As plotting goes, "Free Willy" is strictly formula stuff — a troubled youngster befriends an animal and then, as they bond, both are able to mature and ultimately be set free.

And though the film doesn't really manage to ascend very far above its mundane inspirations — "Namu, the Killer Whale," "Flipper" — "Free Willy" does have the advantage of being centered on a charismatic star . . . Willy the killer whale. (Actually, Willy is played by Keiko, a 15-year-old Orcinus orca, a dolphin.)

The human star is Jason James Richter, as 12-year-old Jesse, a homeless, abandoned boy who is arrested one night for vandalizing a marina. So, he's placed in a foster home with an auto mechanic (Michael Madsen) and his wife (Jayne Atkinson), while his friends go off to a life of crime on the streets, continually tempting him to join them.

But little does Jesse know that his destiny will be shaped by this marina, where he is at first merely assigned to erase his graffiti from the killer whale's tank. After a time, however, he is given other work to do and eventually strikes up a relationship with Willy the killer whale, though the creature has been surly and uncooperative with everyone else.

Eventually, Jesse is teaching Willy tricks and they work up a show for the public. But when it's showtime, Willy gets stage fright and won't perform — prompting the marina's owner (Michael Ironside) to hatch a plot to collect insurance money.

So, Jesse and friends concoct a plan of their own, to rescue Willy from the owner's clutches and free him in the ocean, where he belongs.

All of this plot information won't harm your enjoyment of the film — after all, it is titled "Free Willy," after all. And it becomes apparent early on where it's all headed — no surprises here.

But there are many lovely little scenes between Jesse and Willy, which should please the kids and keep their parents awake.

There's no question that "Free Willy" is not the "aquatic E.T." that some of the advertising would have you believe. But it is gorgeously photographed and the players are agreeable and that whale . . . er, dolphin, is an amazing actor.

"Free Willy" is rated PG for some violence and a few mild vulgarities.