Outside magazine, July 1995
"These are not illusions," says Walt Conti, owner of Edge Innovation, a movie special-effects boutique in Mountain View, California, explaining his latest creation. "We're making animals with personalities."
The creatures to which Conti refers are the easier-to-train, less-costly-to-feed stars of this month's Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home--three life-size animatronic killer whales that spew through their blowholes just like the real thing. And they have an added feature that Keiko, the blubber-and-bones star of the first Free Willy, didn't have: The electronic stand-ins won't attract bad publicity, no doubt important to Warner Brothers in light of the bashing it took when word got out that Keiko was suffering in an undersize Mexico City tank while the studio was earning more than $150 million at the box office.
This time, shots of the three robotic orcas were interwoven with existing footage of killer whales in the wild to tell the story of Willy and his siblings, who are imperiled by the mother of all aquatic evils: an oil spill. In the end, of course, the pod overcomes, with help from leading kid Jessie Greenwood and, yes, an American Indian healer.
Meanwhile Keiko too might be granted a happy ending. In what David Phillips, director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, calls "the largest effort ever mobilized on behalf of a single species," the killer whale will soon be sprung from Reino Aventura theme park and moved to a $7 million "halfway tank" in Oregon. If all goes well, Keiko will be reintroduced to his native waters near Iceland by 1997. "It's life imitating art," says Free Willy 2 coproducer Jennie Lew Tugend. With, she might add, a nudge from art's publicity machine: Keiko's exodus is being funded in part by a $2 million donation from Warner Brothers.