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Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove
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by brianorndorf

"Willy needs to want it more"
3 stars

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.

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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originally posted: 03/26/10 23:47:23
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User Comments

5/24/11 Ian mac As a kids movie I rate its charm and sentiments. Well done Bindi. 4 stars
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  N/A (PG)
  DVD: 23-Mar-2010



Directed by
  Will Geiger

Written by
  Will Geiger

  Bindi Irwin
  Beau Bridges

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