Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In Search of the Castaways was a major Disney release given every measure of support from
the Disney empire - a TV show was dedicated to promoting it, the story was serialized in the Sunday
Funnies, the works. Hayley Mills is as charming as ever and the picture pleased kiddie audiences,
but in retrospect it doesn't show much personal involvement from Disney,
produced as it was at arm's length in England.
As a "second tier" Disney DVD release, the DVD is somewhat embarrassing, with an unimpressive
flat transfer packaged without the usual Disney care. It doesn't resemble the dazzling popcorn
movie that we loved in 1962.
Mary and Robert (Hayley Mills and Keith Hamshire), the children of the long-lost
Captain Grant, plead with Lord Glenarvan (Wilfrid Hyde-White) to renew a search for him. Initially
disbelieving, Lord Glenarvan listens to his son John (Michael Anderson Jr.) and Jacques Paganel
(Maurice Chevalier), a geologist who discovered a note from Captain Grant in the belly of
a shark. The group sets out to find the lost captain on Glenarvan's yacht Persevero II,
unsure exactly how to interpret the cryptic scrawls on Grant's note.
In Search of the Castaways is an amusing kid's movie featuring a battery of episodic thrills
that have since been far outdistanced by modern special effects. Some setpieces have practically
been remade, as with the hurtling "bobsled" ride through an ice cave that shows up in a different
form in Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The actors have spirit and the
script is okay - but the film overall has a packaged feel, and some dated content. The story is a
Jules Verne original, apparently part of his "pirate adventure" line of fiction, of which
Light at the Edge of the World is
a much more adult example.
Robert Stevenson is a director with solid credits but the real auteur of In Search of the Castaways
is special effects man Peter Ellenshaw. Almost the entire film is one kind of effect or another,
with setting after setting expertly faked through matte paintings - the Andes mountains, a Maori
village in New Zealand, oceanscapes, a flooded Argentine Pampas - all of it. The movie is the 1962
equivalent of today's GreenScreen digital films: More often than not, the actors are emoting in
front of a sodium vapor screen for a background to be added later, or on a small set that will
later be augmented on all four sides by Ellenshaw's excellent matte paintings. All of the exterior
dialogue scenes are shot on interior stages.
The drawback to this is that the movie seems to exist in a painted nowhereland - the suspension of
disbelief disappears even more quickly than in modern effects movies, where a fast pace and clever
storytelling is necessary to overcome the draggy feeling that all we're seeing is an animated
cartoon. The rescuers crisscross the globe but never seem to go anywhere, as the story is pared down
to almost nothing. They go to Chile, which seems to be basically uninhabited - the plot skips right
from the ship at sea to a line of burros snaking up into some painted mountains. The episodic adventures are
treated like attractions at Disneyland. The Europeans hardly get their hair mussed
and only interact with the few "natives" we see long enough to be confused by their strange languages.
When they do make contact, it's a minimal connection with noble savage types, like the bizarre
"Patagonian" who takes them from the Andes to the Argentine plains. He's a stern, silent savage until
a single smile from Hayley Mills melts his heart.
It's the kind of movie where we know we're in Chile because the cast, who have no affinity for
anything Latin American, are unaccountably wearing serapes and indian clothing, the kind of rustic outfits
that the wealthy of the time wouldn't be caught dead in. Maurice Chevalier
might as well say, "Know you know I am een Chee-lay, bee-cause I am wear-eeng my fun-nee hat! Ho ho!"
The closest we get to learning anything is seeing a real Maori 'challenge' dance, the kind where the
warriors make outrageous faces. This is of course milked for easy comedy, and I remember the audience
in 1962 laughing their heads off. The Maoris have no
function except to act as standard faceless savages, no differerent from natives in old
Tarzan movies. Like the
electrified ship's hull in
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,
a burning rope turns the deadly natives into harmless comedy relief. "Fun-nee! Ho! Ho!"
There are some really nice things to appreciate in In Search of the Castaways. The flooded
plain has a fanciful quality of a European tall tale about the strange New World, and the rescuers'
time spent living in the branches of floating tree are the makings of a kid's dream. For a movie
that is in some ways cheap, the use of a real jaguar prowling through the huge tree makes for a
number of arresting images. George Sanders' villain isn't very interesting, but an almost
unrecognizeable Wilfrid Brambell
(A Hard Day's Night) is nothing
short of wonderful. He plays Old Bill Gaye, a bewhiskered prisoner who's more than a little stir-crazy.
The main casting is amusing as well. Hayley Mills looks a tad tired of forever being a sweet-faced Disney
child. Her "romantic" scenes with a very young Michael Anderson generate interest, even though
the movie isn't about to let them even think they can escape adult supervision. Wilfrid
Hyde-White is fine as the millionaire patron of the crazy expedition, even though the script can't
decide if he's competent or a tiresome fuddy-duddy. Keith Hamshire makes little impression as Hayley's
little brother, and his voice may be dubbed by the same artiste who did Martin Stephens in
Village of the Damned - if the
alien moppet from that film had an older, human brother, he might look like this.
The star of the show is Maurice Chevalier, whose brand of optimistic Gallic whimsy now seems a
liability. He basically mugs and acts cute for no particular reason and we're supposed to assume
he's adorable - but then again he behaved like that in all of his post- Gigi roles. Essential
to the Disney formula then, and the biggest drag now, are the several songs by the Sherman Brothers
that remind us we're watching mindless family entertainment. Nobody's ever allowed to
take the danger and jeopardy of the story seriously, which is the film's greatest fault - a much
better balance was had in the far superior
Journey to the Center of the
Earth - which also made room for a couple of silly songs.
Or perhaps In Search of the Castaways needed to take reality even less seriously, like a Baron
Munchausen story. For a few moments it seems to be hitting the perfect notes for an
action attitude that wouldn't become common for decades. Skidding through ice caves, skirting
bottomless cliffs and crossing shaky ice bridges on an unlikely boulder, our heroes act as if they're
in no danger of being dashed to bits at any second. They even make droll Munchausen-like asides as to
the absurdity of it all. Hayley leads the group in leaning left and right to steer the rock like a sled.
It's fun! In 1962, this cavalier attitude to danger was exhilarating and funny. That attitude is now
commonly applied to all action genres. Shooting people is just another light thrill, to be followed by
a flip quip. We wish there were more thrillers with real consequences again.
Disney's DVD of In Search of the Castaways is an okay disc to throw on the player for the kids,
but even they will recognize that it isn't very high on quality. The menus are ugly and there are no
extras (but there is, of course, a promo that pops up first thing). The flat image is just an okay
transfer of an unrestored film element that doesn't maintain a proper contrast balance for the dozens
of Ellenshaw matte paintings - the first shot of the Persevero II looks very fake because it is
far too light. The same thing happens in a shot of the Maoris pushing the Castaways into their cliffside
prison: The blend between a backdrop sky and a painted sky is much lighter than
it should be, and shows up the shot's fakery.
Most Disney movies at this time were shot 1:66 for eventual use on television, but the transfer here
appears to not show the full frame left to right, resulting in an amorphous non-aspect ratio that
doesn't matte off well on a 16:9 monitor. The audio is monaural. For a studio that prides itself
on its film heritage, it is more than a little disappointing that Disney doesn't afford the same
lavish restoration effort - or any restoration effort - on its lesser features. As it stars Hayley Mills,
In Search of the Castaways is neither obscure nor one of their minor titles!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
In Search of the Castaways rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 2, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson