Treasure Island Review
Just when you thought that the whole pirates on the high seas thing had been done to death there comes along another movie. Based this time on a well-respected piece of literature rather than an amusement park ride and with an excellent cast of actors, it would be right to expect great things for this film. Unfortunately things go wrong right from the start. As a “Made for TV” movie it was written and shot as 2, 1½ hour programmes and has not been re-edited when released on Blu-ray. I am reliably informed by my resident literary expert that it follows the original Treasure Island book (Written in 1881 by Robert Louis Stevenson as a serialised children’s story) very closely. This is a good thing if you are studying the book as part of school project but as part of a film narrative it does make it somewhat ponderous and even confusing at times.
Director Steve Barron is rather better known for directing music videos, including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. His only major feature film works comprise Teenage Ninja Turtles and Coneheads, neither considered to be ground breaking cinema. To be fair, he has not done a particularly bad job, it’s just not up to the best in family movies. The main issue is that it is too slow moving for today’s youth and not gory or realistic enough for older viewers. It sits in that horrible middle ground, failing to please any camp.
The basic premise is well known. Long John Silver seeks to find the treasure he considers rightfully his after Captain Flint throws him off his ship. A young lad called Jim Hawkins (Toby Regbo) comes into possession of the treasure map following the death of Captain Flint but through his naivety is soon reduced to nothing more than a cabin boy on board the ship that heads out to recover the booty. The one legged Long John Silver connives to bring his old shipmates on board and soon has them in positions of authority, bringing about a silent mutiny.
The cast is terrific. Eddie Izzard makes an entirely convincing Long John Silver, from his tattoos right down to his missing appendage. He seeks the high life, travelling in sleek carriages walking amongst the upper classes in Georgian society and sees the missing fortune as his path to luxury and possibly even acceptance. His crew however have baser instincts. No doubt their share of the plunder will be flowing down the gutters of Bristol taverns and distributed between ladies of negotiable affection faster than an Essex lottery winner can squander their fortune on diamanté encrusted superficial pleasures.
The other main proponents of the film include the Captain of the Hispaniola played by Phillip Glenister and Squire Trelawney by Rupert Penry-Jones. Trelawney is the man that Hawkins is introduced to by family confidant Doctor Livesey (Daniel Mays) and who finances the voyage, buying the ship and engaging the captain and crew. His greed however soon brings discord to the enterprise and the age old story of the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor is played out on the high seas. Donald Sutherland plays a major role, but appears little in the film. A pity, as his occasional scenes are a joy to watch.
The main sub plots revolve around Ben Gunn – a survivor of the Flint’s crew and also Jim Hawkins’ widowed mother. While he runs around Treasure Island daubed in war paint and skinning goats, she is befriended by the wife of Long John Silver at his behest. There are some clumsy leaps between the 2 stories, as this is much easier to do in a book than on film.
The first half of the movie sets up the story and sees the crew reach the island. Mutiny is in the air and no one knows who to trust. Despite the occasional fight, a keel hauling and plenty of buccaneering, the speed of the film is quite slow. When first shown on Sky with adverts every 12 minutes or so, many viewers commented that it felt even slower. Fortunately for Blu-ray viewers adverts are limited to a few trailers at the beginning. Things do go wrong however when we get to the crossover between the 2 parts of the presentation. No effort has been made to join the sections together, so we get treated to 2 minutes of spoilers, a few credits and then a pointless catch up of the first half. This is despite the disc offering the option to watch either the sections individually or as a complete movie. This is extremely disappointing and really does spoil the already stilted flow of the film.
Glenister’s Captain captures the role extremely well. His portrayal as the man of the sea battling with the Squire fits the bill nicely. The Doctor eventually emerges from his shell starting as the mourning, slightly limp land lubber and morphing into a hardened fighting man, willing to do whatever needs doing to safeguard the fate of his friends.
The majority of the second half of the film moves with a little more pace. Set mainly on the island and featuring heavily the battle between the mutineers, the Squire’s team and the almost supernatural presence of Ben Gunn. Who will win out through the heat and flies to bring home the booty?
A number of obvious gaffes have crept through to release, including the use of a hurricane lamp around 100 years before they were invented, muskets with a range maybe 10 times what was actually achievable and the mysterious rotation of the 1st mate as he is keel hauled. I am no expert of correct pirate attire during Georgian times, but could be persuaded the outfits are correct for the period.
As with many stories of the era aimed at children, Treasure Island is a moral tale. We all know that the outcome of the story will see the good guys win, we are just not entirely certain who they might be. The sub plot featuring Jim’s mother and John’s wife could have been fleshed out somewhat towards the end, as we just seem to lose interest in them. The same goes for a number of other characters we meet and soon discard along the way, including Blind Pugh and Billy Bones. Their performances are strong, but the storyline is brutal in its treatment of some minor characters in its pursuit of limiting numbers to a reasonable level.
Had this film been a 15 with a little more blood and guts, it may have worked better. The reasons for keeping it as a 12 are obvious, as this was based upon a children’s book and many would have felt cheated with such a viewing restriction. Unfortunately as a 3 hour film, only the most ardent or maybe vegetative kids will still be watching by the end. The story does not however reach a warm and fluffy ending. Quite what the future for Jim, his mother or Long John Silver is uncertain, but don’t expect to see a Treasure Island Franchise in the same vein as Pirates of the Caribbean.
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