After inspiring two fish tales about a whale named Willy, it’s about time Keiko, the charismatic orca, took center stage in his own movie. The good news is that The Free Willy Story: Keiko’s Journey Home is more compelling than either 1993’s Free Willy or last year’s sequel.
Why? Because it’s all true. The real story of Keiko, who was captured by fishermen in the waters off Iceland 17 years ago and sold to a Canadian amusement park, is as poignant and dramatic as anything Hollywood could dream up.
Narrated gracefully by actress Rene Russo, Keiko’s Journey Home tells of the whale’s sale in 1985 to a Mexican amusement park, where he languished for 11 years in a tiny tank and deteriorated physically. Though the conditions at Reino Aventura were abysmal, the filmmakers highlight the bond between Keiko and the Mexican people, as well as with his two young trainers, Karla Corral and Renata Fernandez.
Indeed, Keiko’s relationship with 25-year-old Corral is the most moving part of the film. When he was flown last January to his new home, a $7.3 million rehab facility in Newport, Ore., with a large seawater pool, the trainers went with him to ease his transition. Since then, Keiko has flourished — gaining more than 1,000 pounds and losing much of the skin virus that had been plaguing him.
Whether Keiko will someday be deemed strong enough to return to the sea is still uncertain. But watching him in Oregon, healthy and loved, it seems as if he’s been granted a happy ending anyway.