After four of these movies, isn't it about time Willy was finally free? Defying all plausible oceanic liberation odds, the orca is back in a pickle for the DTV sequel/remake, "Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove," which slaps a fresh coat of paint on a well-worn franchise.
When her father suffers a painful farming accident, young Kira (Bindi Irwin) is sent from Australia to South Africa, into the care of her gambler grandfather, Gus (Beau Bridges). Making a home inside Gus's dilapidated amusement park "The Pirate's Lair," Kira struggles to socialize, watching as her grandfather bilks guests out of all their money. Into a nearby lagoon comes a wayward orca nicknamed Willy, thrilling Kira and putting dollar signs into Gus's eyes. While Willy is made the star of the park, Kira pushes to return the orca to his pod, helping the ailing creature sharpen his echolocation skills. Gus, enjoying the newfound tourist bucks, is reluctant to see the big guy go, finagling a deal to sell Willy to a rival for a huge payday.
"Free Willy" was a massive sleeper hit back in the summer of 1993, riding on a wave of sympathy as family audiences fell in love with the film's gargantuan co-star, Keiko. Two sequels followed with only marginal success and when Keiko died in 2003, it seemed any hope for another entry in the "Free Willy" saga died with him.
"Escape from Pirate's Cove" is a reboot of sorts, arranging a similar tale of confinement for the titular orca, only here the action is whisked away from the moistness of the Pacific Northwest to South Africa, trading spectacular oceans for sun-kissed beaches. There's a new star in Bindi Irwin as well, making her feature-film debut (also belting out a tune for the end credits) after a few years carrying on her father Steve Irwin's message of animal appreciation on the popular television series, "Bindi, the Jungle Girl." Irwin is a novice, but she makes a pleasingly innocent impression in "Escape from Pirate's Cove," deploying her natural chirpy charisma to best match her massive co-star. Nothing too strenuous in the acting department is asked of Irwin, making her performance blessedly free of pint-sized gravitas.
Irwin's a polite presence in a film that could use more of her, with director Will Geiger often turning on the cartoon afterburners to make a quick impression on younger viewers. "Escape from Pirate's Cove" is a friendly motion picture, but it lacks a certain naturalistic weight the original feature prided itself on. While messages on animal captivity register clear, this "Free Willy" adventure retains a plastic quality, a fact emphasized in Willy himself, who's either a semi-paralyzed animatronic figure to best interact with the performers or he's a slick CGI creation for underwater shots. Any hope to appreciate the orca in all its natural splendor is lost when the film enters animated mode.
While Willy is reduced to a cheap effect, the South African locations are gorgeous, offering Irwin plenty of opportunities to interact with assorted animals and engage in coastal monkey business. I also enjoyed the film's insistence on education, as Kira devours all the information she can find to best decode Willy's predicament. Perhaps the feature isn't an overwhelming display of scholastic integrity, but the little ideas add up here and there, hopefully instilling younger viewers with an appreciation for animal behavior.
The VC-1 encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) registers strongly for a DTV title, with the film's sunny cinematography revealing a terrific amount of detail on faces (thick make-up is easily identified in the opening of the film) and places, taking pleasing shape while bombing around the "Pirate's Lair" location. Skintones are in perfect shape, while shadow detail is reserved and encouraging. Colors are a touch blown out due to the harsh sunlight, but tropical hues are excellent, and the film's manipulated underwater footage is an acceptable illusion of blues and greens.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is expectedly squeaky to keep in step with the film's family audience intent. Scoring cues blend well with dialogue exchanges, keeping a nice frontal movement to hit the listener with the basics in a blunt manner. Environmental changes bring a flowing depth to the mix, with underwater scenes feeling appropriately submerged, allowing sonar exploration to fill the surrounds. Bottom-end is rarely an issue, but the feel of lighthearted antics is well articulated. A French track is also included.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
"On the Set of 'Free Willy': Greetings from South Africa" (7:38) kicks open the Irwin sense of camera-ready duty, showcasing interviews with Bindi and mother Terri as they promote the film, discuss shooting around South Africa, and interact with co-stars.
"Meet My Wild Co-Stars" (3:10) follows Bindi as she introduces the animal cast to the audience at home. As one might imagine, Irwin shows complete comfort around the wildlife.
"Bindi's First Movie Video Diary" (4:28) cuts together footage of Irwin's daily activities both on and off the set. We're talking the wonders of tuba lessons, mini-golf, and even more animal playtime.
"Deleted Scenes" (2:08) reveal Kira's culinary skills and her ability to impersonate a dead fish.
"Outtake" (1:30) captures Bindi's improvisational side as she tries to feed Willy using a variety of accents to soothe her buddy.
A Trailer has not been included.
Gus's lust to sell Willy to a competitor makes up the suspense of the second half, leading to a jailbreak conclusion that plays smoothly into "Free Willy" formula, keeping the orca dream alive. "Escape from Pirate's Cove" should please little ones new to the series, permitting safe passage to the premise before the slightly more passionate, message-minded originals bring about a darker side to orca captivity.
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