Will the movie "Free Willy," the feel-good story of a lonely boy and his 3 1/2-ton friend, spark a public outcry to force aquatic theme parks to free their whales and dolphins and other captive creatures?
Or will it do the opposite and just increase attendance at theme parks by stirring up interest in the out-sized sea mammals?
Such are the poles of the environmental debate spurred by the nationwide opening today of the Warner Bros. movie about an abandoned and rebellious 12-year-old boy and his friendship with a killer whale confined at a tawdry amusement park.
A variety of animal-rights and environmental groups are banking that "Free Willy" will persuade the public that it is immoral to keep these highly intelligent animals in captivity.
The heavily advertised film, which could prove to be a summer blockbuster, ends by showing an 800 number for people who want to join the movement to free killer whales. Michael Jackson sings the theme song and has a "Free Willy" music video being shown on television.
"There has been a real surge of energy in recent years as people realize that whales should no longer be exploited for entertainment," said Wayne Pacello, national director of the New York-based Fund For Animals Inc.
" 'Free Willy' won't just give us a shot in the arm, it will absolutely catapult the issue into the homes of millions of Americans," Pacello added. "It's going to be fabulous."
Paul Watson, president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, based in Orange County, predicts that "Free Willy" will be the best thing that ever happened to the free-the-animals movement.
"We live in a media culture," he said. "A political statement in a feature movie will do more than all the educational efforts of all the environmental groups combined."
Jim Antrim, general curator at the Sea World park in San Diego, disagrees. He saw "Free Willy" at a sneak preview and found it rollicking fun but he does not think it will cause Sea World any lasting public relations or attendance problems.
"I thought it was a good movie: a kid, an animal, good guys and bad guys, a real feel-good movie," Antrim said. "If anything, I think it's going to encourage a lot of young people to come to Sea World this summer and see these animals."
The fulminations of the activists aside, Antrim believes the public accepts the notion of animals in captivity for educational and entertainment purposes at zoos, aquariums and parks as long as they are treated well.
"The average American family has thought it out," Antrim said. "If the few captive animals that we have as representatives or ambassadors of their species are well treated, then it's a very acceptable and sought-after thing by the public."
In "Free Willy," a street kid is caught putting midnight graffiti on the whale tank at the fictional North West Adventure Park. Sentenced by a judge to clean up the graffiti or go to juvenile hall, the boy (played by newcomer Jason James Richter) meets Willy, a killer whale who is sullen and refuses to do tricks for the park's greedy and mean-spirited owners.
A bond grows up between the two misfits, leading to the heart-pounding rescue and chase, as Willy is spirited away on a flatbed truck with the villainous park owners in pursuit. Richard O'Barry, president and founder of the Miami-based Dolphin Project said he hopes the movie will make the public aware of the high death rate among captive orcas. (What the movie and various parks call killer whales are actually members of the dolphin family, Orcinus orca. )
"We want the consumers to feel responsible for these marvelous animals," said O'Barry, who trained the dolphin Flipper for the 1960s television series. "These animals are dying to amuse you. It isn't right."
Antrim responds that the mortality rate has been cut in recent years as keepers learn more about accommodating the animals. With parks in San Diego, Orlando, Fla., San Antonio, Texas, and Aurora, Ohio, Sea World has 18 orcas, nine of which were born in captivity.
Watson, calling from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he will soon lead an ocean-going expedition to interfere with Norwegian whalers, said "Free Willy" will put pressure on Sea World and other parts of "the marine amusement industry."
"They say they love orcas but it's because of the demand by the amusement industry that a slave-trade for whales has grown up," Watson said. "A captured whale can go for $1 million because of the demand. Maybe 'Free Willy' will help end the demand."
There are indications that box office for "Free Willy" will be boffo. Initial critical reviews have been positive, and previews, for example, in suburban San Diego were sold out 24 hours in advance with minimal advertising and hundreds of parents and children were turned away.
Richard Donner, one of two executive producers of "Free Willy," also included environmental messages in "Lethal Weapon" and "Lethal Weapon II," which he directed. In "Lethal Weapon," Mel Gibson is scolded by the daughter of Danny Glover for blithely eating a tuna sandwich from a seafood company that supposedly kills dolphins.
The environmental activists say "Free Willy" captures some of the most depressing aspects of orca life in captivity: The frantic reaction of orcas when captured in the wild and separated from their "pods," the undersized tanks at theme parks, the disrespect shown by visitors and keepers, and the "drooping fin syndrome" where orcas lose the will to keep their fins erect.
But Antrim said "Free Willy" includes significant errors.
Among other things, he said the friendship between the boy and Willy occurs too quickly and gives the erroneous impression that orcas are docile. Also, he said that the specter of orcas being fed the wrong food and harassed by visitors pounding on their glass enclosures would never occur at Sea World.
"The whales and the other animals are the highest priority at any park where they're kept," Antrim said.
Willy in "Free Willy" is a combination of reality and special effects. In some scenes, a high-tech robot covered in 3,000 pounds of eurythane rubber is used, in others the footage is of Keiko, a real-life 22-foot, 7,000-pound orca kept at El Nuevo Reino Aventura, an amusement park in Mexico City.
The use of the latter has caused the movie-makers some consternation. "It's time to free the real Willy," said O'Barry of the Dolphin Project.
Publicists for the film were quick to point out that Keiko's veterinarian has said that Keiko has a skin condition near his pectoral fins and tail flukes that makes him a bad candidate for being returned to the ocean.
"Everybody says orcas cannot be released because no one has ever done it," said Jerye Mooney, marine mammal coordinator for the Fund For Animals. "It's time to start. That's the message of 'Free Willy."'