Anne T. Donahue
April 25, 2014 8:00 am

Old Lady Movie Night is a weekly (or so I try) column in which we gather, dressed like grandmothers, and watch/criticize movies in the spirit of, say, Dorothy Zbornak. (If she were in her 70s and 80s.) You’re not old if you like these movies, you’re not old if you know them. But sometimes I like to think of myself as the lady on The Simpsons who throws cats at people while wearing cardigans.

Free Willy came along at a controversial time for me: I wasn’t sure which “PG”-rated movies I was allowed to see. Anything Star Trek? I was in the clear. “Teen”-oriented movies that might involve sex in any way, shape or form? Absolutely not. But I was eight, and I’d just seen Richie Rich, and when our grade three class screened Free Willy as part of our “environment” unit (read: our teacher needed a break), I was determined not to be left out of the zeitgeist.

So watch Free Willy with the class, I did — after I’d read the book so I could predict the emotional scenes, and leave the room so I wouldn’t have to cry in front of anybody. (Hello, I am 28 years old and I would still rather leave the room than cry in front of anybody.) Spoiler alert: I was too in love with Jesse to form any other emotions other than, “I love you — how do we hold hands?” Spoiler alert 2: We never held hands. Spoiler alert 3: I would’ve danced to that Michael Jackson song with you, Jesse. Maybe I still would. I don’t know.

Let’s do this thing.

1. Every time I watch that opening scene where the whales are captured, I’m happy I’ve never gone to Marine Land

Marine Land (spelled wrong but whatever this is my house these are my rules I can’t stop I won’t stop) being the amusement park in Niagara Falls everybody went to when growing up except for me because my parents were: a) dead against watching animals perform tricks for our amusement, and b) too poor, I think. (Which — hey! Whatever! We looked at the actual Niagara Falls instead. So there.) Anywho, there are some upsetting claims that the animals are being and have been mistreated for years and years, so Free Willy is merely a reminder to, well, JUST LET THE ANIMALS BE FREE, EVERYBODY. Or if they are in captivity for protection purposes, give them a sweet-ass life. Right?! Right. Free Willy 3: Anne Gets Passionate.

2. Free Willy is why I began over-romanticizing “bad guys”

“Why?!” you ask. Because Jesse was a “bad boy with a heart of gold.” CAN I GET AN AMEN? He’s 13, he’s living on the streets, he’s getting arrested, and eight-year-old me was all, “I don’t know what this is all about, but I am into it.” And by “into it” I mean “I figured that if a guy acted out in any way going forward, he also had a heart of gold I could probably make him embrace, have and hold, and also we could find some cool Orca whale to chill with.” It didn’t work out that way. And watching Free Willy as an adult, I think we can all agree that Jesse is entitled to a wonderful therapist to combat those abandonment issues.

3. Annie + Glen 4Ever

First and foremost, the woman who played Annie is on House of Cards as the governor of Missouri, so don’t tell ME that being obsessed with pop culture doesn’t play off. Second, because my nickname as a kid was “Annie,” I figured this movie was a sign, and I needed to find a gentleman named Glen immediately. This was a problem because I was a child of the ’90s and every boy was named either Brad or Steve or Jeff. In fact, I’ve never met a guy my age named Glen. And now that I know a character I share a half-name with ISN’T a sign that I should shape my life after her’s, it’s okay if I don’t. (Unless I want to pretend I’m dating Glen from The Walking Dead. So . . . hey, who knows.)

4. I was so torn by Jesse being mean to Glen and Annie, though

Because I loved Jesse, duh. But also, we know that Glen and Annie were just trying their best — even as KIDS we knew that. But also, we know that Jesse was damaged and scared, so CAN YOU SEE HOW THIS EFFECTED THE HEARTS OF SHAPEABLE KIDS. Please picture eight-year-old me reading the book and watching the movie and doing all she could do not to yell, “LET THEM LOVE YOU” for the two-hour run time. (Spoiler alert: he does!)

5. It’s important we know that Willy’s trainer is Kit from A League of Their Own

I literally can’t think of anything more important to tell you guys IN THE WORLD. So . . . there you go. We did it, us. The facts. Presented. Without comment. (But also with comment, because this is technically a comment.)

6. Even more important: I am totally #TeamWilly when he damages the tank because of those stupid kids

I know kids will be kids, but look — if I even raised my voice in the grocery store, I was gone. I was in the car, going home, and I was never allowed to go to the grocery store again. You were probably raised that way too because you seem like a rational, smart, well-rounded person. Now imagine if our parents caught us antagonizing a living creature?! I am an adult and when I pick up the cat as he’s sleeping my parents are all, “Hey — he doesn’t like that. Put him down.” Frankly, those kids deserved everything Willy doled out. Scare those little minions into showing some r-e-s-p-e-c-t. (“And that’s why you should always leave a note.” – Willy)

7. And then these grown up men want Willy’s $1 million insurance policy?!

WHAT THE WHAT. Hold the phone: I hate everyone. (Just kidding: I hate the owner of the amusement park, and his horrible friends.) This whale is just trying to LIVE ITS LIFE. And now these clowns want to KILL IT?! Because it’s “unruly”!? I can understand if they bought a caterpillar and that caterpillar grew into a 24-foot creature and inspired the movie Tremors. THEN I would say, “Okay, maybe we take advantage of that insurance policy because these creatures are absolutely trying to kill and eat us all.” But a whale who was kidnapped from the sea?! KIDNAPPED FROM THE SEA. Listen, I am about three minutes from buying a time machine and going back to my grade three classroom, and grabbing the TV with my hands and shouting, “KIDNAPPED FROM THE SEA.” That’s how much I hate Dial and Wade, the devil’s own.

8. I will say Jesse, Randolph, and Rae’s plan is terrible, though

Their hearts are in the right place, I get it. I understand. But “let’s load up this giant whale into a truck and drive through the muddy back roads” is one right out of the “and we have also all been drinking” state of mind. Lest we forget the whale actually weighs no less than one million pounds. And that even if it wasn’t muddy, he’d sink them right into the ground. Here’s what they should’ve done (and why I should be in charge of everything): buy a time machine. The same one I just used to go back to grade three. Then transfer Willy to the future, long after Dial and Wade have passed way. Bada-bing. Alternative option: call the newspaper and tell everyone about Dial’s horrible plans. Or, EVERYONE go to 2014, and then share everything on Twitter. Also, teach Willy how to use a laptop because he seems very smart and maybe he would like an office job under the sea.

9. Honestly though does Dial have mob ties

Because what a strange venture for somebody obviously so morally corrupt. “I would like to own a theme park with animals!” – “Oh wonderful!” – “Yes, and then I want to kill them and go at any lengths to kill them just so I can get their insurance money.” – “Do you think maybe you should instead go into any other field?” (Is how I imagine that conversation to play out.) HE HAS HENCHMAN BLOCK THE GATES OF THE MARINA FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE so that Willy can’t get freed. Pal, look in the mirror. Check yourself. You have wrecked yourself. Glen and Annie will trump you and always will.

10. But what we haven’t talked enough about is how watching this, I was waiting for Nadine, only to realize she was the character in Free Willy 2

I know this technically has nothing to do with what we’re currently watching, but I want everybody to know that I’ve been waiting for the Nadine-Jesse love story to happen this whole time, and I just realized that it hasn’t happened yet because it doesn’t happen at all in this movie. And I was so excited to talk to you guys about how Nadine was in Apollo 13 and The Great Mom Swap. So excited, everybody. Honestly not even Lori Petty’s presence can calm me now. I’ll trade four Willy-jumps-over-Jesse scenes for the Nadine-Jesse dynamic. (I was so jealous of her.) (I still am because she always played somebody so cool.)

11. I would be so weirded out by everyone so obsessed with bringing Willy back to the amusement park

Like, when you think about it independently, these people are freaks. I mean, can you imagine hearing a bunch of goons go on about how they were going to kidnap this whale a tiny boy was so desperate to set free? Of course not! We’d all be thinking, “What the hell is wrong with you?” But instead of that, Dial gets whaling SHIPS to get in on it. ARE THESE PEOPLE ALL POSSESSED. Maybe. Honestly, I don’t think that’s a question we’ve been asking enough. Also, what a horrible job. “What do you do?” – “I kidnap whales.” – “Okay. I . . . please leave.” *Defeatedly leaves high school reunion*

12. Because of this movie, I bought a tape of whale sounds

That I brought into class two years later during our “whale” unit (it was the ’90s). And our teacher, because she was a whale enthusiast, insisted we listen to the tape in silence while working on colouring pictures of whales. So when I tell you guys I wasn’t popular for most of elementary school, it’s important you understand I’m telling the truth.


Honestly the only thing that would’ve trumped it would be the water somehow spelling out “YOU WISH DIAL.” Or like, Willy learning to speak and saying, “THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT.” Alternative choice: “BYEEEEEE.” Honestly, if your wedding photos aren’t staged like the Willy-jumping-over-Jesse shot, what is even going on.

14. And oh yes, we are all crying by the way

I can’t handle animal movies. Just so everyone’s aware, I can’t get through this for real. In this case, because writing about this movie is long overdue, I am reading detailed synopses and watching clips because otherwise I will be useless and weeping. I made the mistake of watching Homeward Bound once, and I will never do anything like that again. ANIMAL MOVIES ALWAYS END THE SAME WAY: the animals go away. No one is ever like “And we’ll ALL hang out!” It’s always “Go on! Get out of here! No one wants you!” like in Harry and the Hendersons or Jack Donaghey and Frank. I can’t even watch that Disney movie, Bears, because odds are SOMETHING will die, and it’s too much. In this case, Willy swims away. And we think we’ll never see him again. And Jesse cries. And we cry. And yes, a sequel exists, but … no. Stop. IT’S STILL TOO REAL.

15. But speaking of real, do they sum up that Jesse’s been adopted by Glen and Annie?

They do, right? Yes. Of course they do. …Right? I have always assumed, but did they do legal proceeding in this movie or in the sequel? Look. Obviously I am confused because I was convinced Nadine would be here. I know Kit from A League of Their Own leaves, but . . . Jesse DOES stay with Glen and Annie in the sequel, doesn’t he? HELP ME UNDERSTAND. Okay. That’s it. I’m reading the sequel’s synopsis. Talk amongst yourselves.

HE HAS BEEN. Okay! Groovy. He gets adopted by Glen and Annie, AND has a baby sister. Dare I say: we’ll be revisiting this in the future. But until then, go to jail Dial. Go directly to jail do not pass go and do not collect 200 Orcas. [Whale sound signalling my departure]