Monday, July 15, 2013
Riske Business: Free Willy, Movie Bullying and Film Criticism
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
*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.