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DVD SAVANT

In Search of the Castaways


In Search of the Castaways
Disney
1962 / Color / 1:37 adapted Pan-Scan / 98 min. / Street Date May 3, 2005 / 19.99
Starring Maurice Chevalier, Hayley Mills, George Sanders, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Michael Anderson Jr., Keith Hamshire, Wilfrid Brambell, Jack Gwillim
Cinematography Paul Beeson
Special Effects Peter Ellenshaw
Art Direction Michael Stringer
Film Editor Gordon Stone
Original Music William Alwyn, Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman
Written by Lowell S. Hawley from the novel Les Enfants du capitaine Grant by Jules Verne
Produced by Hugh Attwooll, Walt Disney
Directed by Robert Stevenson

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.

Synopsis:

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 2, 2005





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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