Caught vandalizing a seaside aquarium, twelve-year-old Jesse is punished with a series of odd jobs at the aquarium. Once a puckish street urchin heading for a life of synthetic drug use and petty skullduggery, Jesse develops a deep trans-species bond with the whale named Willy. During his brief tenure at the aquarium, Jesse manages, incredibly, to teach Willy all the crowd-pleasing tricks that had so far eluded the estimable skills of the aquarium's trainer. But when the big day comes, Willy can't perform. In an Anna Nicole Smith-worthy turn, the aquarium's owner begins to regard Willy as the cetacean equivalent of an aged and affluent cuckold and makes plans to cash in on Willy's life-insurance policy. And here Jesse and his ragtag crew find not only their plot, but also their life's purpose: They must free Willy.
These were happy, forward-looking times. Two years earlier the Brit-pop band Jesus Jones watched "the world wake up from history" as its song "Right Here, Right Now" climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard charts. We had a young Rhodes scholar for a president (who himself used Fleetwood Mac's unremittingly cheerful anthem, "Don't Stop," to great effect during his 1992 campaign). For a brief moment, anything seemed possible for the Democrats. Slick Willy was a figure known only in the disgruntled circles of Arkansas politics, and Free Willy met little resistance as he dove straight into the collective American heart.
Quick to take a poker to the soft American underbelly, the joke going around London that summer was to ask unsuspecting Americans if they liked free willy. We were easy prey. After all, this movie about a boy overcoming class, authority and social convention to realize the true meaning of friendship, not to mention his own potential caressed each of our sentimental erogenous zones. What red-blooded Yankee didn't like Free Willy? To which the Brit would respond: Well, I guess that's better than paying for it.
I was reminded of the summer of 1993 earlier today as I pried open a can of Heinz Microwaveable Spotted Dick. Just as Free Willy may sound like a red-light special in London's Soho district, tucking into a can of spotted dick stateside conjures unsavory images of the diseased members that populate California's San Fernando Valley. That's unfortunate. Because spotted dick, a bread pudding laced with currants and often served with a custard, is a fine, hearty dessert. Not that those qualities were too apparent in my can of Heinz Microwaveable Spotted Dick.
Dry and brick-like, mine wiggled from its tin with the chemical-age-moist consistency of a Dolly Madison Pound Cake. The sugar had crystallized into crunchy nuggets a nice match for the desiccated "currants," which felt like steaming little marbles on the tongue.
Yes, it's going to be an uphill battle for Heinz. The dessert isn't awful, but if the folks in Pittsburgh are planning to get Americans to overlook the dessert's bad cultural translation (not to mention our visceral aversion to eating a forkful of steaming-hot spotted dick), that spotted dick had better be damn toothsome.
If the real Willy's fate is an indicator, the prospect of turning Heinz's spotted dick fantasies into a marketing reality is not too bright. Not long after Free Willy became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, the moviegoing public learned that "Willy" (né Keiko) was in fact the languishing, papillomavirus-ridden hostage of a Mexican aquarium. Money was raised, petitions were signed and in 2002, having been moved first to an Oregon aquarium and later to a bay pen in Iceland, Keiko left captivity for good.
Unlike Willy, whose further exploits are chronicled in Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home and Free Willy 3: The Rescue, life in the wild did not agree with Keiko. His warty complexion may have cleared, but the whale ultimately succumbed to pneumonia off the Norwegian coast in December 2003.
Now, I hope Keiko's tale won't discourage Heinz from pressing ahead with its spotted-dick plans for the U.S. market. After all, it was only once the real Willy was on the road to freedom that his warts cleared up.
And who could pass up a slogan opportunity like "Free Spotted Dick"?