Although a few whalers still work their trade around the world, the harvesting of orcas (aka killer whales) in the Pacific Northwest is not a significant problem. That makes it just the kind of controversy that Hollywood can get all bothered about: a fake one. After all, the original Free Willy inadvertently raised an actual issue—the treatment of Keiko, the captive orca who played Willy in some scenes—much to Warner Bros.’ chagrin. The studio’s response was to donate some money to Willy’s rescue fund and blacklist real orcas from working in the series. Animatronic whales are safely removed from the eco-agenda the filmmakers don’t want anyone to take too seriously.

Keiko’s not the only creature who’s been banished. Free Willy 3: The Rescue brings back Jesse (Jason James Richter) and his Amerindian mystic/biologist mentor Randolph (August Schellenberg), but dumps Jesse’s foster parents as well as the half-brother and girlfriend the hero acquired in Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. Instead, Jesse (and Willy) make a new pal, 10-year-old Max (Vincent Berry), the first boy in the series who doesn’t start out as an annoying little creep. Max really wants to do right, only to discover that his father, John Wesley (Patrick Kilpatrick), is doing wrong: He kills whales, freezing their meat for sale to Japanese sushi fanciers for “$200 a pound.” (That seems a little high for frozen flesh, but perhaps scripter John Mattson wanted a figure he thought would impress other Hollywood screenwriters.) Naturally, it’s up to Max to convince his bad dad that he has erred against Gaia.

Mattson might be a lapsed Methodist, which would explain his naming the movie’s villain for the founder of the denomination. One thing’s for sure, though: The screenwriter has a thing for plots about kids who redeem their clueless fathers’ lives. Mattson also had a part in writing Free Willy 2, but his most memorable credit is the sour Milk Money, in which a well-meaning kid restores his dad’s joie de vivre by bringing home a hooker.

There are no intimations of sex—at least not human sex—in Free Willy 3. Willy’s found a mate, but the humans live celibately on one of two boats: the NOAA, a government research vessel where Randolph has gotten Jesse a job working for marine researcher Drew (Annie Corley), and the Botany Bay, the clandestine whaler occupied by Bad Dad and a bunch of other roughnecks who don’t shave as regularly as the good guys. (But then, what can you expect from guys on a boat named for the Australian site where Britain used to dump its convicts?) The violence has also been toned down from the last installment: There’s nothing as vivid as 2’s threat of a sea aflame with spilled crude oil, and the butchery of whales is presented so obliquely that the film’s intended preteen audience might not even know quite what has happened. (The only simulated blood in the film diffuses gracefully in the water as an animatronic whale gives birth to an animatronic calf.)

Now that Jesse has developed such adult traits as the ability to drive, operate a music-synthesizing computer, and dig the Doobie Brothers, Max is the film’s pure heart. His earnest innocence attracts Willy, who’s a cross between a fairy godwhale and Lassie. Despite the threat of becoming sushi, Willy’s always on hand to save Max when he slips into the drink. Since the movie takes place in an unidentified sector of Ecotopia (it was filmed in British Columbia), the scene in which Jesse teaches Max how to frolic underwater with Willy has a curious subtext: hypothermia. It’s not until after several such swims, however, that Bad Dad tells Max that he might freeze to death.

It doesn’t seem likely that anyone would freeze in Free Willy 3, however. When people slip under the surface in this movie, the worst thing that happens is new-agey choral music. Cliff Eidelman’s score rhapsodizes over the slo-mo underwater scenes, and New Zealand-based director Sam Pillsbury is inclined toward wonder-of-nature montage, although in sequences so fleeting that they won’t bore kids raised on faster-moving entertainments. The result may satisfy environmentalists who haven’t progressed beyond elementary-school eco-curricula, but this movie’s universe is so unnatural (not to mention un-Freudian) that even Bad Dad turns out not to be much of a menace.CP