A Review of What Childhood Looks Like
While not obliquely terrifying, the following statement must rank among one of the least gratifying sentences found on this website: Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove is the third sequel to 1993’s Free Willy, and comes 13 years after Free Willy 3. Released by Warner Brothers’ home video unit, Warner Premiere, Free Willy:EPC represents a reboot of sorts. Apparently, it’s a whole new whale.
The original Free Willy was a tremendous box office success. According to Box Office Mojo, it has raked it in excess of $150 million. That was approximately 20 million impressionable young children and bored adult minders drawn to the cinemas, and probably millions more watching at home in home video releases and (eventual) DVD re-masterings. For a certain generation born, roughly, in the ‘80s, Free Willy is one of those cultural hallmarks – symbols of lost youth and idealized childhood, spent gazing at televisions and movie screens. Potently, it also featured one of popular cinema’s most iconic endings – Willy, played by Keiko the Orca, made an impossible jump into, quite literally, freedom and the wild blue sea. A child loses his best friend but learns that a hero’s journey is not always an easy one.
Unfortunately, Keiko the Orca died in 2003 after a filmography of playing leads in four films – quite a tally for any actor, let alone a member of species orcinus orca. Almost by instinct, the thought of Free Willy:EPC filled me with disgust. In a way, Keiko deserved his legacy, and in an unidentifiable but very definite way, I, along with others of my generation, must certainly feel a sort of betrayal in the resurrection of the Free Willy franchise (to be honest, I was unaware that it had run into three films prior to this). As Hollywood did to Transformers, there was a certain dread that accompanied this review, that in its maniacally malicious manner, Hollywood would pervert ancient childhood memories and butcher the fond, if naïve, memories of Keiko swimming, jumping, and wishing to freedom.
I had prepared a whole list of whale-related puns, at the ready to harpoon what I could only assume would be a blubberous and shambolic character-murder of all ceteceans. References would not have been limited to breaches of whaling conventions. The film was frankly underwhelming: it plunged the depths of heterospecies friendships, surfaced to touch on some poignant inter-cultural relations, and then blew out an hour-and-a-bit film constructed to delight one and all. Except, of course, in any carefully formulated, designed-to-please exercises in family-friendly film-making, after a certain age of cynicism has been achieved, the film’s appeal sinks precipitously. Perhaps its most heinous sin is that Willy isn’t even a real whale in most shots- - more CGI shenanigans as compared to Keiko’s on-screen performances.
Look, the original Free Willy would probably be just as tiresome if watched today but it holds some personal sentimental value. So, yes: this review is already inherently biased and thus compromises a code of journalistic integrity. Realizing this, I took the most unusual step of subjecting myself to the film viewing again, re-writing what bits of the condemning review I had already scripted. I owed it to the film, my memories, and naturally to you, dear reader.
Free Willy:EPC stars Bindi Irwin (daughter of Croc Hunter, Steve, and otherwise known as The Jungle Girl) as young Australian girl, Kirra, who travels to South Africa due to a plot device. Unhappy with her new life, she manages to befriend a whale that she names, surprisingly(!), Willy. Foiling the plans of evil (or, at best, immoral) business tycoon Rolf Wooch (Stephen Jennings) with the help of her new human friends, Kirra manages to free Willy. With splashes of environmental and racial harmony themes, Free Willy:EPC is comfortably kid-friendly and workingly adorable. It is, however, still not a great film.
Despite the new location, transported away from the Pacific Northwest of the original film, Free Willy:EPC is an unoriginal retelling of the first installation, borrowing most, if not all, of the first’s heart-tugging checkpoints. Then I realized that I was missing the point.
I’m not meant to enjoy the film for its cinematic achievements. I’m not meant to laugh with the film in a sort of campy, sardonic fashion. I was looking for the wrong things. Free Willy:EPC was always meant to be a simple way for a family to watch innocent merriment with not-so-subtle, easy-to-grasp themes of basic humanity and friendship. In that, it achieves passable credit.
Direction by Will Geiger is solid but not spectacular (certainly not his best). Irwin’s supporting cast of Beau Bridges (who plays her grandfather) and Bongolethu Mbutuma (adequate as whale expert Mansa) perform their roles professionally. It is a decent family film. (Certainly not something someone who assumes he has better things to do to devote 800 words to…) Its special features—Bindi-centric and quite possibly the invention of publicity managers grooming the young Australian for future stardom—are varied and, for the DVD’s targeted audience, exciting.
When future generations persecute my name for defending the indefensible, and drawing this review up as evidence, I shall have no regrets. Claims of being overly generous would be floated that I would embrace. Let it be known that Free Willy:EPC does not make a mockery of the original film – it is an adequate successor because the original was only spectacular in the eyes of a still not cynical child. It is certainly not a great film but at least I’ve come to realize that it fulfilled its goal of producing a family movie night film with simple, uncomplicated moral standpoints.
In that respect, it methodically checked all its required boxes and produced a work of craft, rather than art. I may not have found it so, but given a certain viewing, under a specific light, it does pass for fun. It’s just that I still wish I had never known of its existence and kept my horribly, perversely preserved view of childhood sanctimoniously intact.