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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Robinson Crusoe
Robinson Crusoe
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG-13 // January 22, 2002
List Price: $32.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted February 17, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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It's said that a translated poem can be beautiful, or it can be faithful, but it can never be both. This works equally well as a rule of thumb for film adaptations of books, because there's nearly always some amount of revision that has to happen to successfully translate a book to the screen. As an avid reader, I find fidelity to the source to be a virtue in my eyes, but it doesn't outweigh the claims of making a good movie. But when it comes to questions of fidelity to the source, the film Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe makes for a very interesting case. If you've seen the movie and read the book, you will possibly have noticed that the storyline departs significantly from that of Defoe's novel. But at the same time, the film is actually more faithful to the original story than the novel itself. Wait... how can that be?

The film version of Robinson Crusoe uses a very clever conceit: a frame story shows Daniel Defoe, the author, reading the journal of the "real" Crusoe with an eye to writing it up as a novel. The film differs from the book in several important elements, most prominently in the beginning and the ending of the story, but the frame story provides an excuse for any departures from the storyline of Defoe's novel, because we're seeing the story of the original Crusoe, not Defoe's fictionalized character.

What's really interesting is that there really was a factual account that Defoe read and used as inspiration for his novel... and the film is highly faithful to this account, which tells the story of a Scottish sailor who was cast away on an island for five years before returning to tell his tale. So in this way, one can say that the film version of Robinson Crusoe is more faithful to the source than Daniel Defoe's own novel... in a manner of speaking, of course. In any case, it's one of the most clever methods of adaptation that I've seen in quite a while.

With Pierce Brosnan in the title role, it's surprising that this film hasn't received more press. While it's not going to earn him any award nominations, Brosnan's performance is entertaining. The screenplay manages to maintain a nice balance between modern ideas and 18th-century ones in the treatment of Crusoe's relationship with Friday. We get a glimpse of the worldview of the 18-century white man, who would automatically view himself as "master" and the "savage" Friday as heathen/slave/enemy, and the way that religion sets up conflicts where none need to exist; but the film is optimistic about the ability of individual people to overcome their own prejudices to find a common bond of friendship.

The film's main flaw is its pacing, which is very rapid to the point of feeling rushed. The frame story and the introduction of Crusoe is well-paced, but Crusoe's shipwreck and his first days, weeks, and months on the island are skimmed over in about fifteen minutes of on-screen time, even though these events are in many ways the most interesting part of the story, and are certainly crucial to setting up his frame of mind. The remainder of the film is similarly hurried. The film would have benefited either from a much more restricted focus, such as only a small portion of Crusoe's life on the island, or a longer running time (it's only 91 minutes) that would have allowed the filmmakers to develop the story more fully.

Video

Robinson Crusoe weighs in at slightly above average for its DVD transfer. The anamorphic 1.85:1 image has clear, attractive colors and good contrast. A touch of noise and the presence of fairly heavy edge enhancement both detract from the clarity of the picture, but overall it's fairly nice to look at.

Audio

If ever a movie were crying out for Dolby 5.1 sound, this is it. The Dolby 2.0 track that's included on the DVD would be adequate for a dialogue-oriented film... which Robinson Crusoe isn't. The shipwreck itself would be reason enough to want a 5.1 track, not to mention the possibilities of exciting weather and ambient effects later in the film. Alas, the 2.0 track offers a flat, center-channel-focused sound.

In addition to the missing surround sound, there's also a slight muffled quality to the overall soundtrack; it's not enough to interfere with understanding dialogue, but enough to take away the sharp edge of clarity. All in all, it's an average soundtrack that could have been much better.

Extras

The only special features on the DVD are a few previews for some of Miramax's minor titles.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed watching Robinson Crusoe; it was a fun, light viewing experience. It's not something that has much repeat viewing value, but it has a certain charm to it and is worth watching once. In other words, it's a great rental.
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