One might have to legitimately ask about the thinking behind this particular children- targeted release. I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of reviewing this film at this particular time. I have two issues that are just unavoidable here:
They both deal with the film’s two central stars here. Bindi Irwin is the daughter of famed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. You all remember Steve. He used to approach some of the most dangerous animals on the planet and quite casually tell us just how deadly they were while tempting them to tag him. We all suspected that Steve might one day get a little careless and get himself killed. The truth is that didn’t exactly happen. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous animal or any carelessness on Irwin’s part that led to his rather unexpected death a few years ago. It was a usually harmless stingray that sent a barb through his heart in what can only be described as an unfortunate freak accident. Now, even before his death, the family had been preparing their very young daughter to follow in Daddy’s rather unusual footsteps. Bindi’s done several documentary films, including her own television show in the wake of her father’s death. Here I can’t help getting the feeling that the appearance is somewhat exploitive of the whole business. When I look at Bindi’s mom in the extra features, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s cashing in here. I don’t know these guys, so I’m not trying to claim that I know their hearts and minds. I can only report the feeling it leaves me with, and it’s not a good one.
The second star of this particular film is Willy, a killer whale portrayed by both a real orca and a lot of computer generated graphics. I have two problems with Willy. The first has to do with another unfortunate event, this one more recent and relatively local for me. Just down the road in Orlando, Sea World is still reeling from a trainer being killed by an orca at that park. I’m not saying that the creatures are brutal or dangerous. It was one of those things, and the trainers understand the risks. But, as comedians are fond of telling us, it’s all in the timing. Of course, Warner had no way of knowing that such an accident would happen, and the film has likely been in production and release prep for over a year. Still, you have to wonder if it might have been a good idea to delay the release for a few months. You can’t deny that these tragic tie-ins take away some of the fun and sun aspect of the release, at least it did for me.
The second problem I have with Willy is the use of the computer generated segments. While they really do look quite good, they don’t match the real whale footage very much, and it breaks up the fantasy too much for me. Perhaps the kiddies are far more forgiving on this sort of thing, and it really won’t matter too much in the end to the targeted audience.
The first thing you should know is that this is not a sequel to the Free Willy franchise that delivered 3 films starting in 1993. It’s not a reimagining, a remake, a reboot, or any of the other trendy names given to putting fresh faces on old franchises. It is, in fact, its own film related to those films only by name … and, of course, having a killer whale as the central theme. This film is also a direct to video release, so we’re seeing it on this release for the first time anywhere.
Kirra Cooper (Irwin) is with her dwhen he has a terrible accident. Now, before any of you start to really worry about the appropriateness here, Dad is fine, but he’s going to be in traction for a time. From next to me in my theater I heard my wife exclaim concern that she might actually lose her father in this film, making it too close to reality for my already sensitive sensibilities here. (The back story does have her having already lost her Mom). Anyway… that means Kirra needs someone to look after her for a while. She gets shipped off to her grandfather in South Africa, Gus (Bridges). Now, Kirra doesn’t really want to go, and she’s already decided that she’s going to have a horrible time of it. Grandfather does his best to make those expectations a reality. He owns a very rundown amusement park called Pirate’s Cove. But Disney World doesn’t have anything to worry about from Gus’s place. No one’s going to confuse it for the happiest place on Earth. It’s not even the happiest place on the block. Just down the coast is Rolf’s theme park and he has a much more modern, and crowded, attraction. Things haven’t been going well for Grandpa Gus, and Kirra’s already having a bad time. That is until one stormy night traps a baby orca in the park’s cove. Of course, Gus sees dollar signs and immediately exploits the whale to increase his business. Before you can say “Hi, my name’s Willy”, he’s got T-shirts, stuffed animals and sandwiches named after the new attraction. And the people are coming from everywhere to see Willy. But, as you might suspect, Kirra feels sorry for the trapped marine mammal and decides to do what she can to rescue him. That means teaching him echolocation and finding his pod before either Gus sells him to Rolf or the marine rescue guys have Willy whacked because they don’t believe he can survive on his own. Add in the predictable family bonding, a native friend, and a few attempts by Rolf and his boys to get their hands on Willy, and you get the picture pretty quickly, don’t you?
Beyond my original points of discomfort, the film itself is mostly harmless. Still, it doesn’t really break any new ground in this kind of movie. Bindi is obviously cast for her connections to wildlife documentaries and not for her acting chops. She’s quite unnatural as an actress, and her expressions and lines almost always appear “pretended”. Now don’t get me wrong. Bindi is a charming little girl with an infectious personality. And she has been through a lot here. She just never sells it. Beau Bridges does the best he can in a cookie cutter role, but honestly, I’d rather see him back at Stargate Command. There are a couple of native South African performers here who really do a good job of making the film more entertaining. Add to that the impressive South Africa locations, and the movie does have its high points. Just not enough.
Free Willy is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. For a direct to video release it all looks rather good. Colors are very natural. The detail level is impressive. The close-ups of the real whale reveal a tremendous amount of texture to the animal. Unfortunately, the CG shots too obviously lack that detail, making them match not at all in high definition. Black levels are a little better than average. The print is in perfect condition.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio just doesn’t deliver much here. I was hoping that at least the clicks and squeals of the whales would allow for some nice surround effect. Instead everything has a bland sense of placement to it. Dialog is fine, and you can hear everything just fine, but where’s the WOW?
All of the extras are presented in HD.
On The Set Of Free Willy – Greetings From South Africa: (7:38) Most of this is synopsis and a lot of talk about Bindi.
Meet My Wild Co-Stars: (3:10) Bindi introduces you to the animals she worked with.
Bindi’s First Movie Video Diary: (4:28) You see, this is the kind of thing that makes this look so exploitive. It’s all Bindi, all the time. She frolics day to day on the set of the film.
There are also 2 deleted and one outtake scene.
There’s a lot of focus on Bindi here, and it’s quite obvious this was intended more as a vehicle for her than anything else. There’s a filler segment where she visits a nature preserve so that she can interact with some other animals. It all looks like a segment from her show. I think I might have it enjoyed it more if I didn’t see so many examples of this being all about Bindi. The whale is really second here. Again, this really has no connection to the older franchise which begs the question, “Why did she have to name him Willy?”