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WHALE OF A TALE

Discussing 1993's year in movies, veteran Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman--who wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men and Marathon Man and authored the classic how-to book Adventures in the Screen Trade-- singled out Free Willy as a story he wished he'd written. He noted that whatever snooty folks might think of a film about a boy and his seagoing mammal pal, they'd still have to admit it was a shameless joyride for family audiences and that it knew exactly what it wanted to do and did it superbly. "From the moment the kid says, `We've got to free Willy!' the movie is on rails," Goldman said.

He was right. But I'd pick an earlier moment to illustrate his point. I think the picture is on rails when its motherless juvenile-delinquent hero, Jesse (Jason James Richter), says something deeply personal to his imprisoned killer-whale pal and the whale pauses in the water and tilts his head slightly to one side, as if carefully considering what the boy has just told him. I felt an indefensibly childish rush. Suddenly I was eight again, watching a Lassie movie, pointing at the screen and exclaiming, "Look, mom! Look! Lassie's thinking! She's thinking!'

I felt the same rush throughout Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. Like its predecessor, it isn't a great movie, but it's an amazingly guileless and professional movie. There's nothing inherently wrong with sequels. After all, who among us hasn't wanted to revisit a place that made us happy? The tough part is coming up with a story that builds on the success of an original movie without simply Xeroxing it.

The script to Free Willy 2 pulls off this difficult trick. Although it's credited to three separate writers, it doesn't feel patchy or mechanical or soulless. It's not very inventive, but it's a solid and honorable piece of work. It serves up sharply etched characters who have real emotions, real fears and real needs, then ties those qualities directly to the ensuing action. The movie hops onto Goldman's magic rails and rarely strays.

A lot has happened in two years. Jesse has grown from a sullen troublemaker into a strong, confident adolescent who loves and trusts his foster parents (Michael Madsen and Jayne Atkinson). And he's grown in other ways, too: When the whale-expert buddy from the first movie, a Native American named Randolph (August Schellenberg), sails into town with his sweet, spunky goddaughter, Nadine (Mary Kate Schellhardt), Jesse is instantly attracted to her and is determined to find a way to impress her.

An opportunity presents itself when Willy swims back into his life, bringing his family along; a scene where Jesse and Nadine play with the whales down in the cove is a surefire kid-pleaser, but it also works as a hilariously unsubtle metaphor for the young lovebirds' impending sexual awakening. (Jesse convinces the squeamish Nadine to pet his whale buddy, and she sort of likes it until the whale gushes seawater all over her. Gee, what does that mean?)

Not that Jesse's life is completely pleasurable. He's aghast to learn that his long-lost mama recently kicked off in New York, leaving behind a tough ten-year-old with the unlikely name of Elvis (Francis Capra), who joins the family and reopens some of Jesse's old emotional wounds. Then, during a gettin'-to-know-you seaside camping trip, an oil tanker runs aground, trapping Willy and his whale family in a cove. An oil slick is rapidly approaching the aquatic clan; it will take all of Jesse's ingenuity and pluck, plus plenty of help from adult friends and family, to save them. Toss in an underhanded oil executive who wants to engineer a fake "rescue" of the whales and then sell them for a hefty finder's fee to an amusement park, and you have the makings of one shamelessly manipulative movie.

Remarkably, though, the picture rarely feels canned or insincere, mostly because Jesse is a fully rounded person who has sound reasons for doing what he does. After all, Willy isn't just his flippered pal; he's the kid's alter ego. The film treats Jesse's considerable emotional scars--his ongoing fear of abandonment and motherlessness--seriously. When he goes into action, he's fighting to make sure the bad things that happened to him as a child don't happen to Willy and his relatives.

All of which makes the picture hang together even when it's stretching plausibility to the breaking point. Free Willy 2 is virtually guaranteed to make young viewers weep and cheer, but they probably won't feel conned because the story earns these responses honestly. It's a good movie about people who are determined to do the right thing. They might be acting on behalf of whales, but you get the impression they'd do it for jeopardized humans, too, whether they knew them personally or not.

The performance of Michael Madsen, who plays Jesse's foster dad, Glen, typifies what I most enjoy about this series--its low-key moral righteousness. When I first heard that Madsen, who specializes in playing street hoods, cops and psychotic killers, had been cast in the original Free Willy as a sensitive father, I was skeptical; I didn't think the ear-slicer from Reservoir Dogs could be convincing in a part like that. But Madsen's steely-eyed, no-nonsense toughness grounded the picture, lending it an edgy quality it might not have otherwise possessed. Glen is a quiet, unsentimental, decent man who sticks by his loved ones, and it doesn't require lavish displays of affection to know he's a good father. The same goes for Glen's wife, Annie, who's nurturing and sensitive without crossing the line into smotherhood. She gives the kid some emotional breathing room, and Jesse obviously appreciates her for it.

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