Jesse (Jason James Richter) returns, though this time as an intern aboard an oceanographic vessel tracking whales. His good friend, and fellow whale-lover, Randolph (August Schellenberg), has invited him aboard, though under the watchful eye of his boss (Annie Corley). Jesse, however, just wants to track down his old friend Willy the orca.
He's not alone. A group of mean whalers are orca hunting as well, though not with as good intentions (heck, their ship is even called The Botany Bay!). The whaler captain (Patrick Kilpatrick) has brought along his young son Max (Vincent Berry) to share in the glory. But Max would rather make friends with the whales than spear them.
Then along comes Willy, who not only shows off his pregnant mate for the oceanographers, and evades the harpoons of the whalers, but makes friends with Max and shows us how truly despicable we humans really are.
At least this time around Jason James Richter is no longer whiny and irritating...I guess that's why they added the character of Max, who easily fulfills the film's fingernails-on-chalkboard quotient. Though more appealing than Jesse's half-brother Francis Capra in the last Free Willy film, Max wouldn't have been sorely missed from this one.
Much of the film is simply by-the-numbers, without much energy or initiative. The film's lets-frolick-with-Willy scenes simply rehash the same material used in the previous two films. And the Willy-in-peril stuff is nothing we haven't seen before.
Still, not all is bad with the film. There are some good nature scenes (ok, ok, a few good anamatronic whale scenes). And the whalers aren't utterly mean and nasty. Heck, Max's dad is almost sympathetic (certainly more sympathetic than Max). The film almost gets to the point where it wants to take a critical look at the issues, but then regains its senses and concludes with a resounding "humans can learn a lot from Willy" message.
A bit heavy-handed at times, the film barely manages to be the best of the three Free Willy films, and that's not saying much.
And though you might wish there was more substance, kids who are devoted Willy fans, or who like nature footage, will be entertained.