HTF DVD REVIEW: Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove

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  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    Livonia, MI USA
    Real Name:
    Kenneth McAlinden
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    Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove

    Directed By: Will Geiger

    Starring: Bindi Irwin, Beau Bridges, Bongolethu Mbutuma, Siyabulela Ramba, Stephen Jennings, Kevin Otto

    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 2009

    Rated: PG

    Film Length: 101 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 16:9

    Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

    Release Date: March 23, 2010

    While I have to admit that the timing of the release of this direct to video film only a few weeks after an incident where an Orca named Tilikum killed its trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in Orlando, Florida did nothing to enhance my appetite to see a child cavorting in the water with such a creature, I have attempted to separate my review from this context which the filmmakers and distributors could not have anticipated.

    The Film **½

    In Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove, young Kirra Cooper (Irwin) is sent from her home in Australia to her Grandfather Gus Grisby's (Bridges) home in South Africa after her veterinarian father (Cooper) suffers injuries in a fall that require six weeks of hospitalization. Reluctant to go and none too fond of her disheveled gambler of a grandfather or the low-rent pirate-themed amusement park he runs near the ocean, Kirra is intent to "do her time" and return to Australia at the earliest opportunity. When a severe storm washes a baby Orca into the seaside cove, Kirra finds herself newly engaged with her surroundings and determined to retrun "Willy" to his family "Pod". She enlists the aid of Gus' staff including reliable handyman Mansa (Mbutuma) and a cheery young boy named Sifisu (Ramba). In order to succeed, she must overcome the technical challenge of teaching the young Orca to use his echo-location skills as well as the personal challenge of convincing the cash-strapped grandfather she barely knows to go along with her plan despite the popularity of the confined Willy as a park attraction and the financial offers from Rolf (Jennings), the wealthy and unprincipled owner of a nearby rival park.

    Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove is not so much a sequel to the three previous Free Willy films as a re-working of the same basic plot with different characters and a novel setting. While the screenwriters score no points for originality, the South African setting and location footage offer jaded adult viewers at least a little eye candy in compensation for the otherwise overly familiar plot and characterizations.

    The cast is top-lined by Bindi Irwin in her feature film debut. Her on-camera experience working on her late father's televised nature programs notwithstanding, she gives a pretty decent performance for a first time juvenile actress. She runs into trouble whenever she is required to express extreme emotions in scenes involving crying, squealing, or yelling, but this is par for the course even for experienced child actors. Beau Bridges is by far the best known member of the cast, and while he is too much of a pro to phone-in a performance, the screenplay only gives him limited opportunity to invest his character with anything beyond his somewhat stock surface details. To his credit, he makes the most of these opportunities, which are essential to making the arguably silly climax of the film pay-off dramatically. Juvenile South African actor Siyabulela Ramba arguably steals every scene in which he appears as Sifisu and makes for a pretty entertaining sidekick character to Irwin's Kirra.

    Production values are generally above average for a direct to video kid-flick with the location and animal footage being generally quite impressive. Critical viewers will not have much trouble telling the CGI whales from the real deal, but they are not a complete disaster, either. As previously mentioned, the South African locations are a highlight, and they are exploited for all they are worth by the director and cinematographer at appropriate opportunities.

    The Video ***½

    The film is presented both in a 16:9 enhanced widescreen format and a 4:3 fill frame format. Only the 16:9 enhanced presentation was evaluated for the purpose of this review. It was a generally pleasing presentation that held up well on a 50" widescreen plasma display, but revealed signs of light filtering and general softness when viewed on a front projection set-up with a 100" screen. Shadow detail was not particularly strong, but this was rarely an issue since most of the film consists of fairly brightly lit interiors and exteriors. Video-related artifacts were minimal, with occasional light compression issues.

    The Audio ****

    The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track was above average for a direct to video release, but not as spatial and dynamic as a typical modern theatrical release. It features solid fidelity and occasional uses of the surround field for discrete dimensional effects (such as announcements at airports) and light ambient support. The bulk of the film's mix is located in the front three channels with wide stereo effects generally reserved for the support of off-screen action and dialog.

    The Extras **½

    All of the proper "Special Features" are presented in 16:9 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound:

    On the Set of Free Willy: Greetings from South Africa (7:37) is a brief kid-oriented "making of..." featurette consisting of behind the scenes footage and talking head interviews, discussion topics are the expected mix of comments on working with co-stars, the film's unique South African locations, and thoughts on Orcas, ecology, and the movie's themes. They are divided up by the following on-screen titles: My Adventure Begins, My First Movie, Wish You Were Here, Safari Park, Are We in Australia?, All Aboard, Lost in the Lagoon, and, Mission Accomplished. Organized mostly from the perspective of juvenile actress Irwin, additional on-screen comments are provided by her mother Terri Irwin, Writer/Director Will Geiger, and actors Beau Bridges, Bongo Mbutuma, and Siya Ramba

    Meet My Wild Co-Stars (3:09) features Bindi Irwin taking the viewer on a brief visit to a number of the animal actors appearing in the film and discussing a little bit of background information on how she worked with them and how they were trained. In addition to Irwin, on-screen comments are also offered by Bridges and Ramba.

    Deleted Scenes (2:07 w/Play All) is a collection of one deleted and one extended scene that did not make it to the film's final cut.
    • Kirra Makes Dinner (:29) - is a brief deleted scene where Kirra cooks for her Grandpa and makes sarcastic comments about the sad state of his refrigerator
    • Kirra and Sifiso Feed Willy (1:38) - is an extended sequence from the film with some additional dialog between Kirra and Willy including a bit where she makes a fish talk like a puppet while unsuccessfully attempting to feed him

    Outtake - Kirra Talks to Willy (1:30) - is a reel of several attempts by Bindi Irwin to perform the "fish puppet" bit from the extended scene mentioned above with various accents. She has a tough time getting through without laughing and breaking character.

    Bindi's First Movie Video Diary (4:27) - is a behind the scenes "video diary" that checks in with Irwin on various days of the film's shooting. It is set to some generally silly background music and includes occasional comments from folks on set such as Irwin, her co-stars, and even her tuba instructor.  Explanatory on-screen titles also appear written as if they were actual diary entries from Irwin's perspective.

    When the disc is first played, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promos in 4:3 letterboxed video unless indicated otherwise below:
    • Where the Wild Things Are BD/DVD Trailer (1:57)
    • Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest Video Game Trailer(1:23) Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory BD Trailer (4:3 full frame - 2:05)
    • IMAX Under the Sea BD & DVD Trailer (4:3 full frame - 1:09)
    • Scooby Doo - Abracadabra Doo DVD Trailer (4:3 full frame - :29)
    • Scooby Doo - First Frights Video Game Trailer(1:01)


    The disc is authored on a single-sided dual-layered DVD-9 including the 16:9 enhanced widescreen and 4:3 full frame versions of the film on the same disc side along with all of the extras. The disc is packaged in a standard Amaray-sized "Eco Box" case with a single paper insert in the case promoting the "Keiko's Pod" club at a web site that supports the non-profit "Free Willy-Keiko Foundation" whose mission is to promote the health and freedom of whales and dolphins.

    Summary **½

    Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove repurposes the premise of the original Free Willy film to a different set of characters and a novel South African location. Kids may be entertained by the animal action and low-rent amusement park setting, particularly if they are fans of Bindi Irwin from her "Bindi the Jungle Girl" days on television. More demanding adult viewers may appreciate the unique South African locations, but will likely be bored by the stale derivative plotting and generic characterizations. It is presented on DVD with a lightly filtered video presentation and solid 5.1 audio by direct-to-video standards. Extras are slight and kid-oriented, but they do offer a few tidbits of interesting behind the scenes information.


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