Free Willy at 30: 'It changed the way the world thinks about whales in captivity'

In 1993, the world met Keiko

Sauvez Willy Free Willy 1993 Real  Simon Wincer Jason James Richter. Collection Christophel © Regency Enterprises / Alcor Films
Jason James Richter with Keiko in the iconic moment from 1993's Free Willy. (Alamy)

Dinosaurs weren’t the only animals escaping theme parks 30 years ago. Keiko the killer whale did the same in 1993's Free Willy, the nostalgia-laced kids’ film that warmed hearts and forever changed the way the whole world thinks about orcas in captivity.

Released just a month after Jurassic Park, few expected this humble family drama to make a splash — let alone have a lasting global impact. However, three decades later, the image of Willy leaping to his freedom as Michael Jackson’s ‘Will You Be There’ triumphantly underpins the moment remains etched into the minds of all those who grew up watching this 90’s classic.

Read more: Free Willy cast: Then and now

According to its creator, aiming for the heartstrings was always the plan: “As a director, I’m drawn to movies that have a great emotional throughline,” admits Simon Wincer, the Australian filmmaker that ushered Free Willy into existence. “It’s a very powerful movie.”

Sauvez Willy Free Willy 1993 Real  Simon Wincer Lori Petty August Schellenberg Michael Madsen. Collection Christophel © Regency Enterprises / Alcor Films
Lori Petty with director Simon Wincer on the set of 1993's Free Willy. (Alamy)

He’s not wrong. Nestled amongst a year of high-concept movies like Mrs Doubtfire, Last Action Hero and Spielberg’s dino epic, Free Willy told the relatively down-to-Earth tale of Jesse (Jason James Richter), a young orphan who finds solace and unexpected friendship in a performing whale held captive at a run-down water park.

As their bond grows deeper, Jesse becomes determined to release Willy back into the open ocean with the help of his new family and friends before the park’s corrupt owner can realise his plan to kill Willy and claim the insurance money.

After replacing the film’s original director at the eleventh hour, Wincer wasted no time getting to work and immediately noticed something special in Richter while scouring video auditions to find his young lead.

Despite being his first feature film, the 12-year-old had his own personal experiences that lent themselves to the role of troubled orphan Jesse. Wincer explains: “It just so happened that [Jason’s] parents had gone through a breakup, so he was able to draw on that emotionally.”

Jason James Richter Film: Free Willy (USA/FR 1993) Characters: Jesse &  Director: Simon Wincer 16 July 1993   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of WARNER BROS. and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To WARNER BROS. is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Jason James Richter on the set of 1993's Free Willy. (Alamy/Warner Bros.)

Plus, he was a natural when it came to befriending Keiko, the whale who played Willy and won the hearts of audiences worldwide. “Jason really responded to it,” says the director, commenting on how his young star seamlessly integrated himself into the daily activity regimes of Keiko’s trainers at the closed Mexican water park where the film was primarily shot.

“So much so that he ended up being able to do literally everything that the trainers had taught this whale to do. It was extraordinary.”

Loving the added attention that a camera crew brought to his temporarily-closed theme park home, Keiko was an absolute professional when it came to shooting his scenes. “The trainers would have him do something and then, as a director, you’d shoot the same scene from different angles when doing the reverse shot on Jason.

"Keiko would still be acting off-screen just like an actor would because he loved doing whatever task he was given to do,” recalls Wincer. “It was fantastic.”

FREE WILLY, from left: Lori Petty, Jason James Richter, 1993, © Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
Lori Petty and Jason James Richter in 1993's Free Willy. (Alamy/Warner Bros./Everett Collection)

As for that iconic final scene, with CGI still in its infancy, Wincer and his team had to think outside the box in terms of how to capture Willy jumping to freedom. The answer? Build a whale canon for a prosthetic Willy look-a-like and let CGI take over mid-jump.

“It literally was a rocket launcher,” smiles Wincer, remembering how he captured the moment. “We had to shoot the scene at high tide so that we could fully submerge the prosthetic whale. When his nose was just below the surface of the water, we’d fire it up.

Read more: How a hurricane nearly took down Jurassic Park

"It was just a matter of getting the timing right so that Jason knew when to raise his hand,” he adds, detailing that famous final shot. “It was a lot of trial and error.”

Michael Madsen, Jason James Richter and Jayne Atkinson in 1993's Free Willy. (Alamy)

Filmed for just $20 million, Free Willy went on to become a surprise hit following its release on 16 July 1993, going on to earn more than $150 million at the box office and spawn three sequels.

“It was so amazing,” says Wincer, recalling those early test screenings. “Here was this little movie that no one at Warner Bros had really paid much attention to and it got the highest scores ever for a Warner Bros. screening at that time.”

What’s more, Free Willy sparked a movement in viewers that led to wider awareness of the issue of whales in captivity and eventually led to Warner Bros. leading a crowdfunding campaign that ultimately led to Keiko’s release.

“I still get mail from all sorts of people telling me how the movie affected them. That movie changed the way the world thinks about whales in captivity and there’s virtually none now,” admits Wincer. “They’re such big, beautiful creatures, they need space and they need the ocean. We helped change that worldview and that, to me, is the most important thing.”

Free Willy is available to rent or buy on digital.