Free Willy: 10th Anniversary Edition

Free Willy: 10th Anniversary Edition (1993)
Warner Home Video
Extras: Featurettes, Music Video, Whale Ballet, Trailers and more

It is hard to believe how fast kids are forced to grow up nowadays. I remember a time when pre-teens were anxious for the next Disney movie to come out. Those days are over, as most of today’s "family" movies usually contain a more mature subtext. Now kids get excited about the next installment of the Michael Myers or Freddy Kruger sagas. Even Disney, the great family-oriented film company, has opted to concentrate more on the adult product that its sister companies Miramax and Dimension are producing. Fortunately, there are still producers willing to produce films that the whole family can enjoy, and "Free Willy" is an example of a modern, no-sex, no-violence film that is not only apt for kids of all ages, but it is also a really good movie that adults can enjoy.

Celebrating the film’s 10th anniversary, Warner decided to re-release this crowd-pleaser on DVD, so new generations of kids (and adults) can enjoy the movie, making Willy (alias Keiko) a household name all over again. Unlike most anniversary DVD editions, this one is not packed with interesting extras, but the movie is presented with a sparkling new transfer and an excellent soundtrack.

The film’s storyline is simple. Orphan and full-time troublemaker Jesse (newcomer Jason James Richter in a convincing performance), vandalizes a local aquarium. As a punishment, the young punk is forced to clean up his mess. And surprise, surprise, once at the aquarium, the boy befriends a whale (kept at the facilities ever since the creature was separated from his parents), and soon boy and whale develop a unique friendship. Yes, the movie offers very few surprises, and in an era of cynicism, many will find the movie too sentimental. However, I think Jason James Richter’s excellent work helps a lot, and the footage of real-life whales (which is seamless integrated with the computer-generated work), adds immeasurably to the film’s sincere approach.

"Free Willy" was a surprise hit when it first debuted in movie theaters more than 10 years ago, and its enormous popularity brought attention to the real plight of Keiko, the killer whale who played he titular character of Willy. Kept in captivity and unable to survive on his own, Keiko became a symbol of a very serious problem: animals on the verge of extinction. The notoriety of Keiko’s real problems combined with the film’s good vibes (plus Michael Jackson’s hit song from the movie) made this simple story of a boy that regains his self-esteem with the help of a whale, a must-see film during the summer of 1993. In fact, the film was so successful that over the years it spawned a couple of very good sequels. So much for a little film that was expected to disappear soon after its initial theatrical run.

"Free Willy" is presented in a 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> format. The transfer is excellent, with a palette of colors that is vibrant, varied, and forceful. Considering the fact that this is a movie with a pro-environmental message, it is not surprising to see the studio delivering a transfer that meticulously accentuates the beauty of the natural settings. For example, the beautiful blues of the sea and the sky are presented in all their original glory. The transfer is also extremely sharp, with great contrasts and good shadow delineation. These well-accomplished contrasts help a great deal during the underwater sequences – some of these scenes were filmed at night – where the good balance between lights and shadows create a striking image. Edge enhancement can be seen on a few occasions, but this doesn’t present a big problem. The transfer is also very clean, with only few instances of minor noticeable debris.

The film is presented with a strong <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack. The mix sports a wide dynamic range and does a solid job of utilizing the discrete multichannel sound palette. The surrounds deliver most ambient sounds, which add a little of realism to some scenes, specifically the one where Jason James Richter vandalizes the aquarium, which is filmed during what it looks like a thunderstorm. Surrounds are also pivotal during the film’s climax, where Ritcher and his friends try to save Willy. Unfortunately, bass response could have been better, but the use of the surrounds makes up for this quite well. Despite the activity in the rear channels, though, there is no denying that the front speakers carry the bulk of the sound. Dialogue is centered and always audible. While this track does not use all channels at their fullest capacity, one has to admit that the soundtrack is effective enough, enhancing many essential moments throughout the film. The track is clear and precise and it suits the film well.

"Free Willy: 10th Anniversary Edition" contains a few extras that viewers (especially younger viewers) will enjoy. As the title of this section suggests, "Michael Jackson Will You Be There? Music Video" offers the original, unedited music video of the Song "Will You Be There," written and performed by Michael Jackson. This song was a popular hit for Jackson, and it played on many cable stations (mostly VH-1 and MTV) during the film’s theatrical run. The video is presented in its original <$PS,full frame> format, with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

"A Whales Tale" is an informative feature, designed to inform viewers about the killer whale’s anatomy. The viewer, using the remote control, has the opportunity to click on various areas of an Orca’s’ body and learn a few interesting facts about these interesting creatures.

"Whale Ballet Montage" is a three-minute montage of scenes taken directly for the film (mostly the introductory sequences, with a pack of whales swimming in the Ocean), presented with no dialogue and with composer Basil Poledouris’ beautiful music score playing in the background.

"A Conversation with Wildlife Cinematographer Bob Talbot" is probably the most important, if a bit too brief, extra found on the disc. Renowned wildlife cinematographer Rob Talbot is interviewed for the program, and since he actually shot the footage of Orcas used in the film, his comments are a welcome addition. Talbot not only talks about his work as a free-lance cinematographer, but he also shares with the viewers his passion for the Orcas (and animals in general), and his commitment to the film.

"The Help Free Willy with the Escape the Nets Adventure" feature provides children (and those viewers that still feel adventurous) with a little game. When a whale (permissible Willy) appears on the screen, use the arrow keys on your remote control to move Willy through and around various obstacles.

Under the section "Trailers of All 3 Free Willy Movies", we can find the original theatrical trailers for "Free Willy" and its sequels "Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home", and "Free Willy 3: The Rescue". Three more promotional trailers can be found under the section titled "Family Favorites", a section used to promote the DVDs of three Warner films: "The Wizard of Oz", "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor", and "Scooby-Doo".

Last but not least, the disc offers a handful of extras that can be accessed only through a DVD-ROM. "Reef Maze Challenge" and "Willy’s Aquatic Show Games" are two interactive games. These games require your PC to have macromedia shockwave player, which the website provides just in case. The disc also provides some Web Links that lead directly to Warner’s official website.

As a resident of the West Coast, where Keiko was kept under observation, I had been well aware of the whale’s plight for quite some time. I am glad that if anything, the movie brought the whale’s problems to the attention of many animal lovers (including Michael Jackson, who donated a substantial amount of money to help with Keiko’s rehabilitation). Keiko’s notoriety also helped the movie become a box office hit. However, in all fairness, all the artists that participated in the production of this film should get credit not only for creating a movie that sends a strong message about preserving our ecosystem, but also for making a quality film. Unfortunately, Keiko passed away not long ago, but I’m sure "Free Willy" will make it difficult to forget his story – the film will always serve as a reminder of our responsibility to preserve all species for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Warner seems to recognize the appeal – and unexpected relevance – of this box office hit. Despite the lack of substance in terms of supplemental material, the extras are a nice addition – few movies of this vintage get a well-produced DVD special edition as this one. This 10th anniversary edition is a delightful DVD product, designed to please most families that are looking for a pleasant movie experience. Free Willy is a good film, and this DVD is a real treat.