Friday, July 13, 2012

Treasure Island

As discussed the last couple of days, Treasure Island was a solution to a thorny problem for Disney, a way to get their foreign money and put it to use.  In that sense it was a success, because financially it at least gave them product to make, even if it didn’t become an overwhelming financial success.  But as a creative endeavor, does Treasure Island work?

It’s a mixed bag, is the best way I can put it.  Like many films of the 1940s and 1950s, it’s hard to watch today, with the way modern pacing works.  We have become conditioned in modern theatres to have Sorkin-esque rapid fire dialogue, quick cuts between scenes, large explosives and CGI action set pieces.  Some bemoan that fact, but I feel it makes small films all the better, and gives us different flavors of film to enjoy.  The fact of the matter is, Treasure Island was Walt Disney’s gateway into adventure filmmaking, a genre he clearly enjoyed.

Part of the Disney tradition is adventure films with young people becoming involved in great journeys or mysteries.  It all begins with Treasure Island, and the adaptation of Stevenson’s work.  It is an almost slavish devotion to that work that is actually a strong point of the film.  Treasure Island creates a world that the viewer wants to inhabit and feel.  Watching this film takes you into an idealized version of England in the late 1700s, where noblemen still ruled supreme but mixed with commoners and seamen to create a whole society.  Watching this film you can smell the sea, taste the rum or feel the heat.

A lot of that is due to the performance of Robert Newton as Long John Silver.  His performance here is literally inventing the onscreen pirate.  The cadence of his speech, the way he moves and his willingness to always bargain, cheat or steal to save his own skin is a foundation for all other film pirates going forward.  When you watch this today, it’s hard to realize that this came first.  Watch Newton’s facial expressions, the sweat pouring off his brow and listen to his speech and you’ll see how Johnny Depp created the character of Captain Jack Sparrow. 

What falls down is the performance of the other actors.  Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins can best be described as inoffensive.  While his performance doesn’t stand out, it doesn’t seem particularly bad either.  The key relationship in the film is that of Hawkins and Silver, and it just doesn’t work as well as it could.  There’s clearly affection there, but it’s the back and forth between them as both switch sides that feels forced.  It comes from the book, but the nuance is somewhat lost.

The other characters are frankly superfluous.  They aren’t characters so much as ciphers, there to advance the story in certain ways, either kicking things off, starting a mutiny early or going after Jim with a knife.  That’s to be expected, as the focus here is on the two main characters and the twists and turns in the journey to Flint’s treasure on the island. 

All these elements come together to make a realistic setting and one outstanding actor amongst a field of uninspired performances.  But it makes for a fairly entertaining film, although a slow one.  It will take time to get invested in this film, but the time is worth it.  It’s an amazing film to watch knowing about all the adventures that Disney would put on film in the coming years.  

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