Free Willy is a 1993 American family drama film directed by Simon Wincer, produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Jennie Lew Tugend, and written by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman from a story by Walker. The film stars Jason James Richter as a foster boy who befriends a captive orca.
The film received positive attention from critics and was a financial 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.
Michael Jackson produced and performed "Will You Be There", the theme for the film, which can be heard during the film's credits. The song won the MTV Movie Award for "Best Song in a Movie" in 1994. It was also included on the film's album, Dangerous and All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film's first sequel.
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 Astoria, Oregon, Jesse, a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his mother six years before, is caught after vandalizing the 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. 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 then teaches tricks to Willy, and will be given a permanent job at the marine 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, causing damage to 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. 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 prevent being spotted with a gigantic orca, and 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 into the marina. Glen charges at them full speed in the truck, forcing the henchmen to scatter as the truck crashes through the gate to the marina. Glen immediately 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 where Willy is and tells him that if he makes the jump, it'll be his highest and he'll be free. Jesse says a tearful goodbye, but pulls himself together and goes back to the top. He prays a Haida prayer Randolph had taught him, giving Willy a signal and makes the jump and is finally free to return to his family. Everyone cheers, Willy leaps out of the water in celebration, and Jesse happily celebrates, but stops when he realizes that he'll probably never see Willy again. He 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 final farewell. The movie ends with Willy finding his family, and the entire pod swimming and jumping through the ocean.