Make no mistake: Like all the other "Free Willy" movies before it, 2010's direct-to-video "Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove" is a children's film. I say this as a warning to adults, because for them it may be a long and familiar haul.
Yes, this "Free Willy" is definitely a family film about sweet, playful, loveable wild animals, and it stars young Bindi Irwin, daughter of the famous "Crocodile Hunter," Steve Irwin. Still, I kept wondering as I watched the movie if the filmmakers or the studio had ever had any second thoughts about the project, given that a marine animal, a stingray, killed Ms. Irwin's father a few years earlier and that an orca at a Florida amusement park killed its trainer just a couple of months before the film's release. Kind of puts a damper on the fun, you know?
Anyway, what we've got here is a story about a young girl trying to save a lost killer whale, an orca, from a lifetime of imprisonment and, of course, her growing love for the animal. Like most children's films, this one toys with the heartstrings rather blatantly; it's part of the formula that kids seem to enjoy and that I suppose nostalgic adults long for.
Ms. Irwin plays a girl of about ten or eleven named Kirra Cooper, whose father (Kevin Otto), a veterinarian, falls and breaks his arm. Hospitalized for six weeks, he sends young Kirra off to live with her grandfather, Gus (Beau Bridges), for a while. Gus lives on the coast of South Africa, where he runs a broken-down, seaside tourist trap called "Pirate's Lair."
During a fierce storm at sea, a young orca becomes separated from his family, his pod, and winds up trapped in the lagoon (or cove) in front of Gus's park. Gus sees dollar signs in the animal, thinking it will make a great new attraction. Kirra sees a poor, endangered creature and wants to reunite it with its pod. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous rival amusement-park owner (Stephen Jennings) wants the orca for himself. And thus we've got all the ingredients we need for a most-predictable plot.
The movie is slow and sentimental, with sappy, maudlin music playing behind every scene and cute, cuddly animals showing up at every turn. Grandpa even has a pet penguin that's just as precious as it can be. The film leaves no cliché unused.
The film's logic suffers about as much as its terminal cuteness, but that seems par for a typical kids' film, too. In what seems like one day after the orca arrives, Kirra has named it "Willy," and the grandfather is selling tickets to see it, along with stuffed orca dolls and T-shirts with the name "Willy" emblazoned on them. Maybe in South Africa business is more efficient than it is in America.
One consequence of the movie is that we do get to learn about echolocation, so all is not lost. Otherwise, it's a pretty tedious affair and easy to figure out in advance. At least for an adult. But, remember, this is a film for children, for whom many of the things adults find old hat are still new and exciting. For instance, Bridges plays a stereotyped character, a disillusioned loser who has squandered his life and his money away and become the black sheep of the family. Yet he is also charismatic as all get-out and should appeal to most young viewers. And, needless to say, Bindi Irwin is as cute and charming in her role as the animals are, so what more could a person want?
For youngest members of the film's audience, "Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove" would appear to have all the sentiment, scenery, music, and animals to keep them occupied for the duration. For adults, though, most of us have seen it before. Again and again. I mean, whales are not exactly the most expressive animals in the world, and they have to remain in the water. There is only so much you can do with a story about them.
The Warner video engineers present the film in two aspect ratios on the same side of the disc: a 1.85:1 widescreen and a 1.33:1 full-screen. I have no idea why studios offer a 1.33:1 format so often on children's discs; maybe they figure children have their own televisions in their rooms, and the televisions are old 1.33:1 standard-screen sets handed down from their parents. I dunno. In any case, the 1.33:1 version is a pan-and-scan affair, with part of the frame cut off at each side.
I watched in widescreen, where WB use an anamorphic transfer. Still, the definition and color are not all that convincing, with quite a lot of variation in picture quality throughout the movie. Maybe squeezing two screen-ratio formats on one side of a disc took something out of both. Some shots are reasonably clear and detailed, while many others are soft, light, and rough. Colors in the outdoor shots are usually bright, while colors indoors can seem as though they were filmed with natural lighting, slightly veiled.
The soundtrack comes to us via Dolby Digital 5.1 and doesn't always have a lot to do. There are some scenes, like a storm at sea, that show us what the soundtrack is capable of doing, with deep bass, strong transients, and excellent surround activity; yet such scenes are few and far between, with most of the film being dialogue driven and hardly lighting up the rear speakers.
The bonus items are the ones you'd expect to find on a children's disc. First, we get three featurettes hosted by Bindi Irwin: "On the Set of Free Willy: Greetings from South Africa," seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage; "Bindi Irwin and Willy Invite All to Meet My Wild Co-Stars," three minutes with Bindi and the animals from the picture; and "Bindi's First Movie Video Diary," four minutes of memories about the filming. Then, there are two deleted scenes totaling about two minutes and an outtake at about a minute and a half.
Things conclude with a series of trailers and promos at start-up only; twenty-four scene selections; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
If you've seen any one of the previous "Free Willy" movies, you've probably seen them all, including this one. They're all about the same, which doesn't mean they still don't hold a fascination for children. Even though I couldn't recommend this newest "Free Willy" film for adults, I'm equally sure kids would enjoy it for its color, locations, animals, music, and, of course, for the love between its main character and the orca. It's hard to beat a little girl and a killer whale in any movie.