Adventures through the spying glass
IAnimal Treasure Island, talking animal pirates, not rated, dubbed in English, CCA Cinematheque, 3 chiles
While screening the 1971 Japanese animated adventure Animal Treasure Island and preparing for my review, I decided to consult an expert. I brought my 2-year-old son into the room with me and sat him on my lap. The film could have been a tough sell, with its primitive animation by today’s standards and even subtitles (the version that screens in Santa Fe will be dubbed). His response? He liked that he could recognize everything that was going on, he laughed much of the time, and made me promise to show it to him again tomorrow.
So it gets a big thumbs-up from junior, and a less enthusiastic one from daddy. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Too many movies aim to please both parents and children, and in their attempts at offering something for everyone, they wind up offering nothing for anyone. I enjoy a movie that’s geared to the whole clan (see Fantastic Mr. Fox — no, seriously, see it), but it’s also nice to have something that’s aimed squarely at a toddler, like a good tickle to the rib cage. CCA Cinematheque is programming Animal Treasure Island accordingly: when it opens onWednesday, Dec. 23, it will only have morning screenings.
The movie was directed by Hiroshi Ikeda and produced by anime giant Toei Animation, but it is relevant in film history primarily because of the involvement of Hayao Miyazaki. The co-founder of Studio Ghibli and creator of films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo got one of his big breaks creating concept art and handling animation for Animal Treasure Island. Devotees of Miyazaki will have to squint to find his influence here— and, frankly, it’s not even as charming as Miyazaki’s work on Panda! Go, Panda!— but the movie is innocent and imaginative enough that it fits nicely in the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Based loosely on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the story centers on a boy named Jim, who acquires a treasure map from a peg-legged stranger. He sets out with his pet mouse, Rex, and the baby Baboo to find Capt. Flint’s loot, but along the way he is captured by pirates. While imprisoned, Jim meets Kathy, Flint’s granddaughter— and a stylistic predecessor to Miyazaki’s Nausicaä (protagonist of his film by the same name)— and the two of them navigate mutinies, sea battles, and storms, all leading to a climax atop a volcano.
Ikeda doesn’t much stick to Stevenson’s map, instead whipping up a movie full of Japanese in-jokes (such as when Jim tries to trick the pirate crew into eating tempura made from boots and baseball gloves), slapstick humor, and Looney Tunes-style action. And, of course, aside from the two main characters, most of the cast are animals. There’s a sea-captain pig who may remind Miyazaki fans of Porco Rosso (another of his creations) and an ambitious, monocle-wearing coyote. The biggest crowd-pleaser in this zoo is the kindhearted walrus Otto, who becomes Baboo’s guardian.
The animation is generally delightful, with warm designs and vibrant colors. It’s reminiscent of American TV shows like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons and is organic in that hand-drawn way. The action, from the epic sea battle to the zany chase sequence across the volcano’s ridge, plays with physics in the Chuck Jones tradition. The sound effects enhance the experience, and the music by Naozumi Yamamoto gives the movie a jazzy flair. In one scene, Ikeda conveys a long journey across water by staging it to a flashy, psychedelic, musical montage. It doesn’t look like anything else in the movie and serves as a colorful intermission before the climax. They just don’t make sequences like this anymore, and it’s a shame.
Will children take to a movie that’s nothing like anything in theaters now? My experience says yes. Adults may groan at outdated sensibilities, but children are arguably anachronistic by nature when it comes to pop culture. When I was a child, Star Wars was the big thing, but I watched TheWizard of Oz, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and the 1930s serial Flash Gordon as if they were contemporaries. To a kid, they’re all just different toppings on the same pizza.
Animal Treasure Island covers topics that speak directly to children, such as exploration, adventure, and friendship. The filmmakers cut away just about anything that doesn’t relate to those themes and present the cinematic equivalent of setting sail for the horizon with your best buddies at your side and a spyglass in hand. It’s a bit slight, but the filmmakers chop the movie up into clear chapters, so it’s easy for toddlers to float along, and it never gets too boring for adults. It’s a short film, full of gentle silliness, and perfect for the kiddies over Christmas break. I don’t need to solicit my son’s advice to tell you that this will be a more pleasant experience than Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
Stop cartoon violins:
Animal Treasure Island
Shiver me timbers:
Animal Treasure Island