Warner Bros. // 2010 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 23rd, 2010
The fun-filled adventure is back!
Grandpa: "Hey, I'll let you name the whale."
Kirra: "Okay...how about I name him POOR TRAPPED INNOCENT LITTLE ORCA?!"
Young Kirra (Bindi Irwin, Bindi the Jungle Girl) isn't particularly happy to be leaving her Australian home in order to spend the summer in South Africa with her grandfather (Beau Bridges, The Fabulous Baker Boys). However, that's the hand that fate has dealt her and she has to make the best of it. One day, Kirra discovers a baby orca (more commonly known as a killer whale) stranded in a lagoon that just so happens to be right next to her grandfather's amusement park. While Grandpa acknowledges that someone needs to be called so that the whale can be set free again, he figures that in the meantime it can't hurt to use the whale's presence to boost attendance at his park.
Kirra isn't particularly thrilled at the idea that the whale is being used for financial gain, but she grows fond of having it nearby and even gives it a name (I'll give you three guesses). However, when she discovers that one of her grandfather's competitors wants nothing more than to give the whale a permanent home in a tiny aquarium, she determines to set it free. Before she can do that, she'll need to find a way to help the whale develop the communication skills it needs to survive in the ocean. Can she handle the challenge and (here it comes) Free Willy?
When the gentle family film Free Willy was released back in 1993, it turned into a surprise hit at the box office. 1995's Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home was another reasonably successful film, making less money but still more than enough to warrant another sequel. Alas, 1997's Free Willy 3: The Rescue was both a critical and financial flop, effectively killing the franchise. Without much warning, a fourth Free Willy installment is making its way to DVD some 13 years later, though it has pretty much nothing to do with any of the films that came before it.
None of the human characters from the previous films appears in Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove, nor does the original title character appear for that matter. The only thing this film has in common with its predecessors is fact that it is a family film about a child attempting to rescue a killer whale from the clutches of villainous grown-ups. It must be admitted that there's a dark irony in the fact that this film is landing on DVD about one month after an orca killed a trainer at SeaWorld, adding an unintended element of danger to the scenes in which characters swim around in the water next to the whale. Otherwise, there's nothing remotely dark about this cheerful and sunny little film.
The plot is a predictable affair, as our young protagonist attempts to prevent the plans of her grandfather's competitor from coming to fruition. Anyone over the age of 5 or 6 will be unsurprised by how the story unfolds, but the journey is nonetheless a reasonably appealing one. The clichés are abundant but they're handled with enough tenderness and enthusiasm to prevent the film from feeling tiresome. There's a nice blend of light drama and warm humor, along with the expected dose of lovely shots spotlighting the beautiful orca and some of the other local wildlife.
The film is most noteworthy for being the acting debut of Bindi Irwin, who of course is the daughter of the late Steve Irwin. She proves effective enough in her leading role, avoiding the sort of cutesy precociousness that frequently accompanies a part like this. While her acting isn't entirely natural, her personality comes across as refreshing in a particularly odd way: she's cantankerous toward her friends and flat-out hostile to her enemies. It's amusing to contrast her terse behavior with Bridges, who demonstrates a child-like enthusiasm and good-natured goofiness that goes a long way toward keeping the mood light and fun.
The film receives a respectable transfer, spotlighting the warm and vibrant color scheme quite well. The visuals are as lush and exotic as a good nature documentary, and detail is pretty solid by 480p standards. Blacks are nice and deep, too. Oddly enough, the disc offers viewers the opportunity to pick between a widescreen and full frame version of the film. You know what the right choice is. Audio is also just fine, with the flavorful score blending nicely with the dialogue and sound design.
Supplements are brief but engaging. "On the Set of Free Willy: Greetings from South Africa" (7 minutes) is a nice little making-of featurette, while "Meet My Wild Co-Stars" (3 minutes) allows Ms. Irwin to introduce us to the animals used in the film. "Bindi's First Movie Video Diary" (4 minutes) offers further interviews with the young star, plus you get a fact track, deleted scenes and some outtakes.
Kids are undoubtedly going to enjoy this one much more than adults, as the movie's cheesy manipulation will come across as much less convincing to older viewers. It's a harmless movie but not a particularly rewarding one for grown-ups.
While it's hardly a classic film (or even the original Free Willy, for that matter), this fun little flick will please younger viewers.
Willy is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes