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Why Britain Is Having a Whale of a Laugh Over 'Free Willy'

November 23, 1993|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — The Warner Bros. summer-hit kids' movie, "Free Willy," about a boy who helps return a captive whale to its natural habitat, is to open in Britain in February--but English audiences are already reacting.

The trailer for the film, which grossed nearly $77 million in the United States, is already playing at several theaters around England. But instead of the misty-eyed heartstring reaction the film received in the States, the trailer is being greeted with giggles and guffaws.

If that surprises you, then you're probably unaware that in Britain "willy" is the common slang for penis. Which gives the title of Warners' feel-good family film quite a different spin.

"We giggled a bit when we first heard about the film," admitted London-based Peter Dunne, Warner Bros. publicity manager for the United Kingdom. "But there was no consideration given to changing the title. Once you see the film, it's clear what 'Willy' refers to--it's the name of the whale."

In Burbank, Rob Friedman, president of worldwide advertising and publicity at Warners, admitted that, "None of us was aware of that British expression until this summer when we were making plans for the international release. As Americans, of course, we hadn't gotten the joke. Still, 'Free Willy' is going to stay 'Free Willy.' British moviegoers, we figure, will be able to distinguish the difference."

Peter Dunne, sounding optimistic, said, "If the title is enigmatic for people in this territory, so much the better."

But Dunne may be underestimating the likely reaction of the English. One recent London theater audience seeing the trailer was reduced to helpless laughter from the moment the title came on screen.

And at least one heckler in the audience offered his own punch line: "Free Willy? That's not a film title--that's a special offer."

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