Note to the producers of “Free Willy 3”: The damn whale has already been freed. TWICE!
Free or not, the only mammalian movie star larger than Chris Farley is back in “Free Willy 3: The Rescue,” the best of the “Willy” movies. Mainly, it succeeds because director Sam Pillsbury makes the people real and goes easy on the blubbery sentimentality.
Instead of sentiment, we get a strong moral framework. “Willy 3” introduces us to young Max (Vincent Berry), an 11-year-old whose dad (Patrick Kilpatrick) is teaching him the family business: illegal whale hunting. Jesse, the hero of the previous “Willys,” is back, but the focus this time is on a kid’s dilemma when he’s supposed to do what his dad says, but he knows his dad is wrong. That makes for some dark, creepy scenes because Kilpatrick seems to be an OK joe, but he keeps making his son do bad things.
Children with an interest in the environment will love this (“Willy” also explains why we used to think whale hunting was OK, but we don’t anymore). But it’s hard to say how “Free Willy 3” will play with other youngsters. The movie has a few whale tricks and lots of natural beauty - verdant forests, cottony clouds, the play of light on water - but there’s not much of the slapstick that is the hallmark of kids’ movies these days.
“Free Willy 3” is also fairly predictable. From the beginning, we know the poachers are not going to succeed in turning Willy into sushi. But Pillsbury manages to drum up suspense during scenes in which Jesse infiltrates the poachers’ ship, and Willy swims right into the path of danger. Other pluses: Unlike the other “Willys,” there’s no cloying Michael Jackson song to break the mood, and the adults, even the ones who are wrong-headed, aren’t depicted as idiots.
All of which means that, although I can’t say I’m eagerly anticipating another “Willy” sequel, I’m no longer dreading it.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “FREE WILLY 3” Location: East Sprague, North Division, Coeur d’Alene Credits: Directed by Sam Pillsbury, starring Jason James Richter, Vincent Berry Running time: 1:26 Rating: PG