This is the first in a series of 3 Free Willy movies about the close relationship that develops between a troubled youth, Jesse (played by Jason James Richter) and a young orca whale captured from the wild to be put on display in an amusement park. Jesse's father is nowhere to be found and Jesse, at age 12, is abandoned on the streets by his mother. With no adult supervision, Jesse gets into trouble stealing food because he is hungry and breaks into an amusement park to vandalize the place. Jesse is put in a foster home. His foster parents are good people, but Jesse is out of control. As part of his punishment, he must clean up the graffiti at the park. While working there he sees the orca whale, Willy (real name of the whale is Keiko) that was recently captured. The whale is uncooperative and will not respond to the trainer, but to everyone's surprise the whale responds to Jesse. The two of them bond immediately because they have a lot in common. Jesse has no family and Willy has been taken from his. Willy is uncontrollable because underwater he can hear the other members of his family, that are still free in the ocean, calling to him and he longs to be with them.
The owner of the amuzement park, Dial (played by Michael Ironside) is impatient with the uncooperative whale, but decides to give Jesse a chance to get the whale to perform for a big public show. On the day of the show, the children visiting the show torment the whale by banging on the side of the tank which sends Willy into fearful rage and that causes him to smash into the tank walls and break the tank. The owner is very upset about this. He wants to cut his losses so he makes a plan to let all the water leak out of the tank so the whale will die. In this way, at least he can collect the insurance money and be done with this financial disaster.
Jesse finds out about the plan to kill the whale and with the help of the trainer, Rae Lindley (played by Lori Petty) and the whale's keeper, Randolph Johnson (played by August Schellenberg) they come up with a plan to take Willy from the park and release him back into the ocean. They load Willy onto a tank in a truck Jesse stole from his foster parents. On the way to the ocean, they get stuck in the mud. Jesse's foster parents, Glen Greenwood (played by Michael Madsen), and Annie (played by Jayne Atkinson) are called and they agree to come help them.
Dial finds out the whale has been taken and he knows where they are heading to release it so he takes some of his men to block the entrance to the marina. Glen drives the truck containing Willy through the barricade and backs his truck into the water, destroying it, so that Willy can escape into the ocean. Dial does not give up easily. He has his henchmen in the harbor with nets set up to catch Willy so he cannot escape. Jesse sees what is happening and guides Willy to his escape which Willy does by making an enormous jump over the nets to get away and rejoin his family.
Best part of story, including ending:
The ending of this movie is very predictable because the title gives it away; however the bonding between the teen boy and the whale seems very genuine and believable.
Best scene in story:
The first time Jesse meets Willy. They just seem to immediately connect with each other in a very special way.
Opinion about the main character:
Jesse is a good kid under all the bravado and acting out. Willy brings out the very best in him. Setting Willy free to rejoin his family, helps Jesse heal a little bit from the emotional pain of losing his own family.