Monday, July 15, 2013

Riske Business: Free Willy, Movie Bullying and Film Criticism

Free Willy is a very good movie. The only thing keeping most people from admitting this is because they can’t fathom being the person that says Free Willy is a good movie.

Can you imagine how much shit this movie would take if it were released in 2013? We’re in an era where too many critics fall over themselves to say they were inspired by Roger Ebert but ignore one of his most eloquent statements: “It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” Casual movie fans (the kind that don’t watch movies as a major hobby) can be equally dismissive in different ways. On the week of Free Willy’s 20th anniversary, I want to talk about why I love this movie and the two lessons it instilled in me for the past 20 years: you should always give a movie a chance and you should make up your mind for yourself.
Without meaning to, I’ve turned into the defender of the bullied movie. It’s a weird position to be in, but it’s only happened because things have gotten so out of hand. Movie bullying has been rampant over the last 12 months in the responses to The Lone Ranger (too expensive and redundant of Pirates of the Caribbean), After Earth (the work of Scientologists, egomaniacs and nepotism), The Lords of Salem (the brainchild of a heavy metal musician who’s made other poorly received horror movies), Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (a conceit that’s too silly to be taken for what it is), The Guilt Trip (a road trip comedy starring Barbara ‘punch line’ Streisand), etc. All of these are fine to very good movies that had their audiences limited because some narrow-minded critics went in with their flashlight pens sharpened to spears. "How dare they have the audacity to even exist?" became the question.
My main issue with this is that critics are still influential. Can they effect the grosses of the biggest blockbuster movies? As much as critics say they can’t, they do. Rotten Tomatoes is a major cause for this. It’s a site dedicated to ending film conversation, instead reducing it to numbered scores, quote blurbs and sound bites. It’s all a headline and the article is not important. I have a snotty email chain that I send to Patrick and JB that acts as a form of therapy for me, which keeps me honest on the pulse of the average casual moviegoer. It’s called "People Who Don’t Know Anything About Movies," and the body of the email is movie conversations I have with co-workers at my job. Here are some examples of conversations I’ve had:

Example 1, regarding Iron Man (2008):
Coworker: The first one was incredible.
Me: It was good but it wasn't incredible.
Coworker: It got 4 stars!
Me: From who?
Coworker: In general
Me: That doesn't make any sense. There's no movie general that decides if something is 4 stars. It's subjective.
Coworker: Comcast said it was 4 stars on the preview screen when it's on TV.

Example 2, regarding The Lone Ranger
Coworker #1: The wife and I are thinking of having a date night and seeing a movie. What's the last good thing you've seen?
Coworker #2: Are you kidding? He doesn't like anything.
Me: I liked the Lone Ranger.
Coworker #2: That movie's terrible. 25% Rotten Tomatoes.
Me: You haven't even seen it. You can't have an opinion.
Coworker #2: Riske, you know that's what I do.

Do critics and the common person have the right to dislike these movies? Absolutely -- if they saw them. I have no way of proving it, but I question how many of them have actually seen some of these movies. If they have, then why is the negative criticism so similar and hyperbolic? It’s like the head of a political party said "here’s the consensus" and the majority followed the party line without making their minds up for themselves. Critics or people who write about movies (me included) have to be careful with how they speak about art. For example, I strongly disliked Pacific Rim but I’m not going to write a review saying that it’s a horrible movie or name it as one of the worst movies of the year. Why? Because I know that the movie is not for me. I found it suffocating and not entertaining. But you know what? I can completely understand how it is a piece of art that many people are enjoying. I’m happy for them. I’m entitled to this opinion because I saw the movie.
A lot of people are giving Rex Reed the business for printing a review of V/H/S 2 even though he walked out after 20 minutes. I don’t get that at all. He’s entitled to that opinion. He gave the movie a chance and he made up his mind for himself. He openly admitted that he walked out of the movie; he didn’t hide that in his print review. His error, in my eyes, is he printed factual errors for parts of the movie he did not see (e.g. calling the aliens of one segment “psycho kidnappers” or saying another segment features “a mountain biker pursued by flesh eating zombies” when in fact the biker (no mountains) is the one who is, in short order, a flesh-eating zombie and stalking other people). Reed needs to be careful how he critiques V/H/S 2. That’s his folly. Reviewing a movie he’s seen only 20 minutes of is not the issue.

If he were a better critic he would have focused exclusively on his experience in frank, urgent dialogue on what led him to want to leave after 20 minutes. That’s criticism worth reading and completely understandable, even though I disagree with his assessment of the movie (which I liked). I am a huge horror fan myself, but I agree sometimes the nihilism crosses the line for me. It goes too extreme, like it’s a filmmaker dare and they forget what it’s like for an audience to watch their output. Or Reed could have had a simple review stating he walked out of V/H/S 2. I’ve done that before. I’ll tell anyone that asks that Identity Thief or Grown Ups 2 are movies that I’ve turned off or walked out of before they were over (this is the dark side of giving everything a chance)*. But I’ll stop there. The action speaks louder than words. I won’t harp. I’ll just state a fact.
Returning to Free Willy on the week of its 20th anniversary reminds me that I have defended some bullied movies since I was a kid. When the movie was released in 1993, it was sort of a cinematic punching bag. It was that silly movie where the whale jumps over a little boy who yells “YEAH!” The movie was widely mocked and parodied. Wouldn’t it be funny if the whale ate the boy? Or slapped him in the face with his tail? Or crushed him? Har-dee-har-har. Congratulations, hipsters! Your trophy is in the mail. Oh yeah, and you’ll die alone and no one will go to your funeral. Have fun being buried in your tomb of irony. Picking on this movie is obscene to me. It’s so sweet, well-intentioned and intelligent.

Is Free Willy schmaltzy? Absolutely, but what is so wrong with that? It’s genuine, earned schmaltz and not contrived schmaltz. There’s a big difference. I love how defiantly this movie wears its heart on its sleeve but still does not call attention to it. It tells the story of a homeless boy who is adopted by a well-meaning family, discovers a true passion (whales) and finds happiness in helping someone/something other than himself. (Adam starts clapping).
Let’s start with the homeless angle. How brave is it for a kids movie to make its protagonist a child of no means? It’s very brave. A much lesser movie would have had the lead character, Jesse, be a typical suburban kid, but Free Willy doesn’t. For a long time, Jesse is arrogant, surly and disrespectful. Amazingly, he’s never unlikeable because we understand why he is like that. Empathy is a good lesson to teach kids, and by deciding to make Jesse a homeless boy, the filmmakers are giving kids an opportunity to see the point of view of someone who is not as well off as they are.

Second, the movie is about discovering a passion. Jesse is a mess but somehow finds his center by working at the adventure park with Willy. His relationship with Willy leads to his first job and a more stable home life where he accepts his foster parents. His anger goes away. He turns down his peer Perry’s offer to go into a life of selling drugs. And it’s all because something clicks when he sees a whale. Good for him! You or I might not have that reaction to seeing a killer whale, but whales are not my whales. Movies are my whales. I clicked when I first discovered movies and that became the central passion of my life.
Lastly, the movie is so much smarter thematically than its given credit for. Jesse loves Willy and wants to reunite Willy with his family. Jesse is unselfish and wants what is best for Willy. What the movie slyly does is parallel that to Jesse’s foster dad, Glen’s (played by Michael Madsen in a terrific, subtle and authentic performance uncommon to a kids movie) relationship to Jesse. Glen was a troublemaker as a kid just like Jesse. He sees a lot of himself in the kid. He wants to help him. That’s why Glen is patient and understanding of Jesse’s attitude towards him and his foster mom throughout the movie. Glen wants what is best for Jesse more than anything else, just like Jesse wants what is best for Willy above his own needs. Free Willy has an exploding heart moment for me during its finale. It’s not when Willy is freed. It’s something much more subtle. Jesse needs to get Willy to the marina and into the water. He calls Glen and asks him to bring his tow truck. When Glen and Jesse get to the marina (with Willy in tow), the marina entrance is being blocked by the movie’s henchman, who do not want Willy freed. Glen drives the truck at the henchman and crashes through the marina gate. Then Glen turns the truck around and backs Willy into the water, flooding his truck in the process. At this point, I cry. Glen loves Jesse so much that he is willing to ruin his truck to save Willy. Fuck yeah! I love this movie!

This movie would sadly either a) never be made today as a theatrical release or b) quickly disappear from theaters. It’s not CG animation, it is more for pre-teens than for grade schoolers (pre-teens only get superhero movies now), it dares to be in awe of something (in this case a whale) and it opened at #5 in its opening weekend. It went on to become a hit, earning nearly ten times its opening weekend gross and finishing as the 7th highest grossing movie in the summer of 1993. That shows the movie had great word of mouth back when people actually gave it a chance, but sadly that reputation has not sustained. The movie currently sits at 57% approval from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 48% approval from audiences. I don’t get that at all. Even in the privacy of the internet, people won’t acknowledge that Free Willy is a good movie? It’s still up against the movie bullies.

On its premise, I’m not pre-disposed to love a movie about a homeless boy and a whale. Homeless people and fish are two of the things that scare me in real life. But somehow Free Willy has become a movie that I love and will always defend against bullies, because I gave it a chance and made up my own mind.
“It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” Thanks Roger.

*I saw Grown Ups 2 because it is something I wanted to talk about. I made it 17 minutes before walking out of the theater -- not the auditorium, the entire theater. I texted a friend with two words – "Movies suck." This year is the g-damn worst.


  1. Great article, Adam, as someone who has seen and at least enjoyed, if not loved, a couple of seriously shat-upon movies that you defended this year (After Earth and The Lone Ranger), I am fully on-board with your message.

    Okay, maybe one small exception - I am not going to see fucking Grown Ups 2 alright? They're not getting my money. It's a piece of shit, and this is one of those RARE movies I don't need to see to KNOW that. I hope that doesn't undermine my agreement with your thesis too much!

    As for Free Willy, I'm surprised it's so poorly rated as I always just assumed that was a well-loved movie - everyone I knew went to see it in the theatre when it first came out (I was 13) and I remember renting it at least a couple of times - and that Michael Jackson song from the soundtrack still gives me chills. But hey, those jokes you mention - at least a couple are from the Simpsons, not hipsters!

    This year might really be the worst - of the movies I've watched in the theatre (more this year than any other year in the past decade) I have yet to flat-out hate any of them, but I haven't been blown away either. Next stop Pacific Rim and I get the feeling that's going to be another "I liked it BUT..." movie for me.

    1. The Michael Jackson song is the best. Free Willy also has 'Right Here' by SWV which samples MJ's 'Human Nature.' That soundtrack is the truth.

      Hope you like Pacific Rim. It's worth seeing even if I am not much of a fan.

  2. You're right on the money about movie bullying. I saw and loved Pacific Rim this weekend, but I can't imagine being one of those people who gets actively angry with people for not liking it. My two favorite movies of all time are Richard Donner's Superman and David Cronenberg's The Fly, not movies with a whole lot of overlap in their respective fan bases. I'm not insulted when people don't like 'em, though. I don't get why anybody cares about a movie's Tomatometer rating or Cinemascore...just like what you like. I love Joe Versus The Volcano and Hudson Hawk. Just because a movie was vilified by critics doesn't make it bad...if it works for you, that's all that matters. Does it make me sad when I hear people in a theater laugh at the trailer for Grown Ups 2? Sure it does, but I also recognize that that movie wasn't made for me, whereas Pacific Rim was. That doesn't mean there's only room for one or the other. Also, I've never seen Free Willy and now I want to, so your column was effective on several levels.

  3. I think the reason the Rex Reed-V/H/S 2 review debacle got so much attention is because, let's face it, Rex Reed is a ass. With his hyperbolic reviews and vicious name calling of Melissa McCarthy(and unrepentant attitude about it), he is possibly the best example of the worst of film criticism. His review of V/H/S 2 isn't the first time he has played loose with the facts of a movie's plot(remember his "The Cabin in the Woods" review?).

    The whole Rotten Tomatoes system is flawed from the get go because it basically says if 60% of critics that they get to pick to be on their website don't like a movie, it's "rotten". Bullshit!

    I haven't seen "Free Willy" in a long time, but I did like it a lot as a kid. However, I remember that after the two sequels(which I haven't seen), it became more of a punchline, very undeservedly if you ask me. I definitely agree that Michael Madsen gives a great performance, as does most of the cast. Also, I kind of had a crush on Lori Petty for a short time because of this movie.

    1. Free Willy 2 is meh. It's got too much of the kid from Kazaam in it. Free Willy 3, as stupid as this will sound, has some surprising depth. That movie was barely released in theaters and it feels like they got away with something.

      The early 90s was a mad Petty run. 1991-falls in love w/ special agent Johnny Utah, 1992 - gets traded to Racine, 1993 - Free Willy. Boom!

  4. Replies
    1. We are still having issues with our platform randomly bouncing comments to 'spam.' There is no rhyme or reason to it, but I'm working on it. Sorry about that. EXCELLENT AVATAR, sir.

  5. You know I hate it when movies I like from 1993 get bullied, you know like The Sandlot...

    Anyway I with you somewhat with Free Willy while I don't think it's a masterpiece I always thought it was pretty good and I think some of the backlash against it was the constant parodies and advertisements of the movie, kind of like how people loved Titanic when it came out and now a lot of their reviews have changed to MEH or "Ah that song!"

    As for walking out of the movies I have done it a couple times (last time was Michael Bay's The Island) but I always try and hold on to the bitter end. But then again you saw Grown Ups 2, I don't blame you Adam. I can't talk about Grown Ups 2 but I will take it on faith that it's the equal of a urinary tract infection.

  6. I always appreciate your going to bat for the lesser appreciated movies, Adam. Sometimes they deserve such treatment, but then there are some that I think that get unfairly dismissed when they really aren't that bad, and sometimes much better than any rating or critical review would have you believe. But then, as Tom pointed out, sometimes it can go the other way with movies like The Sandlot. I suppose that's why it's great that we all have opinions and it's important to go to movies and make our own judgements.

    I haven't seen Free Willy probably since it was in theaters, but I don't really have any negative feelings about it. I'm basically indifferent to it. This colum may inspire me to try for a rewatch of the movie.

  7. @Tom and John - Thanks for commenting! I truly feel a little bad for ragging on The Sandlot so much (a movie I do like and said as much during certain points in the podcast). There are just some things in that movie that drive me up the wall or find too odd to bite my tongue about. Hopefully I didn't bully it too much. It was meant to be all in good fun.

  8. It's cool Adam I'm with you on hating the Babe Ruth scene in that movie and am still hoping for the sequel Nightmare on the Sandlot starring Freddy Krueger.

    "Whatever comes in my boiler room stays in my boiler room hahahaha"-Freddy in Nightmare on the Sandlot Summer 2014- The Sandlot just got a new centerfielder...from hell