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A Boy and His Cetacean

Discussing 1993's year in movies, veteran Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman -- who wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men and Marathon Man, and authored the classic how-to book Adventures in the Screen Trade -- singled out Free Willy as a story he wished he'd written. He noted that whatever snooty folks might think of a film about a boy and his seagoing mammal pal, they'd still have to admit it was a shameless joy ride for family audiences, and that it knew exactly what it wanted to do and did it superbly. "From the moment the kid says, 'We've got to free Willy!' the movie is on rails," Goldman said.

He was right, but I'd pick an earlier moment to illustrate his point. I think the picture is on rails when its motherless juvenile delinquent hero, Jesse (Jason James Richter), says something deeply personal to his imprisoned killer whale pal, and the whale pauses in the water and tilts his head slightly to one side, as if carefully considering what the boy has just told him. Seeing this, I felt an indefensibly childish rush. Suddenly I was eight again watching a Lassie movie, pointing at the screen and exclaiming, "Look, mom! Look! Lassie's thinking! She's thinking!"

I felt the same rush throughout Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. Like its predecessor, it isn't a great movie, but it's an amazingly guileless and professional one. There's nothing inherently wrong with sequels. After all, who among us hasn't wanted to revisit a place that made us happy? The tough part is coming up with a story that builds on the success of an original movie without simply Xeroxing it.

The script to Free Willy 2 pulls this difficult trick off. Although it's credited to three separate writers, it doesn't feel patchy or mechanical or soulless. It's not very inventive, but it's a solid and honorable piece of work. It serves up sharply etched characters who have real emotions, real fears and real needs, then ties those qualities directly to the ensuing action. This movie hops onto Goldman's magic rails and rarely strays.

A lot has happened in two years. Jesse has grown from a sullen troublemaker into a strong, confident adolescent who loves and trusts his foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson). And he's grown in other ways, too: when the whale expert buddy from the first movie, a Native American named Randolph (August Schellenberg), sails into town with his sweet, spunky goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt), Jesse is instantly attracted to her, and is determined to find a way to impress her.

An opportunity presents itself when Willy swims back into his life, bringing his family along with him; a scene where Jesse and Nadine play with the whales down in the cove is a sure-fire kid-pleaser, but it also works as a hilariously unsubtle metaphor for the young lovebirds' impending sexual awakening. (Jesse convinces the squeamish Nadine to pet his whale buddy, and she sort of likes it until the whale gushes seawater all over her. Gee, mom, what does that mean?)

Not that Jesse's life is completely pleasurable. He's aghast to learn that his long-lost momma recently kicked off in New York, leaving behind a tough ten-year-old with the unlikely name of Elvis (Francis Capra), who joins the family and reopens some of Jesse's old emotional wounds. Then, during a getting-to-know-you seaside camping trip, an oil tanker runs aground, trapping Willy and his whale family in a cove. An oil slick is rapidly approaching the aquatic clan; it will take all of Jesse's ingenuity and pluck, plus plenty of help from adult friends and family, to save them. Toss in an underhanded oil company executive who wants to engineer a fake "rescue" of the whales and then sell them for a hefty finder's fee to an amusement park, and you have the makings of one shamelessly manipulative movie.

Remarkably, though, the picture rarely feels canned or insincere, mostly because Jesse is a fully rounded person who has sound reasons for doing what he does. After all, Willy isn't just his flippered pal -- he's the kid's alter ego. The film treats Jesse's considerable emotional scars -- his ongoing fear of abandonment and motherlessness -- seriously. When he goes into action, he's fighting to make sure the bad things that happened to him as a child don't happen to Willy and his relatives.

All of which makes the picture hang together even when it's stretching plausibility to the breaking point. Free Willy 2 is virtually guaranteed to make young viewers weep and cheer, but they probably won't feel conned because the story earns these responses honestly. It's a good movie about people who are determined to do the right thing. They might be acting on behalf of whales, but you get the impression they'd do it for jeopardized humans, too, whether they knew them personally or not.

The performance of Michael Madsen, who plays Jesse's foster dad, Glen, typifies what I most enjoy about this series -- its low-key moral righteousness. When I first heard that Madsen, who specializes in playing street hoods, cops and psychotic killers, had been cast in the original Free Willy as a sensitive father, I was skeptical; I didn't think the ear-slicer from Reservoir Dogs could be convincing in a part like that. But Madsen's steely eyed, no-nonsense toughness grounded the picture, lending it an edgy quality it might not have otherwise possessed. Glen is a quiet, unsentimental, decent man who sticks by his loved ones, and it doesn't require lavish displays of affection to know he's a good father. The same goes for Glen's wife, Annie, who's nurturing and sensitive without crossing the line into smotherhood. She gives the kid some emotional breathing room, and Jesse obviously appreciates her for it.

One of Free Willy 2's biggest (and most unexpected) pleasures is the way it details Jesse's complicated relationship with Glen and Annie. You instantly sense that Jesse has changed between the last movie and this one, and that age is only part of the reason; his folks are the rest. Looking into Jesse's face, you can see hints of Annie's sensitivity and Glen's righteous decency. Jason James Richter is growing into a very convincing and likable young actor -- he understands that Jesse's heroic unselfishness is a response to the pain he's experienced in the past. When he acts, it's not because he wants to make his own life better; it's because he wants to save someone else's.

I'm a sucker for movies about people who genuinely care about one another and immediately rush to protect each other when the chips are down -- people who do brave things because of who they are, not merely because the plot requires them to. There's an empathetic quality to the Free Willy movies that feels sincere. The characters love each other, their whale friends and the land itself.

That's why, when the oil slick begins discoloring the shore and poisoning wildlife in the harbor, Jesse's anger seems more than just a PC plot contrivance. These guys aren't just polluting the Earth -- they're fouling the little Eden Jesse and his loved ones have created. This paradisiacal strain is woven into every scene in Free Willy 2, which is a lot more beautifully constructed than its clunky-but-functional predecessor. Director Dwight Little and master cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs fill the film with one lyrical image after another.

I don't think I've ever seen a more affecting first kiss than the one between Jesse and Nadine, who climb out of the water after frolicking with the whales and stand there dripping wet, grinning and laughing at each other, quivering happily over the precious moment they're about to share. And there's a dissolve from Jesse's brooding face to a long shot of a pod of whales leaping high against a boiling orange sunset that, in a single striking transition, solidifies the boy's psychic ties to the ocean and its inhabitants. And there's one shot so strange and poetic that it seems stolen from a lost Samuel Coleridge poem: Jesse's harmonica dropping from a dock and floating down into the murk, water flowing through its holes, producing mournful notes that beckon the whales like Morse code pulses from a lonely boy's heart.

Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home.
Directed by Dwight Little. With Jason James Richter, Michael Madsen, Jayne Atkinson and Mary Kate Schellhardt.

Rated PG.
93 minutes.


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