Free Willy

The other day I tweeted: "I've spent my adult life training my mind to be good at small talk the way Batman trained his body to fight crime." And while that's obviously a bit hyperbolic, it's also basically true; I'm focused on finding and experiencing pop culture with an obsessive passion that is a little unhealthy. However, it's hard to deny that the work has paid off. After years of working to build up my bullshit game, I'm pretty solid - I can do just about five minutes on anything.

Let's say that I was asked to talk about Free Willy, a movie that I previously did not have much of an opinion about. In case you don't remember, Free Willy is a movie from the early 90s about a young boy who befriends / frees a whale named Willy. Now, that's a decent set up for a kids movie, but it is also kind of generic, because if there's one thing that I've learned from movies it's that kids love to learn lessons from cute animals. But generic is workable if you have enough knowledge about the genre, and I've watched enough animal buddy movies over the years that I could easily do a compare and contrast with a dog movie, or a monkey movie, or an elephant movie, or even a dragon movie. Basically, my primary plan of attack would be to pick an animal that's cuter than a killer whale and then talk about why it's weird to pick an orca over that animal. It's not hard if you've seen the movie; Willy's floppy way-too-pink tongue (which you see every time he begs for a raw fish after he does a trick) automatically makes him less likeable than say Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon, who earned his name by having a mouth that isn't full of nightmares.

Then again, part of the small talk game is knowing your audience. While some people might like an approach where you make fun of how weird killer whales look when you get up close to them, other people are probably going to be more interested in the nostalgia angle. After all, this is a movie that a lot of people in my generation grew up with. A more personal / less cynical approach might make sense for them, and I've got a back up plan in case I found myself in that context. I've been pretty thorough about my approach to the canon of American cinema and that means that there aren't that many important films that I've missed. (My goal is to never be in a situation where someone says "what?! you've never seen [x]?" and their over-reaction isn't completely crazy.) Whats left in my blind spot are films like Free Willy - films that were really popular at one time and then kind of forgotten. It's a little weird that I haven't seen it given that I was the right age for it when it came out. But the fact that I came late to the game doesn't really matter; when you're talking about a generational touchstone your personal experience is relevant even if it's a little idiosyncratic. The point is that Free Willy ties into a lot of broader points: pop culture from our youth, stuff we missed out on when we were young, etc.

I could go on in this vein and do more riffs on the tropes in Free Willy (for example: it's crazy that a greedy corporate guy is the villain in so many kids movies, but we still expect kids to grow up and believe that capitalism is so perfect that questioning it is un-American), or discuss other serious approaches (it really is hard to watch this movie in a post-Blackfish world), but there would be something dishonest about doing that. The truth is that I just didn't connect to Free Willy, and it would feel wrong to me to write about it in the same way that I write about films I did connect to.

Look: Free Willy is competent, but competent is the enemy of good. My honest opinion is exactly a sentence long ("it's a kids movie and I'm not a kid so my opinion doesn't matter") but that isn't very fun to read. The reason why I could confidently spin those ideas in a small talk circumstance is because they would just be an avenue to connect to that other person; I can see the ways that they lead beyond themselves and onto other topics I might be more passionate about. But on their own, as ideas that have to stand on their own two feet in a review? I don't know about that. If I'm the only one talking then my honest opinion is that elaborating on (or kicking) a movie like Free Willy - a movie which does it what it set out to do with little to distinguish itself or embarrass itself - is kind of unnecessary. Sometimes fine is just fine, and unless you're the sort of person who isn't good enough at small talk to know that every opinion you have doesn't have to be shared, that's the end of the story.

So, to sum up: if you're a kid and you like whales you might like this movie, if you aren't a whale loving kid then maybe skip it, and also, I'm exactly like Batman, since he has also spent his whole life training to engage with other people.

Winner: Draw

Free Willy on IMDB