An unusual friendship helps two lost souls find an unusual solution to each other's problems.
Jesse (Jason James Richter) is a twelve-year-old boy who does not know why his father and mother left him with the government six years ago. Bounced from one foster home to the next, he now relies on the streets for his existence. Then one night he seeks refuge in an unusual place, and is caught. Here he meets Willy, a captured killer whale, and the pair begin their story together.
Along with showing the need each person has for family, this story manages to take a troubled kid and make him into a more understanding and responsible person without bathing the audience in unnecessary sentimentalism. It also gives us a realistic view of what displaced children may go through, and does so without mountains of profanity and/or violence.
As well, the movie provides a good view of the motives of those that use animals for monetary gain. The comparison between the captured whale, and the captured boy, provides an interesting situation. Jesse's character grows through observing Willy's situation, and coming to his own realistic conclusions.
One of the few unfortunate elements of the film, without giving away the whole plot, is near the end when Jesse "borrows" his the truck of foster father (Michael Madsen) without asking. His character should have grown to the point where that wasn't necessary. Jesse used to steal to live, but by this time his need for the use of the vehicle could have been turned into a bonding experience between them -- if the script had only taken the time to have Jesse ask for permission.
No one can change their life in two hours, but this movie gives a glimpse of what a young person could go through in trying to put the pieces back together. Free Willy is much more the story of a boy than it is a whale.