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Hidden Treasures: Animal Treasure Island

by on October 10, 2009

It’s astonishing how many animated films are ignored by the general public – not just stateside, but everywhere around the world. While this situation has improved somewhat in recent years, there’s still a remarkable amount of material that slips under the radar. This series of blog posts is dedicated to unearthing and evaluating these lesser-known titles, both high and low quality. We will start things off with one of the earlier works of one of animations great masters:

Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Animal Treasure Island (with, as the box art proudly displays, Key Animation by Hayao Friggin’ Miyazaki ) is a decent piece of children’s animation that is likely to be heavily purchased by the very audiences who will least appreciate it. Aficionados will see very little of the master’s distinctive style here (though the movie does feature a strong, independent heroine who could justifiably be looked at as a predecessor of Nausicaa, Chihiro, etc). Additionally, those looking for a Treasure Island adaptation – even the ones who managed to enjoy the novel’s sci-fi and Muppet iterations – are likely to be disgusted by the butchering of the plot. The film’s real audience lies in families, specifically families with young children – I would not be at all surprised to learn that it has enjoyed a very healthy shelf life in Japan since its original release in the 70s.

The opening scenes play like the first few chapters of Treasure Island on fast-forward. Wander-lust ridden Jim is watching the Benbow Inn, along with Gran, his mouse friend, and a baby (relation unknown) called Baboo. The boring night is interrupted by the arrival of this film’s “Billy Bones”, an un-named cat sporting an eye-patch. This sinister figure demands a room, offering a gold piece as payment. He offers Jim more gold if the boy promises to keep an eye out for “suspicious seamen”.

Mere hours (minutes?) after the cat’s arrival, a group of suspicious seamen do indeed appear at the inn. The cat gives Jim a box, cryptically telling him to go into hiding with it – “and never come out.” Jim and Gran escape through the roof, and return later to find the cat gone and the inn ransacked. Angrily noting that there is no one left to pay for the damages to the inn (and, more importantly, to his model ship), Jim forces the box open, hoping to find money. Instead, he finds the map to the legendary Treasure Island, where the famous pirate Captain Flint is said to have stashed his treasure trove. At this point – and this is where the film completely drops it’s already wavering “adaptation” status – Jim and Gran set out to find the island in an adorable little home-made boat, with Baboo as an unwanted stowaway. Needless to say, they run into numerous complications, including Long John Silver, (a pig, here) captain of the Pork Sauté, and Kathy, Captain Flint’s young grand-daughter who is determined to have her grandfather’s treasure for herself. All this leads up to a surprisingly riveting showdown on – where else – Treasure Island.

In case I didn’t make it clear earlier, this movie is quite strongly skewed towards younger audiences. It is not painfully juvenile, but it’s fairly shallow. There’s nothing particularly deep or memorable here. This is not, however, as bad as it sounds. The movie is unambitious, but it’s charmingly so; it’s a piece of good, low-key fun for when you grow tired of watching stuff like Spirited Away or Pinocchio.

Jim is fairly believable as an adventurous youngster; his actions range from impossibly stupid to courageously inspiring, an easy character formula that I’ve yet to see fail. Kathy is interesting only for the first two-thirds half of the movie, where she is a free-spirited (though obviously juvenile) gunslinger. She becomes a little to prone to shout for help after the group reaches Treasure Island. The relationship between these two characters is sincere and believable, probably because so little seems to be expected of it. Jim’s relationship with Silver, on the other hand, is robbed of it’s celebrated nuances – Silver is here a generic (though funny) villain. Jim’s sidekicks Gran and Baboo are both practically non-entities, though not much could be expected of Baboo in the first place (and Gran does have an extremely talented voice actress, Eiko Masuyama). Silver’s animal crew provides the traditional funny animal backdrop that was at one time or another practically a requirement in all animated pictures. To be fair, though, they are pretty funny. The most notable among them being the gentle giant Otto (a walrus) and the hapless Baron (a Fox).

There are songs; one, sung by a child chorus, when Jim sets out, another serves as soundtrack while the Pork Sauté loots a series of ships, and a love song near the end that plays over gorgeous UPA-esque backgrounds. The first of these songs is torture, but the second and third are decent enough, in a “made-for-a-children’s-movie” kind of way. Miyazaki’s acclaimed visuals are not particularly noticeable here, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t look good. The human character designs (which are typical of that era – think “Future Boy Conan” and you’ll be on the right track) blend well with the more highly caricatured animal designs. Surprisingly little suspension of disbelief is required despite all the inter-species interaction. There are a lot of clever little visual ideas, as well – I liked the build of Pirate Island, a skull-shaped land-mass with a city built into it’s eye, and the ridiculously dinky but miraculously efficient boat Jim initially sets sail in is undeniably charming.

The movie’s dub is about what you’d expect – horrendous – which is a shame, as it ultimately prevents the film from finding any kind of success with it’s target audience in America (I know of very few ten year olds who can stomach subtitles). Still, the movie is far from awful, and those wanting to look at an example of Japan’s pre-90s animation industry could do a lot worse.

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