Twenty years ago, Warner Bros. released the family film, Free Willy and millions of children and adults fell in love with Keiko, the orca whale starring in the movie. Children were mesmerized by the relationship of a troubled 12-year-old boy and the 2000-pound captive whale that needed his help to return to the ocean to join his family. Little did we know... but life was about to imitate art.
After spending months with Keiko in Mexico City, our last day of filming was bittersweet. We were anxious to move on to our next location, but leaving Keiko to languish behind in a tiny chlorinated pool was unacceptable. We (the producers) made a pledge to do something about it! But how?
After the first preview of the film, we knew we had touched an emotional chord when a man came up to us and offered money to help free the whales! Warner Bros. received more mail than Santa that year from kids insisting that "Willy"/Keiko be set free.
By teaming up with the Earth Island Institute, the "Free Willy/Keiko Foundation" was created and an 800# was featured at the end of the film for anyone who wanted to make a donation to help Keiko. Adults and children overwhelmingly responded from around the world. The movie went on to become a big hit for the studio, but Keiko was still deteriorating in his under-sized tank. Now what?
Theresa Demarest's film Keiko, the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy documents the great effort, commitment and perseverance from several organizations, most notably Earth Island and the Humane Society, to strike a deal with the Mexican amusement park that owned Keiko to donate the whale to the Foundation. Donations came from WB, New Regency, The McCaw Foundation and the public and UPS to fly Keiko to his new rehab facility in Oregon and eventually Keiko was flown home to Iceland in a U.S. Air Force carrier! Life imitating art, indeed.
When adults talk to us about Free Willy, they remember it as a childhood favorite that they watched repeatedly. Now as young parents, they are eager to share it with their own kids. After the tragic event at Sandy Hook, we were very touched to learn that Jessica Rekos (age six) had been a big fan of Free Willy and watched it many times and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. She would have loved Keiko, the Untold Story to see how the "real Willy" got released back into the wild.
A Free Willy/Keiko fundraising event on August 17th at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood will provide an opportunity to entertain and educate a new generation of kids to believe beyond their wildest dreams that they can make a difference in this world. Both Free Willy and Keiko the Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy will be shown after a Blue Carpet reception. Cast and crew from both films will participate in a Q&A between the films. Teaming with LAUSD's Beyond the Bell Division, the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation will also bring 200 students to the event. It's great to know that the message is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago!