Filmmakers spill special effects all over the essentially decent 'Free Willy 2'


If you want to know what big Hollywood studios think of you, see "Free Willy 2."

This sequel to the "save the whales" sleeper of 1993 starts as a credible story about two half-brothers. One loves a whale, one loves nobody. They can't get along with each other and are still adjusting to their foster parents.

On top of that, director Dwight Little and three writers -- Karen Janszen, Corey Blechman and John Mattson -- introduce an orcas-in-danger plot, as an oil spill traps Willyand his killer whale family in a cove near Seattle.

On top of that comes adolescent romance. And a runaway child. And a disease that threatens to kill Willy's sister. And a fire that threatens to kill all the orcas. And a plot to kidnap the whales and sell them to an aquarium. And Michael Jackson crooning a self-pitying ballad, "(Have You Seen My) Childhood?" And did I mention the helicopter rescue?

Hollywood, you see, treats us as if we had a collective case of attention deficit disorder. We can only be entertained if images whiz past our pinpoint-size pupils.

That's not a problem with such plotless, thought-free movies as "Die Hard 3." But "Free Willy 2" is a gentle, touching picture gussied up with more cliff-hanging climaxes than a "Flash Gordon" serial.

At the heart of it is the same boy-and-his-whale plot that sustained the first one.

High school-age Jesse (Jason James Richter) feels betrayed when his new parents (Jayne Atkinson and Michael Madsen) take in another boy: Elvis (Francis Capra), Jesse's 8-year-old half brother by their deceased mom.

Luckily, Jesse can escape to a whale-watching project run by his old pal, marine biologist Randolph (August Schellenberg), and Randolph's wholesomely attractive goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt). They enjoy watching Willy and his pod cavort until a single-hulled tanker smashes against the rocks and spews oil.

What starts as a family drama becomes half nature film (photographed sparklingly by Laszlo Kovacs) and half action flick, with Willy performing amazing feats. (My favorite: He hears a harmonica barely audible to us while he's underwater, 100 feet from the dock where Jesse's playing.)

From there on out, you have to work like a galley slave to suspend disbelief for five minutes straight.

For instance, the oil tanker's owner promises to try to rescue Willy, then plots to sell him (to veteran sleazebag M. Emmet Walsh). How is the scheme discovered? They discuss it in a crowded restaurant, and Elvis overhears them -- although the conversation takes place in another city, where he happens to be eating breakfast after running away from Seattle!

When the movie concentrates on Jesse's family, you can overlook these incongruities. The performances are appealing, though Mr. Madsen always looks slightly uncomfortable in movies where he doesn't shoot anyone. (This isn't "Reservoir Whales," after all.)

The movie's ecological message goes down smoothly, especially for one aimed at kids. We learn about the 1990 law that requires double-hulled tankers and about the consequences of a spill.

The movie gets awfully PC after a while: The adults who save Willy's sister are a Hispanic woman, a black woman and an Indian man, while all the scuzzy oil company operatives are white guys. Yet the script doesn't make adults seem moronic, as pictures pandering to kids often do.

Youngsters mainly want to see the title character, of course, and "Free Willy 2" doesn't disappoint. Orcas aren't immediately expressive -- you can't see their eyes -- but they flop and dive cutely, and Willy plays to the camera. His range may be limited, but who knows? Disney's about to shoot that live-action "Pinocchio."


Starring Jason James Richter, Francis Capra, August Schellenberg

Directed by Dwight Little

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG (dangerous situations, mild profanity)

** 1/2

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