Free Willy Was Loved by Audiences but Had a Dark History

The film ‘Free Willy’ was instantly loved by young audiences everywhere following its release in 1993. Following the heartwarming story of a boy who befriends an orca, (also known as killer whales), the movie ends with Willy, the whale, finally escaping to freedom in the wild.

Jason James Richter / Killer Whales / Keiko / Jason James Richter.
Source: Getty Images

The film was actually based on the story of the very same whale who played its starring role. In a crazy twist of fate, the film inspired the release of said whale, named Keiko, back into the open ocean; sadly, his rehabilitation was largely unsuccessful.

Keiko, the Killer Whale

Meet Keiko, the aquatic star of the popular children’s movie Free Willy; an orca whale who was captured at a young age off the coast of Iceland in 1979 and was kept in a few aquariums before he was “hired” to appear in the film.

A photo of Keiko in an aquarium.
Source: Wikipedia

After his capture, he was taken to an Icelandic aquarium where he was originally named Siggi. In 1982, he was sold to a new aquarium in Ontario. Sadly, Keiko, then Siggi, suffered in his new home: he developed skin lesions and was bullied by older whales.

Keiko’s Rise to Fame

The young orca’s troubles did not end there. He was sold once again, this time to an aquatic theme park in Mexico. He was renamed Keiko, a name which means “Lucky One” in Japanese. Unfortunately, he was anything but lucky; his living conditions were abysmal.

A still from the film Free Willy.
Source: YouTube

Keiko was then found by scouts at the dilapidated park, and Warner Brothers decided to cast him to play the character of Willy. Some of the movie was filmed in Reino Park (the name of the park which held Keiko) and some in Mexico City.

What Is the Story of Free Willy?

The story of Free Willy centers around the unlikely friendship between a boy and a whale − and their journey to return home. When we first meet Jesse, he is a belligerent 12-year-old orphan boy in trouble for vandalizing the aquarium where Willy is being held in captivity.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

Jesse is intrigued by Willy when he first sees him while he is spray-painting graffiti on Willy’s cage. They have a moment of connection. Jesse is then caught and arrested. He is made to do community service during which he must clean up the tank he ruined.

The True Antagonist of the Film Was Greed

Over time, Willy, who is usually angry and unruly, takes a liking to Jesse. The whale and the boy become friends, and Jesse begins to train him. The villain of the film, a man named Dial, who is the owner of the theme park where Willy is being held, takes notice.

Jason James Richter as Jesse in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Dial hopes to create a new show with Willy in order to bring in more revenue. His greed causes a disaster; the constant banging on the glass of his tank causes Willy to become enraged; he smashes into the glass and cracks it.

Jesse Learns the Meaning of Family

Jesse, who had run away during the show due to the pressure, realizes his time training Willy is over. In what was supposed to be his final goodbye to Willy, he hears other orcas calling to him and realizes how unhappy Willy is living in captivity.

Jason James Richter and Willy in a still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

They also discover Dial’s plot to drain Willy’s tank and collect the insurance money when he dies. Jesse begs his foster father to help him, and even though their relationship has been rocky until that point, Glen agrees.

Willy Makes His Escape

Jesse resolves to set Willy free. With the help of his friends and family, his foster parents and the wildlife trainers at the aquarium, they transport Willy to the harbor. Dial does everything he can to stop them, like blocking the gate to the Marina.

A movie still of James Richter as Jesse speaking to Willy.
Source: YouTube

They finally get Willy in the water, but he doesn’t want to leave Jesse at first. Jesse coaxes him to swim away. When he is trapped by two whaler ships, Jesse coaches Willy to the barrier and encourages him to make his final jump to freedom.

Messages and Themes Throughout the Film

The attachment between Willy and Jesse is clearly symbolic. Jesse is an orphan, and he grows close to his foster parents over the course of his adventure with Willy. Willy, taken from his family (or ‘pod’)’ when he was young, reunites with them in the end.

A still of Jason as Jesse saying goodbye to Willy.
Source: YouTube

Both Jesse and Willy are young, and they struggle with loneliness at the beginning of the film. Jesse is changed by learning to love Willy. Willy, on the other hand, learns to trust humans and becomes very fond of Jesse as well.

Why Kids Adored Free Willy

Kids around the world loved the film, so much so that almost 9 million video cassettes of the film were sold. Why was it so successful? The brilliant acting of James Richter, who played Jesse, surely played a part. However, the film is also a classic buddy story.

A still from the final scene of the film.
Source: YouTube

The fresh and whimsical take on the typical man’s best friend tale captured the hearts of people everywhere, including many adults! The buddy genre is related to a rite-of-passage story, and children and teens connected to Jesse and Willy’s mutual growth through their relationship.

Teaching Love and Loss

Two of the strongest themes in Free Willy were that of love and loss. Jesse, an orphan, has a hard time understanding the concept of unconditional love and acts out after feeling lost in the world, while Willy was kidnapped as a pup by whalers.

A still of Jason and August Schellenberg in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Though the characters of Willy and Jesse are both changed by their affection for one another, they both have to let the other go. When Jesse urges Willy to leave him and be free, the tearful goodbye was layered and complex; it resonated with audiences everywhere.

A Massive Box-Office Hit

It’s no wonder, then, that the film grossed over seven million dollars domestically (over $140 million when adjusted for inflation) on the first weekend it hit cinemas. It continued on to generate over $150 million worldwide- a real success in the film industry.

A promotional shot for the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

This is even more noteworthy in light of the fact that it was released alongside Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The success generated two sequels, and turned lead actor James Richter into a childhood star, to the point where he would be mobbed by fans.

How Much of Willy Was CGI?

Free Willy had a $20 million budget: not a particularly large sum in the film industry. They were, however, able to create an animatronic stand-in for Willy on the budget and used it for many of the scenes that couldn’t be shot with a real orca.

An image of Keiko.
Source: CNN

The smaller movements of Keiko, the real whale that played Willy, were difficult to capture, but the orca did feature in most of the movie. The only place that CGI technology was seriously used was in the famous jump scene at the climax of the film.

Free Willy Remains a Classic

Though perhaps a little dated and cliche now, Free Willy is a quintessential example of ‘90’s nostalgia. In addition to the two sequels, the film even prompted a TV series that follows Willy in the wild.

Jason James Richter is in the water in a scene from the film.
Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images

To this day, many remember Free Willy with fondness. Lead actor James Richter commented on the reach of the film. “I’ve had kids come to me and say, ‘Oh, I loved your movie when I was a kid, and I became a marine biologist.’ It’s crazy.”

The Film’s Audience Helped Save the Real Willy

Though its success as a family-film and a ‘90’s classic can’t be denied, perhaps the greatest thing about Free Willy was that it quite literally saved Keiko from a life of captivity. The general outcry regarding the whale’s condition caused Warner Brothers to take action.

A photo of Keiko, the killer whale, in his enclosure on Heimaey.
Photo by Colin Davey/Getty Images

Killer whales are large animals that aren’t meant to be kept in water parks; Keiko’s tank was too small, over-chlorinated, and he suffered greatly. After examining the whale, a veterinarian stated that if he were kept in Mexico park any longer, he would die.

Keiko’s Terrible Life on Set

Keiko’s dorsal fin really did droop, just like in the movie. He was required to swim in endless circles due to the size of his tank. He was very thin and underweight by orca standards. The water was too warm and caused him to catch a skin virus.

An image of Jason James on the set of Free Willy.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

For 11 years, Keiko lived in his old, rusty tank. Keiko, a 35-foot-long whale, was living in a tank 12 feet deep; it’s no wonder he was close to death. This is what finally prompted the decision to reintroduce Keiko to the wild.

A Little Bit About Killer Whales

Before we delve into Keiko’s (arguably unsuccessfully) rescue, here’s some context on killer whales. Killer whales are naturally very sociable creatures. They stay together in groups known as ‘pods. Pods are typically only comprised of a few whales, but they can also be as large as 20 whales.

Tourists take videos and photographs of orcas.
Photo by Yekaterina Shtukina/TASS/Getty Images

This fact accounts for some of Keiko’s suffering. Just as in Free Willy, Keiko was separated from his family at the age of three and lived in isolation in Reino Park. As we will discover, Keiko couldn’t join a pod when reintroduced into his habitat.

Found in Every Ocean in the World

Orcas are black and white, with black backs and white underbellies and white patches by their eyes. Researchers have estimated that there are perhaps 50,000 orcas worldwide: a very small number! Orcas can be found in all oceans, though they tend toward colder areas.

An image of a killer whale in the sea.
Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Orcas use underwater clicks and whistles to talk to one another, as well as for navigational purposes. Each pod has their own unique sounds and set of calls. Like all whales, they are warm-blooded marine mammals; they give birth to their young.

Killer Whales Really Are Deadly

Orcas are also known as killer whales for good reason. They are one of the ocean’s most dangerous predators. What they eat varies by where they are found in the world. Some eat salmon; others eat squid. All variations are considered top predators.

A photo of a killer whale underwater.
Photo by Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Getty Images

Killer whales often hunt in groups, and use coordinated strategies to hunt down their prey. A female killer whale’s gestational period is much longer than a human’s, ranging from 15 to 18 months. The calves stay close to their mothers for the first two years.

So How Are Orcas Endangered?

In the wild, killer whales live on average up to around 40 years, making Keiko’s death at only 27 even more unfortunate. Though at the top of the food chain, they do have one predator: humans. Killer whales are often targeted by hunters and fishermen.

A video still of a killer whale playing with his prey.
Source: YouTube

Other threats to the orca population are pollutants, disturbance of their natural habitat by large shipping vessels, and food source limitations. There are laws in place today to protect the whales and displays in aquariums or performances in marine parks no longer occur in the US.

The Irony of Free Willy

Now we swing back to Keiko, the beloved killer whale of Free Willy. The irony of filming an endangered whale living in inhumane conditions to create a story of said whale escaping to the wild is fairly obvious. Something had to be done about Keiko.

A promotional movie still for Free Willy.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

It is unclear if the story of Free Willy was based on Keiko, the real whale. It is hard to understand how this could be so, as Keiko seems to have stayed in his unpleasant condition in Reino Park while shooting and had to be rescued.

The Save The Whales Foundation

Keiko was eventually rescued by his fans. The producers ran the phone number for the whale preservation hotline during the movie’s credits. This is what truly saved Keiko; the preservation foundation received thousands of calls and, more importantly, a large number of donations.

A photo of Hayden Panettiere attending a press conference for Save The Wales Foundation.
Photo by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images

Due to the public outcry, Warner Brothers joined forces with the International Marine Mammal Project and others to finally set Keiko free in 1996. They not only wanted to free him; they also wanted to return him to his original home in the wild Icelandic waters.

The Beginning of a New Life for Keiko

Adults and children everywhere banded together when they became aware of the conditions Keiko was living in; a massive campaign was launched. It’s lucky the movie was so successful, as it reached millions of people who fell in love with “Willy” and came to Keiko’s aid.

An image of Keiko being weighted in the aquarium.
Photo by Dave Nolan/Getty Images

Kids all across America began collecting nickels and dimes for the cause. Just this effort raised a significant sum; Craig McCaw, the cellphone billionaire, partnered with Warner Brothers as well as a founding donor. He alone donated at least $2 million.

The Creation of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation

With support coming in from all sides, Warner Brothers, Mr. McCaw and the Humane Society (which also joined the cause), were able to build a $7.3 million dollar rehab tank in the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The tank was four times the size of Reino Park’s.

A photo of Keiko, the killer whale.
Photo by Steve Starr/Corbis/Getty Images

Craig McCaw told reporters he would pull out all the stops to save Keiko. “This will not be stopped for lack of money,” he stated to reporters. Keiko was transferred out of Mexico at last in 1996, on a cargo plane borrowed from UPS.

The Time Came to Truly Free Keiko

Though Keiko was finally introduced to seawater in his Oregon rehabilitation tank and began to gain weight, the plan was not for him to stay. The idea was to send him back to his original home. However, he had no idea how to survive.

A photo of Keiko swimming freely.
Photo by Mark Berman

Keiko, who had lived for 22 years in captivity, could not just be set free, as Willy was in the film. He didn’t know how to hunt or navigate. A rehabilitation process thus began as Keiko began to regain his overall health in his new tank.

The Controversy Surrounding the Decision to “Free Willy”

The researchers who were hired to teach Keiko how to survive in his natural habitat weren’t totally convinced. “While we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well-being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so.”

An image of Keiko in the aquarium.
Source: YouTube

Some were skeptical about sending Keiko home. Malene Simon, of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who was on Keiko’s rehabilitation team, said “the best option for him was the open pen he had in Norway, with care from his trainers.”

Relearning How to Be a Free Orca

Despite this, the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation was adamant to at least attempt to rehabilitate the orca so he could return to open waters. Unfortunately, the lasting effects of a life of captivity are not so easily erased; Keiko had to undergo a process of whale training.

An image of Keiko swimming in the open seas.
Source: CNN

Susan Orlean, who wrote for The New Yorker, summed it up perfectly. “You’re talking about something really bizarre,” she said, “which was human beings teaching a whale to be a whale.” Keiko had almost none of the skills orcas cultivate on their own in the wild.

The Basic Skills of Breathing for Hunting

Keiko had to relearn to hold his breath for much longer. Keiko couldn’t hold his breath for longer than two minutes; he needed to be able to hold it for at least 5 in order to travel in open waters.

An aerial view of a killer whale in open seas.
Photo by Russia Emergencies Ministry/TASS/Getty Images

Moreover, Keiko wasn’t as much of a killer whale. He had been fed frozen fish meals all his life. (Trainers said he was very fond of frozen herring.) Keiko needed to learn how to hunt and feed on his own to survive.

A Daunting Challenge for Keiko and His Trainers

All in all, it was a complicated situation. The motivation to return Keiko to Icelandic waters was strong, but how would they manage it? Poor Keiko even needed help staying active; he just wasn’t used to moving as much as wild killer whales do naturally.

A picture of Keiko in his enclosure.
Photo by Colin Davey/Getty Images

It took a long time, but eventually Keiko’s team decided he was ready. He had learned many of the skills he had lost as a calf. The Free-Willy Foundation released Keiko out into Icelandic waters in August of 2002, and, at long last, Keiko was free.

A Year at Sea With Keiko, the Killer Whale

Keiko’s journey through the open ocean was, of course, tracked; after everything he had been through, researchers (and his fans) wanted to know if he had made it. A VHF tag attached to his dorsal fin relayed a signal back to the research center in Iceland.

An image of Keiko swimming free in the open sea.
Source: YouTube

A month or so after his release, Keiko arrived in Skålvik Fjord, off the coast of Norway. He had managed to feed over the 1,500 km journey, which was good news. However, when he arrived in the Fjord, he was attempting to make contact with humans.

Failing to Integrate Into His True Home

It seems that Keiko could not reintegrate with other orca pods, and as we know, orcas are very social creatures, relying on each other to hunt and navigate, among other things. His caretakers moved with Keiko to Norway, in order to continue to monitor him.

A dated photo of Keiko in the aquarium.
Photo by Steve Starr/CORBIS/Getty Images

The researchers noted that “Keiko occasionally approached groups of wild killer whales, but remained on the periphery, at distances of 100–300 meters (109 to 328 yards), with his head pointing toward the closest orca.” Keiko never managed to join a pod during the next 15 months.

Keiko Dies at 27 Years Old

In , an article on Keiko reports that “[h]e was seen diving among the wild orcas only once…Keiko swam away, seeking out human company on the tracking boat.” He didn’t leave Norway after that; he died in Norwegian waters of pneumonia at approximately 27 years.

A photo of Norway’s bay.
Source: CBS News

Keiko’s failure to reintegrate has been attributed to “early age at capture, the long history of captivity, prolonged lack of contact (with other orcas, and) strong bonds with humans.” Strong bonds is accurate: when he approached humans, he often let children ride on his back.

Was Keiko Ever Really Free?

Fans around the world mourned the sad loss of Keiko. Before his death, he was often seen in the ocean around Norway, and he happily initiated interactions with humans, many of whom tried to swim with him. He seems to have stayed “Willy” until his death.

An image of Keiko in the water.
Source: YouTube

Despite this, many people, including the Free-Willy Foundation considered the release project a success in many ways. “We took the hardest candidate and took him from near death in Mexico to swimming with wild whales in Norway,” said David Phillips, executive director of the project.

The Rehabilitation Experiment and Its Outcomes

Though scientists don’t quite consider the Keiko release experiment a total success, solid research has been recorded and we have learned much from the study. Another positive outcome, both from the experiment and from the film Free Willy, was a heightened sense of general environmental awareness.

An image of a killer whale in an aquarium.
Source: YouTube

Perhaps “The Lucky One” isn’t such a bad name for Keiko after all. The Huffington Post called it a “phenomenal success … giving him years of health and freedom,” and many were united in the well-being of the famous killer whale that stole many young hearts.

The Retro Report Documentary

The New York Times put out a short documentary called “Freeing Willy.” It speaks about the story of Keiko, but also comments on the way Free Willy and the story of Keiko had a lasting effect on captive whales in theme parks around the country.

A promotional movie still of the documentary.
Source: YouTube

It dives into the research that went into the attempt to successfully release Keiko, the measures the wildlife team took to properly prepare Keiko for his return and follows the entire story with video coverage. Check it out on YouTube if you want to learn more!

James Richter and Keiko Both Debuted in Free Willy

Just as Kieko was taken as a calf, James Richter, his co-star in Free Willy, was very young when he auditioned for the film. Though born in Oregon, James traveled quite a lot as a kid due to his father’s military career.

A still of James Richter and Keiko in a promotional shot.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

His mother, Sandy, was an actress; maybe that’s where James got the acting gene. At only 13 he starred in Free Willy, having been chosen over 4,000 other child actors for the role. Producer Lauren Shuler-Donner said of Richter, “he’s a young Steve McQueen.”

Keiko and James: Filming With a Killer Whale

James Richter remembers the excitement of first jumping into the tank with his enormous co-star, Keiko. “I remember it being one of those moments of pure and utter fascination as a child,” he says, even as an adult, 20 years after the movie was released.

A portrait of James during an event.
Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

It certainly was a wonderful opportunity for a young actor. When asked about the fear factor of swimming with a killer whale, he stated, “You don’t see the danger. At 11 years old, you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, a whale! That’s amazing! This will be awesome!’”

The Pros and Cons of Fame at a Young Age

Though James was used to moving around as a Navy Brat, Moving to Mexico City to film Free Willy must have been an adjustment. He was learning things many 11-year-olds only dream of, like training an orca and getting used to life on set.

James Richter smiles at the press.
Photo by Derek Storm/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The perks of living in Mexico are many; James’ tutor would augment his lessons with trips to Aztec ruins, for example. However, fame at such an age is no joke. On tour, he had to calm riots of over 7,000 kids at autograph signings.

“A Kid With a Troubled Face and a Heart of Gold”

James ended up being perfect for the role of Jesse and was already a millionaire by the age of 15. He also played Jesse in both sequels of Free Willy and is recognized to this day, showing again the incredibly far reach of the film.

A still of Keiko and James in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

His acting career did not end there; after Free Willy, James appeared in other films such as Cops and Robbersons, Laserhawk, and The Neverending Story III as well as making a cameo appearance in Michael Jackson’s Childhood music video.

Where Is Jesse Richter Now?

Richter did take a hiatus from acting at the age of 18. “I had been on sets since I was 11 years old,” he says. “I just needed a break.” In 1998, he became enamored with rockstar Jimi Hendrix and began to learn the guitar.

James Richter attends an event.
Photo by Ari Perilstein/Getty Images

He joined a band called Fermata and toured with them for a few years as “just one of the guys.” He has since returned to acting and has appeared in a number of TV shows. His estimated net worth as of 2022 is £386,000.

About the Other Actors

The cast of Free Willy have mostly continued to act. Danielle Harris, who played Gwenie, launched her own talk show. Lori Petty, who played Rae, was later cast in the women’s prison series Orange Is the New Black as Lolly.

Danielle Harris attends an event / Lori Petty poses for the press.
Photo by Albert L. Ortega, Getty Images / Paul Archuleta, Getty Images

The supporting cast of Free Willy (including the sequels, Free Willy 2 & 3) seem to have gravitated towards TV shows, as opposed to films. Some of the shows the actors have appeared on include Bones, Family Guy, The Wild Thornberrys, Friday Night Lights, House, and Scrubs.

Continuing the Saga With Two Sequels

The story of Free Willy continues with Free Willy 2. Directed by Dwight Little, it follows Jesse as he grows to become a teenager and introduces his half-brother, Elvis. Willy the Whale makes an appearance, but a robotic double is used instead of Keiko.

A promotional portrait of James for the sequel.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

The film received mixed reviews, but despite this, Free Willy 3 was released in 1997. A TV series entitled Free Willy was released as well and incorporates some of the story of Free Willy 2. Jesse is played by Zachary Bennet.

Michael Jackson and the Free Willy Soundtrack

The soundtrack for Free Willy, released on July 13, 1993, by MJJ Music, boasted a pretty big name; Michael Jackson performed and produced “Will You Be There” for the film’s end credit scene. The song was taken originally from Michael Jackson’s 1991 album, Dangerous.

A dated photo of Michael Jackson in concert.
Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

The track was the perfect end to the film and went on to become a top 10 hit in the charts. The feel-good track was certified platinum as well as winning the for .

Moby Dick Shout-Outs in Free Willy

Another famous whale-tale in literary and cinematic history is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Moby Dick is the story of Captain Ahab and his search for the giant white whale, Moby Dick. At the beginning of Free Willy, there is a whaling ship named Pequod.

A still from the whaling ship named Pequod.
Source: YouTube

This a nod to the fictional whaling ship that features in Moby Dick, named Pequod. That is pretty much where the similarities end though. Moby Dick is a sperm whale, and Willy is an Orca. In Free Willy 3, however, Willy is endangered once again by whalers.

Lasting Environmental Effects of Free Willy

When Free Willy was released, critics weren’t sure how it would affect overall whale safety. Though whaling had been outlawed in the US by 1971, some were fearful that the movie would kindle fascination in kids, who would then visit aquatic theme parks with their families.

A movie still from Free Willy.
Source: YouTube

This was one outcome; America’s (and many other countries’) love for the performing and endangered whale ultimately released Keiko and raised enough for many years of rehabilitation. Though Keiko’s life may not have been happy for many years, he ended his life in his home, the sea.

Why You Can Still Love Free Willy

Even though the real Willy, Keiko, was mistreated and held captive for years, doesn’t mean you can’t still love Free Willy. It was an important and lovable movie for the whole family, and it raised awareness for the plight of captive whales.

A still from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Warner Bros.

Were you a fan of Free Willy? Was it just a nice kids’ movie, or did it have an important role in bringing the plight of animal welfare to the general public? Thankfully, for the most part, the film seemed to have a positive and lasting effect.

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