Followed by two sequels and a short-lived animated television series, Free Willy was a critical and financial success, eventually making a star out of its protagonist Keiko. The film also gained a cult following, followed by a series of spoofs on the film's infamous climax in popular culture.
Michael Jackson produced and performed "Will You Be There", the theme for the film which can be heard during the film's credits. The song won the MTV Movie Award for "Best Song in a Movie" in 1994. It was also included in the album All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film's two sequels.
Sometime later Jesse (Jason James Richter), a street-wise boy who has been on the run since he was abandoned by his mother six years before, gets caught by The Portland Police Department vandalizing the marina along with a gang of three other abandoned kids. However, his social worker helps him avoid legal consequences, provided he cleans up his mess at the marina. While there, Jesse befriends the whale with a collapsed dorsal fin, named Willy by the park owners, and teaches him behaviors, something the trainer, Rae (Lori Petty), had failed to do. Over time, Jesse and Willy become the best of friends, and Jesse earns a long-term job at the marina while learning to live with his new and supportive foster parents, Glen and Annie.
The owner of the amusement park sees the talent Jesse and Willy have together, and makes large plans to host "The Willy Show" in hopes of boosting sales and making money for himself. On the day of the first performance, everyone is set to begin, but Willy comes down with stage fright due to the children banging constantly on his underwater observation area. Willy scares them off by smashing against the tank, unintentionally damaging it. Jesse is devastated, but later returns to the tank and determines ultimately that Willy is homesick for his family, as evidenced by Willy's nightly "singing".
While at the tank, Jesse notices one of the owner's assistants sneaking into the underwater observation area who damages the tank enough that the water will gradually leak out in an effort to kill Willy. It is surmised that the owner is interested in collecting the insurance money, since he has a $1,000,000 life insurance plan on Willy.
Thus, Jesse and his friends, including a Native American shaman named Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), begin plans to release the whale. They use equipment at the park to load Willy onto a trailer, and Jesse and Randolph 'borrow' his foster parents' truck to tote Willy to the ocean. They try to stick to back roads to keep from being spotted with a gigantic whale, and eventually get stuck on a back road. Willy's owner is meanwhile notified that the whale is missing, and he and his henchmen begin a search to find Willy.
Jesse must admit that he needs help, and calls his foster parents using a CB-Radio located in the truck they took. Annie and Glen show up and are able to help free the truck, and continue on to the marina they are headed to, in order to release Willy. The owner knows where they are likely headed, and when they show up, he and his henchmen are blocking the gate into the marina. Glen charges them full speed in the truck, forcing the henchmen to move right before Willy's ride plows through the gate to the marina. Glen quickly turns the truck around and backs up Willy into the water, flooding his truck in the process.
Willy is finally released into the water, but the owner and his goons have a contingency plan. The whaling company shows up in the water, releasing nets into the water to trap Willy in the marina. Jesse has one last chance. He leads Willy to an area where if Willy would just jump, he would be free. Amidst everyone's prayers, Willy makes the jump, to the amazement of all his friends, and is free to return to his family. The film ends with the happy trainers and newly formed family watching Willy swim away.
The title of this movie caused considerable amusement in Britain because "willy" is a slang term for "penis". It was rumoured at the time that the UK distributors wanted the name of the movie changed but the studio bosses refused the request.