I seen the Free Willy films when I was a kid. Problem is, I can’t remember them. I know they involved a whale named Willy, a child who adored him and a dilemma that they would overcome that would bring them closer together, even when they eventually have to depart. The dilemma is what escapes my mind. I don’t know whether to blame it on the films themselves, or me being so young that it’s hard for me to remember. I’m leaning more towards the latter.
My guess would be the dilemma’s were similar to the one in Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove. In this new installment, an orca whale washes ashore Pirate’s Cove, an amusement park located at harbor. It’s owned and operated by Gus Grisby (Beau Bridges), who is being visited by his granddaughter, Kirra Cooper (Bindi Irwin, making her film debut). She’s there by protest, as her injured father sends her there until he recovers. She starts to hate it (spending the first half hour of the film whining and complaining), but slowly warms up to the place when she meets the stranded orca, who she names Willy. She’d rather save him and send him back into the ocean, while her greedy grandfather would rather make money off of him.
He’s not the only one who wants to make money off of poor Willy. Local amusement park tycoon Rolf (Stephen Jennings) has seen his business deplete since Willy arrived. As opposed to purchasing his own orca whale (which he mentions he can do to Gus numerous times), he wants Willy for namesake purposes. Gus, who only a few weeks ago would have taken up his offer, is reluctant in selling him. Rolf tries to sabotage Gus’s success by trying to make Willy seem unsafe in his current environment (he promises that Willy will have a state-of-the-art living facility to keep him healthy and happy). Not helping matters are marine biologists who insist that Willy needs to be put down.
The only person who seem to care about Willy is Kirra. She spends the bulk of her time studying up on orcas, training Willy and trying to convince her grandfather to free Willy and not sell him. Though I wanted to root for her, it was hard to do so considering Bindi Irwin isn’t a good screen presence. Her acting is sub-par, while the character itself is poorly written. Director/writer Will Geiger, along with fellow screenwriters Cindy McCreery and Keith Walker, make Kirra a whiny and manipulative little girl. If she isn’t complaining about being in South Africa with her grandfather, she’s goading people into taking her side and caving in to her demands by pouting and forcing her views onto them.
Her worst vice is that she believes that she knows everything and that adults are wrong about everything. For instance, when the marine biologists inform Gus that Willy needs to be put down, she immediately states that they’re wrong. When her grandfather informs her that they’re professionals, she shoots back with “Just because they use big words doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing”. She’d have a good case if their job didn’t entail them to take years worth of college courses, which means they know what they’re doing.
Making matters worse is that the screenwriters let her be correct. She proves that Willy can be saved and returned to the ocean in good health. This should be a happy moment, but I wasn’t smiling. The fact that, just like in many kids movies, the precocious kid knows more than the knowledgeable adult is insulting. I understand that they’re appealing to little children, but their message is fallacious. After viewing these films, children will believe that, if they think they’re right and their parents think they are wrong, that their parents are misinformed. We should be teaching our kids to listen to adults and take in their years-worth of information, not repudiate them because they go against their beliefs.
Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove is a favorable film muddled underneath a bad script and an inadequate actress in Bindi Irwin. The direction of Will Geiger is fine, it’s his script that’s lacking. He has a good idea, but dampers it with a vexing “kids are better than adults”  vibe. With a better script and lead actress, this could have been a moderately enjoyable family film.