I'm pretty sure I've seen this movie more times than even its editing team saw this movie, but all but one of those viewings happened, you know, in the 90s. It's… well, it's pretty boring, but it's actually not a bad movie if you ignore the questionable acting, the Evil Money-Hungry Suits, the strange, culturally appropriative invocation of Tlingit prayer in the climax scene, and the fact that a kid convinced two of his mentor/co-workers AND both his foster parents to commit several major felonies, and then everyone went home happy (except the Evil Money-Hungry Suits). But whatever, Jesse will forever be one of my childhood heroes. <3
It's also a little uncomfortable to watch in retrospect, because I get the impression that part of the reason it was made was to do a little damage control after the death of Keltie Byrne, who fell into a tank and was drowned by an orca in 1991. (Free Willy was released in 1993, and protagonist Jesse's relationship with Willy begins after he falls into a tank and would have drowned if an orca hadn't saved him.)
I believe my review of 9x07 was "basically Free Willy except without whales." I HOLD TO THIS, though I'd like to add "and with fewer harmonicas and way less mullet." Jesse's even the same age as Dean would have been in 1993, d'awww.
This movie does a great job of setting Jesse up as this child of the streets--who was abandoned by his mother six years prior to the movie's start--in and out of foster homes, with a likely future in juvenile hall. He ends up with a lot of adults in his life--his new foster parents, his foster care contact, his employer, and the scientist lady in charge of Willy--who are really, honestly supportive but still adults, and not peers. And not people he knows how to speak to, or who know how to speak to him.
There are these moments that just kill me, because Jesse lets slip at various points that he's convinced that people like his foster parents wouldn't love him and care for him if they weren't getting paid to do it--that love and relationships come with a price, and that you have to be a worthwhile commodity if people are going to spend any time with you at all. (Which ties into Willy-as-commodity, since the Evil Suits are trying to kill him and collect on the insurance, because he's worth more dead than alive. But that connection isn't really the most interesting thing, as it's a bit facile.)
Anyway, it's so fascinating to watch the movie subtly alter the way these people relate to Jesse and how they learn to communicate effectively with him as the film progresses.
Though it's actually where I think the movie hiccups a bit--again, we're speaking here in the context of 90s CHILDREN'S FILMS. Because where the formation of Jesse's relationships with his foster parents and his employers is built on diving these individualized, responsive forms of communication, Jesse's relationship with Willy fails to take on the same complexity. He relates to Willy because, as Randolph (resident whale keeper and Requisite Indigenous Dude) says, they're soulmates. *Before you judge the film too harshly for Randolph's Spiritual Indigenous Dude role, since he's also the guy who originally brings up the Tlingit myth, before he deems Jesse and Willy as soulmates he also makes fun of the notion, and calls Jesse a lucky-ass white kid.
"Soulmates" is good enough if you're in a feel-good movie about whales, but for the rest of the world, and in particular the SPN world, if that's all you got going for you, you're SOL.
Because all of Jesse's communions with Willy are just--unrepentantly anthropomorphized. He keeps giving Willy all these encouragements and heartening words, but it's not as though the whale can actually understand what he's saying. And it's not just the meaningless cooing people offer animals, and that many animals receive positively by virtue of its accompanying body language, acoustic cues, etc. These are full-on heroic monologues. XD
I know I'm just stating truisms about people and their anthropocentric relationships to animals, and Hollywood and its tenacious anthropomorphism of animals, but I think it makes for really interesting fodder in terms of contrasting that against how, say, the human relationships in the film moderate and evolve. And it's these sorts of considerations that make animal transformation interesting to me as a trope, because somehow it makes these kinds of communication breakdowns more understandable; that is, it makes those disjunctures harder to ignore and easier to recognize as a problem. Even as it sets up these assumptions, maybe, that this is an easy problem to solve. XP And it's interesting to trace, if everyone is human/human again/etc., where those communication breakdowns are assumed to be nullified (because at least everyone is the same species now), where they continue to be recognized even in the absence of an animal allegory, and perhaps most importantly--what shakes out when the people trying to speak to each other are communicating so poorly they MAY AS WELL be speaking across an inter-species divide. They are capable of comprehending the words being spoken, but are able only to misinterpret them. This probably makes it even more dangerous than simple failures of human-animal communication, because even if a whale can't actually understand your inspirational, climactic monologue, it's more likely it's just not even going to register, rather than cause him to swim off and do some drastic thing that aligns with all the things you're saying… But only in a causal universe of his own, separated from the other's by a sea of distortions.
From the other end of the "omg what language are you even speaking" pool: In the fic I'm writing the running Free Willy gag is that Dean is OMG SO CERTAIN that they've seen this film, that YOU WANTED TO SEE IT SO BAD SAM SO WE WATCHED IT JUST FOR YOU. And Sam's just like, man, we did not see this goddamn movie and I did not want to see This Movie Specifically I just wanted to go to the theatre get away from dad for a while jfc. But Dean refuses to believe this and keeps making references to this movie, and all the while Sam's just like, wait up, I haven't seen this movie, but I am 100% sure that what you're describing cannot actually be this movie. ("YES IT IS. AND WE SAW IT. JUST FOR YOU, SAM.")
In the end it turns out that not only did Sam and Dean never go see Free Willy to satiate Sam's (alleged) whims, Dean's actually referencing a completely different whale movie that only he has seen, and which Sam has absolutely zero relationship to whatsoever. In summary: Winchesters.
Also, THERE ARE SO MANY BIG BANGS AT SEA THIS YEAR. \O/ Hello, Sam/Dean, I guess this summer I ship you, because you have so many boats and tentacles and stuff right now. idek if BB is supposed to be strictly anon, and if I should be saving my whale ruminations for after claims or something, but I figure it's not like anyone knows who I am, so what does it matter?