Picks and Pans Review: Free Willy

updated 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jason James Richter

Doesn't that title suggest the Clinton Administration's answer to "Let Reagan Be Reagan"? Be that as it may, this is a better than average family film of the boy-and-his-dog variety, directed by Simon Wincer. The boy here is a foster kid (Richter, who sometimes looks strikingly like a moppet Kim Novak) and the dog a killer whale that has been languishing in a two-bit marine park. Richter, who is assigned to work there after he's nabbed spray-painting Willy's tank, first befriends him with the sweet, whale-like hum of his harmonica playing. In short order, he has begun training Willy (played by an orca named Keiko and the occasional animatronic puppet) to turn over, eat from his hand and even sidle up onto the concrete apron.

A few of these tricks, frankly, go a long way in a movie. A big animal circling around a big tank can begin to feel claustrophobic to an audience too. And the movie has more plot than any child needs. Will Richter bond with his foster parents? Will he run away with his sallow, deadbeal buddy (Michael Bacall)? Will performance anxiety drive Willy to a breakdown? (Actually, the question of whether Willy really could turn chomper gives the film a weird tension—some of us have never got over Jaws.) And—a melodramatic twist that would reduce Melville to sobs of envy—will the whale be murdered for its insurance money?

This, at least, kicks things into high gear: Willy's escape to the ocean is thoroughly entertaining, and his climactic leap is thrilling. Which leads us to the best thing of all: A long, closing-credit sequence of whales plying the waves at sunset, with Michael Jackson singing the theme song, "Will You Be There." Jackson's tremulous little voice is almost as touching as the high, throbbing moan Willy makes in moments of distress. You come out refreshed, calmed, almost spiritually revived.(PG)

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