I think it goes without saying that getting to review movies is a great opportunity. Not only do I get to share my thoughts and opinions, but I also get exposure to a lot of different films I would normally have missed out on. However, there is a negative side to all of this. Every now and again, a film comes my way that is something I would never watch of my own free will. Something that I just know is excruciatingly awful before watching a single frame. Something such as “Free Willy: Escape From Pirate’s Cove.”I know that I’m not the demographic for a movie like this. All I can do when going in to these types of films is try to keep an open mind and view the film from the perspective of the intended audience. So that’s what I did. And I think that I can safely say that the intended audience (namely VERY young children) will not be entertained. They might not be quite as insulted as I was, but I seriously doubt many children will find much to like.
Having seen the first Free Willy but none of the sequels, I didn’t really know how this film tied in to the overall Willy mythology. It turns out that this story bears absolutely no connection to any of the other stories beyond Willy’s name. Bindi Irwin (daugher of the late Steve Irwin) stars as Kirra, a young Australian girl forced to spend a summer with her slightly eccentric grandfather Gus (Beau Bridges) in South Africa. Running a dying theme park, Gus is thrilled when a young orca washes into his lagoon during a storm. Of course, he sees this young killer whale as the perfect opportunity to give his park a needed edge over another local, much more elaborate theme park. Giving young Kirra the opportunity to name his new attraction, she randomly decides on “Willy” for no reason beyond giving the film a connection to the rest of the franchise.
Of course, having already established Kirra’s connection to animals in the opening scenes of the film, she quickly bonds with Willy. One of my big pet peeves in film is when an animal character can seemingly understand English, express human emotion and interacts with humans in a way simply to serve the plot. This movie is practically nothing but this sort of behavior. A large portion of the film focuses on Kirra’s attempts to get Willy to eat, and the battle between them and the eventual explanation as to his lack of appetite all ends up pretty silly. After numerous explanations of how killer whales don’t hurt people, Kirra ends up repeatedly in the water, even riding Willy as if he were a horse.
These sequences are laughable enough on paper, but I was amazed at how awful it looked on screen. All sequences where you see Willy above the water are obviously some sort of animatronic/puppet, and all sequences under the water are animated with some of the worst CGI I’ve seen in a long time. Every underwater effect in the film looks like a sub-par video game. It still would have been an awful script, but the film might have been more bearable if there was ANY footage of an actual killer whale.
Of course, there are villains in the film as well. The owner of the rival park is desperate to get Willy for his own park, and the rivalry between him and Gus sets up a lot of the “action of the film.” Eventually, there is an attempted kidnapping, and the film actually resorts to a shot of Willy ripping a guy’s pants, just enough to show his underwear as he scrambles out of the water. Yes, it is that kind of movie.
The only person who comes out of this semi-unscathed is Beau Bridges. I’m not going to say he was good, but he managed a decent balance between over-the-top silliness and an actual representation of a real human being. His struggle with trying to do the right thing by Willy and Kirra and his desire to expand his park was semi-believable, and occasionally even slightly compelling.
As this is a Direct-to-Video Blu-Ray, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot in terms of extras and I was right. The features are geared towards the young children who would be watching, and as such, there isn’t much substance. Most of the features center around Bindi, and she actually comes across more likeable in these features than she does in the film itself. She’s absolutely comfortable in front of the camera, and when she gets to be Bindi Irwin, she’s a natural. When she’s playing Kirra, her acting is never anything but forced.
The features are all very short, and they never show anything besides the cast and crew having fun with each other. I thought it was kind of interesting that they never acknowledge the fake Willy, and constantly refer to it as a real animal that they were filming with. I guess they actually expect kids to buy into the illusion, but I don’t think they’re giving these kids enough credit.
As I said above, I’m not the demographic for this movie. However, there are amazing films out there for children, and I’d hate to think that too many of them would be passing over quality films for something as silly as this. I don’t know how much of a draw the Free Willy brand is, but beyond that, I can’t think of any reason a child would want to watch this. It’s a cheesy and silly film, and not worth anyone’s time regardless of how young you are.