April 29, 2017


(ABC, Global TV, September 24, 1994-August 31, 1996)

Nelvana, Regency Enterprises, Le Studio Canal, Warner Bros. Television

Zachary Bennett – Jesse Greenwood
Paul Haddad – Willy
Gary Krawford – Rockland Stone/The Machine
Michael Fletcher – Randolph Johnson
Rachael Crawford – Marlene
Alyson Court – Lucille
James Kidnie – Amphonids
Neil Crone – Mr. Naugle
Kevin Zegers – Einstein
Geordie Johnson – Ben Shore (season 2)

            Free Willy was a film about a rebellious abandoned boy named Jesse (Jason James Richter) who was caught vandalizing a water park and was put on probation cleaning it up. There, he befriended an Orca named Willy (Keiko) and realized that his family was beyond the park’s walls, calling to him. Jesse, along with Willy’s keeper Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg) worked on a plan to free Willy and return him home before the park’s unscrupulous owner, Dial (Michael Ironside), has Willy killed in order to claim the insurance on him.

            The film, written by Keith A. Walker and Corey Blechman, directed by Simon Wincer, and released by Warner Bros., ended up becoming a box office success. It made $153.6 million after its July 16, 1993 opening. It also generated an additional $20 million for the Save the Whales Foundation via a phone number posted at the end of the movie that audience members could call and donate. A campaign also began to get the film’s aquatic star freed from captivity and back into the wild (which he eventually was in 2002, shortly before dying of pneumonia in 2003 at the age of 27).

Jesse with Naugle, Randolph and Marlene in the institute.

            In the wake of that much success and media attention, Warner Bros. moved to turn Willy into a franchise; that included three film sequels and an animated series. Developed by Patrick Loubert, Free Willy picked up from where the film left off. Jesse (Zachary Bennett), his foster parents Glen (Ron Len) and Annie (Sheila McCarthy), Randolph (Michael Fletcher) and Willy (Paul Haddad) moved from Seattle to the Pacific coast; specifically, Misty Island. There, Jesse and Randolph worked for the Misty Island Oceanic Reserve, a wildlife rescue and research institute run by head biologist Mr. Naugle (Neil Crone) and his assistant, Marlene (Rachel Crawford). Unlike the movie, Jesse discovered he had the ability to talk to animals making him a Truth Talker in the language of Randolph’s people, the Haida. This allowed him to communicate with Willy and the institute’s two residents: a sealion named Lucille (Alyson Court) and a dolphin named Einstein (Kevin Zegers), who were being taught behavioral communication with humans.

The Machine and his Amphonids.

            The primary foe of the series was the eco-villain primarily known as The Machine (Gary Krawford). The Machine had encountered Willy once before, and Willy had sent his submarine into the screws of a ship causing him to lose an arm and part of his face. Those were replaced with robotic parts. The Machine was also a master of disguise; able to wear the face of anyone and disguise his voice so as to achieve his goals of revenge and profit through trickery. One of his favorites was that of industrialist Rockland Stone. The Machine’s minions were beings he created from toxic waste called Amphonids (James Kidnie), who were the comic relief for the show as they barely followed orders and would rather laze about.

Jesse and Willy underwater.

            Free Willy began on ABC in the United States and Global TV in Canada on September 24, 1994. It was developed by Patrick Loubert, and the writing staff included Patsy Cameron, Tedd Anasti, Doug Molitor, Evelyn Gabai, Don Gillies, Emily Dwass and Marion Wells. The series was produced by Nelvana, Regency Enterprises and Le Studio Canal for Warner Bros. Television, with animation provided by the Hahn Shin Corporation. The only person involved with the film to participate in the series’ production was executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner. Episodes primarily revolved around Misty Island as Jesse and Willy foiled The Machine’s schemes, and were full of educational information about marine life and the oceans. 

Ben Shore in disguise to try and trap The Machine.

For the reduced second season, the show went through a soft reboot and introduced eco-activist Ben Shore (Geordie Johnson). Shore was given the institute’s boat, renamed The Eco-Ranger II, and Jesse, Willy, Lucille, Randolph and Marlene joined him on his travels around the world to fight against polluters and poachers. The Machine continued to be the primary villain throughout, both in command of and addition to the criminals the heroes encountered. Halfway through the season, Shore sealed himself in a perfectly preserved world in an attempt to save it, Jesse and Willy from The Machine. The crew continued on their travels until finally returning home to Misty Island by the end of the series.

Willy and Einstein on the first VHS cover.

            Free Willy was amongst the last non-Disney programs to be shown on ABC’s Saturday morning schedule. When Disney purchased the network in 1995, they purged the schedule of any program they didn’t have some kind of stake in. Several episodes were adapted into easy-reader picture books by Scholastic, and Milton Bradley produced a board game based on the show. In 1996, Warner Home Video released the episodes “Truth Talker”, “Cry of the Dolphin”, “Defenders of the Deep” and “The Eel Beast” across two VHS collections in the United Kingdom. Those sets were later combined into a single release, The Bumper Collection, in 1998. The entire first season was made available for rental through Amazon Video and iTunes in 2011, and can also be purchased for viewing on YouTube.

            While the cartoon was not a part of the official Willy canon once the sequels were made, the first sequel, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home, did share some similarities to the show. Randolph had gone to work for an environmental institute on an island where Jesse went to visit, and an unscrupulous businessman used his company’s oil spill as a means to capture Willy and his siblings and sell them off to parks to perform in shows. Further driving home this comparison was the fact that the trading cards for the movie by Skybox dedicated 12 cards of the 90-card set to the animated series; each card depicting a scene from the show with a game on the back.

EPISODE GUIDE (dates are estimates):
“Truth Talker” (9/24/94) – An injured seal leads Jesse to discover he can communicate with animals.

“Cry of the Dolphin” (10/1/94) – Willy and Jesse rescue a smart baby dolphin from one of The Machine’s illegal toxic waste dumps.

 “Stone” (10/8/94) – The Machine uses a whale-stunning sonar in order to harvest whales for their whales.

“Defenders of the Deep” (10/15/94) – Annie invites Jesse on a cruise on Stone Corporation’s whale watching ship, but they soon discover the captain works for The Machine.

“The Eel Beast” (10/22/94) – Marlene learns to trust Willy in order to help him rescue Jesse from an underwater cavern.

“Cephalopod” (10/29/94) – The Machine creates a giant squid to destroy Willy.

“Sealed Fate” (11/5/94) – Lucille volunteers for a water circus in order to make more human friends.

“Shark Masters” (11/12/94) – The Machine seeks to ruin Misty Islands’ tourism by bringing sharks to the waters.

“Hope” (11/19/94) – Lucille brings a pelican to the institute whose eggs are breaking too soon due to pesticides being used.

“Milestones” (12/3/94) – Willy and Jesse save a salmon stream from loggers.

“The Catch” (12/3/94) – The Institute turns to the law in order to battle illegal fishing in international waters.

“The Treasure of Misty Cove” (12/10/94) – Jesse gets gold fever when he finds a gold doubloon and drags Willy on a treasure hunt.

“Ghost Ship” (11/26/94) – Jesse and Willy find a ghost ship while searching for the secret of The Machine’s identity.

Season 2:
“Voyage of the Eco Ranger II” (9/9/95) – The Machine sets a ship to collide with the Institute, which will then cause it to release its radioactive waste payload into the bay.

“Tip of the Iceberg” (9/16/95) – Enjoying some recreation time in the arctic ends up getting Lucille captured by some seal hunters.

“The Hunted” (9/23/95) – Ben poses as a whale hunter that promises The Machine to find Willy and Jesse in order to lure him into a trap.

“Paradise Found” (9/30/95) – While investigating strip miners, Jesse and Willy swim through an underwater passage that takes them to a world protected from ecological disasters.

“Pier Pressure” (10/7/95) – When Lucille meets a group of sealions she finds she has to decide between her old friends and her new ones, and that choice could cost her her life.

“Live and Let Dive” (10/14/95) – The Machine takes advantage of some researchers to mine the mineral deposits that form around volcanic hot springs.

“Turmoil” (10/21/95) – The Machine causes an oil spill in order to ransom a town for a scientist’s oil solidification formula.

“Yule Tide and Red Tide” (10/28/95) – The Machine sends Jesse a jet-ski for Christmas full of red tide that infested the waters when Jesse used it.

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