Of whales and witches Gorgeous orca carries the day in the artful 'Free Willy'


"Free Willy"

Starring Jason James Richter and Lori Petty

Directed by Simon Wincer

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG

** 1/2 "Free Willy" has one thing going for it that no other summer movie, not even "Jurassic Park," can boast: 7,000 pounds of shimmering, gorgeous killer whale, surely one of the most

majestic creatures on the planet.

And director Simon Wincer gets a lot of mileage out of Willy, who looks like a torpedo on steroids. We sense the creature's joy as it slithers through the wet stuff, and its rapture as it breaks the surface to do a 360-corkscrew before slam-dunking itself back into the briny deep. And, more importantly perhaps, Wincer absolutely makes us believe in the emotional interpenetration between this great beast and a sad and lonely boy.

In this respect, "Free Willy" is artfully constructed. It's a kind oexiles' embrace along familiar lines. Two losers find strength in a love of each other and somehow free each other from cages both actual and metaphorical. It's the PG "Midnight Cowboy." OK? So? One of them's an orca.

Willy, too old and too untrainable, is unhappily nestled in the holding tank of a Northwest aquatic theme park where he continues to disappoint his owners by refusing to perform. At nights, he keens an aria of isolation and despair, and his "family" can be seen out beyond the breakers, grieving his lonely agony. Then there's Jesse (Jason James Richter), 12 going on 35. He's a street kid, only marginally sentimentalized, who is stuck in a foster home where he's so internally sealed up, he can't respond to the love of parents Jayne Atkinson and Michael Madsen. After a spray-paint attack on the aqua park, Jesse's caught and assigned to make restitution by cleaning up his vandalism. He meets the great beast in the tank and a friendship is formed.

So far, so very good. When Wincer focuses on the strange synchronicity between these two and explores the way in which they make contact, the movie achieves a rare magic potency.

Of course the old "Warner Bros. Family Entertainment" trademark up front is enough to let you know that a small, simple movie will be bloated into a large "inspirational" one. Nothing that follows could be considered remotely surprising.

The animal is essentially scheduled for execution by greedy owners (Hollywood rule No. 556: Anybody that owns anything must be portrayed as greedy and insensitive). Jesse -- with trainer Lori Petty and handyman August Schellenberg (the great Indian actor from "Black Robe") -- throws together an escape caper and soon his foster parents are involved.

By this point the movie has squandered its magic for knee-jerk thrills and chills. One unprofessional peculiarity is that the TV ads have already given away the money shot: It's the close-up of the boy with the 7,000 pounds of killer whale soaring ecstatically overhead like the Hindenberg on a strafing run. It's a great image that gets all that is moving and resonant about "Free Willy" but . . . why give it away?

Another strange note is Madsen as the New Dad. He's about the last guy you'd expect to end up in such a square role, being a sleepy-eyed Elvis clone with odd vocal rhythms whose screen persona has always involved trashy killer roles. (He was the psycho in "Reservoir Dogs.")

The movie only toys with, but never confronts, the metaphysical issue implicit in its title: Does man have the right to seize sentient beings from another realm for his own amusement? It merely argues that it's wrong to kill big animals for insurance money. Hardly a close call, that.

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