Thursday, October 27, 2011

Seal Island - Review

As I said yesterday, discussing Seal Island is a bit of a minefield.  You don’t want to be seen as hating on seals or nature films if you dislike it, and you get criticized by those who deride the “manufactured” nature of the film if you do.  However, I want to do my best to evaluate this 30 minute feature as a film, just like any other that I’ve reviewed on the site.

And as a film, there are definitely some ups and downs to Seal Island.  Start with the storytelling techniques.  I think without the addition of Winston Hibler as the narrator or the deliberate decision by James Algar and crew to follow specific seals or craft a narrative around that, this would be a very bad movie.  The story of these seals is not of particular interest to me, but they craft it in a way that is intriguing.

Let’s be honest, the real goings on of the seals migrating to this island every year for their mating ritual is not thrilling for audiences of today.  It’s a slow moving story that doesn’t really give you much to hold on to while you watch.  That’s not necessarily bad.  I am a big classic film fan, and the older movies took way more time to let things breathe than modern film.  In Seal Island, though, since there is no real conflict or narrative in the actual footage, the filmmakers manufacture one with narration and music.

Sometimes, that is over the top and obvious.  The burlesque style music used when the female seals come to shore is slightly embarrassing.  I was watching the film and cringed when that music came on, because it’s just so cliché and not at all in keeping with the theme of the rest of the film.  Similarly, when the seal is in “danger” of falling between the rocks, it becomes very obvious that the seal would be fine if he fell, and that the seal that’s rescued is not the same one that was in danger.

Those are the things that kept me from really enjoying the film, even though I think it’s very interesting as a whole.  There is no question that this is a beautiful piece of photography.  The imagery and the vitality of what was captured by the Milottes shines through any hokey music or joking narration.  Shots of the seals scattered across the beach or the waters undulating with swimming creatures are simply breathtaking.  As a pleasure to look at, it’s hard to argue with Seal Island.

This is not to say that I think a straight visual approach with no storytelling would have worked for this film.  I agree that some degree of craftsmanship and manipulation was necessary to create a compelling film.  I went into this knowing that it was present, and expecting a high quality.  What I felt happened instead was a presentation that was not on par with what Disney has produced in 1947-1948.  Seal Island is an average work to me, not something all that special.  It is significant for its place in Disney history, but as a film alone, it lacks the touch of magic that makes Disney films so interesting.

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