Blu-ray
Good Family Pic
3 stars
Overall Grade
3 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
3.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
3 Stars
HD Audio Quality
3 Stars
Supplements
2 Stars
High-Def Extras
1.5 Stars
Bottom Line
Good Family Pic

Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove

Street Date:
March 23rd, 2010
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
March 22nd, 2010
Movie Release Year:
2009
Studio:
Warner Brothers
Length:
101 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Please welcome Michael Palmer to the reviewing side of High-Def Digest. Michael has been our man in the field for events in LA for the last year. Now he's covering movie reviews as well, where his experiences in the trenches of Hollywood should bring some interesting perspective to his coverage of various HD releases.

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

Never in my days did I consider revisiting the 'Free Willy' franchise, but the truth is, this family flick will be pretty darn fun for parents and kids alike.

The story is a simple one. After her father has an accident, Kirra (Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late Steve 'The Crocodile Hunter' Irwin, and star of her own animal show, 'Bindi the Jungle Girl') leaves Australia for a summer with her grandfather, Gus (Beau Bridges), in South Africa. Gus operates a rundown, seaside amusement park named Pirate's Cove. Home to an ornery donkey, unhappy customers, and one of the cutest sidekicks in cinema history, Inglebird the penguin. When a severe storm strands a baby orca in the Pirate's Cove lagoon, Kirra falls in love, names the orca Willy (as she must), and sets out on a quest to get Willy back to his pod before Gus' greedy rival turns Willy into a theme park attraction. Tuck in some environmental science and other heartwarming messages about protecting the weak and making the right decision, even if it's hard, and we have ourselves a nice little family film.

They say it's hard to make movies with child stars. And even harder to make movies with animal stars. Therefore, one can only imagine the kind of incohesive, low budget direct to home video drek that could have resulted in reviving the Free Willy series. Yet, the elements have been blended together quite well here. The young Irwin might not be the most sophisticated young actress, but she's quite charming and easily carries an entire movie squarely on her shoulders. Bridges turns in a fine performance as Grampa Gus, whose character is an interesting choice for a family film. He's somehow always loveable, despite some roguish moments where he wavers about Willy's fate – to do the right thing, or sell him to save his theme park. Hmmmm...

On the animal side of the coin, this is really where the South African locale shines. In addition to same great landscapes, kiddies will delight to see orcas, penguins, giraffes, and lion cubs. As for the title character, Willy is composed mainly of live action animatronics and CGI. The animatronics are, for the vast majority of shots, photo-realistic (if only 'Jaws' looked this good). The minimally-used CGI is clean, but not fully real. Quality-wise, it's on par with most Discovery Channel productions.

Technically, the movie seems like a much bigger budget production. For that we'll again thank South Africa, with its capable crews and enticing tax rebate programs. The musical score was surprisingly strong, save for some cheesy evil villain guitar moments, featuring a combination of African-themed choral movements and some nicely tuned emotional themes.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

This is a two-disc set, with the second disc being a DVD copy that also contains the film's digital download. The disc plays automatically with an ad for Blu-ray/Digital Copy, a trailer for 'Where the Wild Things Are' and then a simple menu.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

'Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove' arrives in a VC-1 1080p transfer (aspect ratio 1.78:1). Aside from some grainy stock footage that opens the movie and is cut into scenes featuring Willy's pod, the movie looks quite nice in HD. Colors are bright, featuring the warm earth tones of the South African location, as well as the cool blues of its coastline. Skin tones are accurate, and detail is abundant, but a few steps away from appearing in the 'near 3D' way some perfect transfers can attain.

The weakest section of the picture involves muddy interiors. Night scenes look fine and are well contrasted, but inside the villain's mansion, for example, the image appears flat, with the colors muted.

Bottom line, it may not be the best HD image on the market, but to show you just how nice a solid 1080p Blu-ray looks compared to just about anything on television. After watching 'Free Willy' for this review, I caught the most recent episode of 'Lost' (recorded in 720p, off DirecTV), and this was a much cleaner, crisper vibrant image…. And 'Lost' is pretty much the best looking show on TV.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't the ideal sonic maelstrom of demo material, but it holds up well enough. Dialogue and voices are always clear. The mix is front heavy, with surrounds mainly used for music, ambient coastal noise, and the rare rear panning. Directionally, the movie's best effects occur when CGI whales are darting across the screen. Bass is evenly balanced, and mainly used in the music, so not so surprisingly (and on the up side of things), you won't be rattling pictures off your neighbors' walls.

There is also a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track on this disc, along with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

  • Meet My Wild Co-Stars (HD, 3:10). Showing all the living animals used to make the film. Kids will love this, and wish the movie featured more of these animals.
  • Bindi's First Movie Video Diary (HD, 4:28) Lower res home video that follows Bindi around during film. Not much more than what's already been displayed in the previous two featurettes.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD, 2:08) One short scene and one expanded scene. One could understand why they were cut, as they aren't very funny, nor do they advance the plot.
  • Outtake (HD 1:30) With an intro from Bindi. An interesting look at some of the improvising she was asked to do. She clearly had a blast making the movie.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

  • Free Willy Pop-up Fun Track Runs the length of the movie. Occasional tidbits about marine life, making the movie, and the stars. Definitely not for adults, but when the kiddos are watching this for the umpteenth time, maybe it'll distract them.

Final Thoughts

'Free Willy' isn't for everyone. But it's a surprisingly fun, well-made family flick. For young fans of the young Irwin, it'll be a must own. And in our HD landscape, it holds up quite well. Much better, in fact, than watching highly compressed satellite and cable television. My biggest complaint, other than an odd music video/painting montage, is that this movie needs more Inglebird the penguin. Funny and cute are an addictive combination, and frankly, I'm glad that (spoiler alert) he eventually reclaims his lagoon for swimming. With the Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack, 'Free Willy: Escape from Pirates Cove' is as easy to enjoy in the home theater as it is in the minivan.

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • DVD/Digital Copy Combo

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/VC-1

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.78:1

Audio Formats

  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround Sound
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound

Subtitles/Captions

  • English SDH
  • French
  • Spanish

Supplements

  • On the set of Free Willy: Greetings from South Africa
  • Bindi Irwin and Willy invite all to "meet my wild costars"
  • Bindi's first movie video diary
  • Deleted scenes
  • Outtakes

Exclusive HD Content

  • Free Willy pop-up fun track

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