceland via a US Air Force C-17 to learn to live in the wild. After working with handlers, he was released from a sea pen in the summer of 2002 and swam to Norway following a pod of wild orcas.
His subsequent return to humans for food and for company, and his inability to integrate with a pod of orcas, however, confirms that the project had failed according to a scientific study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science (July 2009). Keiko eventually died of pneumonia in a Norwegian bay on December 12, 2003.
A decade later in 2013, a New York Times video reviewed Keiko's release into the wild. Reasons cited for Keiko's failure to adapt include his early age at capture, the long history of captivity, prolonged lack of contact with other orcas, and strong bonds with humans.