Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Live Action movies: Treasure Island

Disney's version of Treasure Island (directed by Byron Haskin, screenplay by Lawrence Edward Watkin), Robert Lewis Stevenson's definitive pirate tale, is an undisputed classic tale of high-seas adventure. Unfortunately, in the 61 years since its initial release, certain elements have not aged as well as others. Other aspects, fortunately, have timeless appeal.

Treasure Island is the story of Jim Hawkins, a young boy who befriends Billy Bones, a dying pirate staying at his mother's Inn. When Bones passes, he leaves Jim a map to the hidden treasure of the deceased pirate Captain Flint. Jim brings the map to Squire Trelawney, a local nobleman, and Dr. Livesy, a physician who had been attending to Billy Bones. The group decides to hire a ship and crew to set off in search of Flint's treasure.

Trelawney makes the unfortunate decision to hire one Long John Silver as the ship's cook, a man who also turns out to be Flint's former quartermaster - a pirate with an agenda of his own. Silver manages to get several other former members of Flint's crew onto the ship as well, and once the group arrives at Treasure Island, a battle begins over who will get the treasure.

The negatives first. The biggest problem with Treasure Island is that, when deciding on who to cast as Jim Hawkins, Disney looked no farther than the children it already had under contract. While little Bobby Driscoll was fine as the lead in Song of the South, and made for a lively voice for Peter Pan later, he was woefully miscast as the daring Hawkins. Driscoll has two facial expressions he exhibits in the movie: a confused squint, accompanied by an open mouth, and a beaming smile. There are a wide-range of expressions needed in addition to those (defiance, the sting of betrayal), but Driscoll's face seems to be attached to a switch with just these two settings. He's a cute, likeable little boy, but Jim Hawkins isn't an everyman - he's an extraordinary boy quickly becoming a man. Driscoll's just not up to it.

The two faces of Bobby Driscoll.

Then there's the musical score by Clifton Parker, whose presence is often the exact opposite of what it needs to be. During low-key scenes it's busy and distracting, and during certain key scenes of action or suspense it's almost entirely absent. The confrontation between Jim and Israel Hands, alone on the ship should be one of the most tense scenes in the movie, but it underwhelms due to the lack of underscoring. I'd love to see the exact same movie with a more competent score to see how much of a difference it makes to the overall product. I suspect it would make a huge difference.

It sounds like I'm trashing this movie, doesn't it? Let’s turn that around.

First of all, it's an adaptation of Stevenson's "Treasure Island," and a mostly faithful one at that. It's a great story of a young boy in an adventure way over his head, and the marvelous creation of the likable amoral pirate Long John Silver. That Disney made this movie in 1950, and stuck with the decision to try to make us like a Silver who will lie, steal, and kill to get what he wants is to the movie's credit. They do soften him somewhat compared to the novel, but the fact that they don't outright castrate him is a great relief.

Then there's Robert Newton, the actor chosen to play that key role. Newton's performance wasn't just the definitive portrayal of Long John Silver, it became cemented in the public's mind as what a pirate was. How they behaved, moved, and - most importantly - spoke. Any time you see someone playing a pirate, rolling their eyes, cocking their heads, or saying "Yar" or "arrr", they're borrowing from Robert Newton. There wasn't a pirate on screen anywhere that didn't owe him a debt until Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003.

Weirdly, Newton seems to be almost aware of the icon he's creating. At one moment, at the end of a prayer, he offers a solemn "arrrr-men," seemingly parodying his performance on it in the very movie that creates the modern pirate.

A great character in the hands of a great performer.

But Newton's Long John Silver is more than just a collection of ticks and quirks, as entertaining as those are. There's a real living character behind those rolling eyes. Silver is always thinking, and you almost hear the gears moving. Newton brings enormous charisma to the role, and because of it, the audience is always left guessing (just as Jim is) to the character's true nature. He's a bad man to be sure, but is there also kindness in him?

Geoffrey Wilkinson as Ben Gunn and Walter Fitzgerald as Squire Trelawney.

Walter Fitzgerald injects some additional bluster and humor as Squire Trelawney while Dennis O'Dea (Dr. Livesy) and Basil Sydney (Captain Smollett) ground the movie with more natural, human performances. Geoffery Wilkinson as marooned loon Ben Gunn is, to be fair, a little much.

Treasure Island was not only Disney's first foray into the world of cinematic pirates, it was also the studio's first fully live-action feature. Despite its age and the above acknowledged flaws, it's still very entertaining.

I give Treasure Island seven out of ten mice:

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