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The Island at the Top of the World

The Island at the Top of the World
Disney DVD
1974 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date September 7, 2004 / 19.99
Starring David Hartman, Donald Sinden, Jacques Marin, Mako, David Gwillim, Agneta Eckemyr
Cinematography Frank Phillips
Production Designer Peter Ellenshaw
Art Direction John B. Mansbridge, Al Roelofs, Walter Tyler
Film Editor Robert Stafford
Original Music Maurice Jarre
Written by John Whedon from the novel The Lost Ones by Ian Cameron
Produced by Winston Hibler
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Being a big fan of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Savant had high hopes for 1974's Island at the Top of the World. It promised the kind of fantasy adventure I loved as a kid. Unfortunately, the early 70s were not big years for that sort of film. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was so lacking in old-fashioned movie magic that I didn't bother seeing Ray Harryhausen's last two films in the theater. And after being told that Island was a dog, I stayed away from it, too.

Now able to catch up with it on DVD 30 years later, I find that I was advised correctly, as this Jules Verne-ish adventure to the North Pole is jam-packed with uninteresting special effects in service of a story that seems to have been reduced to nothing to save money. Not only is none of the old magic there, the Disney company seems to have lost all contact with it.


Professor John Ivarsson (David Hartman) is badgered into accompanying the brusque Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) and French balloonist Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin) on an arctic expedition to find Ross' lost son, Donald (David Gwillim). In short order they pick up Donald's eskimo friend Oomiak (Mako) and stumble into a fertile and temperate lost world above the arctic circle, a volcano-heated oasis of green named Astragard where descendants of ancient Vikings have lived for 1,000 years. They find Donald, but are quickly sentenced to death by the Viking elders.

Movies about giant dirigibles and voyages to far-off lands are always fun for big kids like Savant, and it takes an unusual lack of imagination to dull him on the concept. The inferior special effects design inIsland at the Top of the World is just the tip of the iceberg of its problems.

Even with the bad effects, the show might have been fine with better characters and more engaging actors. In Search of the Castaways is not exactly perfection in the screenplay department but Maurice Chevalier, Hayley Mills and several other stars bring it to life with their screen personalities. None of them came cheaply, something I can't say about the cast of Island. The bland David Hartman did much better as a host of Good Morning America than he did acting; the script doesn't give his Norwegian-American scientist any center of interest. Donald Sinden's one-note expedition leader is pushy and rude but not entertaining, and Jacques Marin (The Train, Charade, Forbidden Games) is a French stereotype equally underwritten. The film is desperate for a sense of humor.

The three of them embark on the most unimpressive 'Voyage of Imagination' imaginable, just three men in a (very small) tub, with no character backgrounds other than some verbal exposition. In Journey to the Center of the Earth the Edinburgh society and our heroes' place in it is well-defined; here we get a couple of coach interiors, a foggy street and the 'news' that all of Professor Ivarsson's affairs have been set aside so he can fly off to the northern regions.

The titular island borrows the idea from the Tarzan movies that whales have a secret burial ground, ignoring the fact that whaling became such a big industry around this time that few whales had to worry about such arrangements. Our heroes find Astragard easily after a brief stop-off at a trading post to basically kidnap Oomiak (Mako), the last person to see the lost son alive. Then they find the ancient Norsemen living as they did ten centuries earlier, in what looks like an Alpine Shangri-La. After a brief trial a chase begins, aided by the son's Norse girlfriend Freyja (Agneta Eckemyr). All events bear the predictable marks of story-by-committee.

Special effects had in general deteriorated by the middle 70s, with terrible work in films like Logan's Run and The Towering Inferno passed off as quality on a public that still wasn't very aware of how such things were done. It would take the smash combo of Star Wars and Close Encounters in 1977 to forever make static mattes and models on strings unacceptable. Disney had always kept their work at an extremely high level of quality, but even though it is supervised by their top man Peter Ellenshaw, Island at the Top of the World is a visual eyesore. Colorful, imaginative (to a degree) but a mess.

I think the problem is concept. Almost everything we see in the movie is a matte painting, with only the minimum of sets constructed when necessary, similar to this year's over-designed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  2 But the style of the paintings seems purposely designed to resemble hasty magazine illustrations. They're inconsistent, with some looking more realistic than others. What we see is a hodge-podge of flat artwork (sometimes with zooms) where we can frequently see broad brushstrokes. There are so many mattes and paintings in the film, that I'm tempted to conclude that the budget required the filmmakers to go with unfinished work part of the time. Scenes like the whale graveyard (on dry land!) and the meeting hall of the Norsemen look like rough test composites, not finished work. If there was a plan to stylize Astragard like illustrations in a kiddie adventure book, it doesn't work. There are plenty of ordinary green landscapes that look perfectly naturalistic. It doesn't help when the key mastershot of the Viking citadel tilts down to reveal a horde of citizens standing perfectly still. For that matter, there are plenty of shots where water doesn't move and a tremendous rope bridge stands rock-still when a Viking escort marches over it. All the scenes are painted, of course. 1

The balloon Hyperion is interesting enough in design, and the views of it in flight are certainly superior to the illusion-challenged fantasy airship in AIP's Master of the World twelve years earlier. But many of the shots show the ship moving as static artwork on a static background, and in most close shots support wires are visible, even when smoke and fog should make hiding them an easy task. It doesn't help that the script has the ship flying at foolishly low altitudes and navigating through narrow passageways (under an ice bridge, for instance) that no normal balloon airship could be expected to traverse. "It's easier to maneuver flying low," the Captain says.

The show also suffers from storyboard-itis, as it's locked into sequences of shots that don't work particularly well but can't be changed because, well, that would violate the storyboard. With 1,000 shot-panels tacked to a wall, it's easy to weed out all the difficult or expensive or inconvenient material and fool oneself into thinking that the story structure hasn't been harmed.

Curiously, Island at the Top of the World bears comparison to Irwin Allen's much-maligned remake of The Lost World from 1960, a film that really ought to be released in widescreen DVD. Yes, the dinosaurs are lizards and purists blanche at the idea of Jill St. John carrying a pink poodle into a prehistoric jungle, but Allen's film has a rich look that holds up stylistically even when things get silly. Along with the shared poodle (which in the first film at least barks at a dinosaur) there's a similar chase through a weird landscape. But the 1960 film takes us through a Disney-like grotto of fanciful caves, bridges made from dinosaur skeletons and narrow ledges above colorful lakes of molten lava. It's hokey but it has considerable visual interest. And when an actor of Claude Rains' caliber stares fearfully off-camera at some special effect, there's at least some conviction to the illusion.

Disney's DVD of Island at the Top of the World is an okay presentation of a mediocre adventure movie. The enhanced image looks sharp and colorful in non-effects shots, leading Savant to believe that the weakly colored and grainy effects scenes, were always so. Through much of the film there are a couple of odd dimples in the lower half of the frame that don't seem to be from any film element, unless the entire movie was run through an optical printer with a dirty lens. It looks like a transfer problem but I can't pretend to have a particularly informed opinion on the subject.

One plus for the movie is Maurice Jarre's music. The main theme isn't all that distinguished, but the background score is quite handsome.

The extras include a 1974 behind the scenes featurette that has an animated section speculating how the Vikings came to Astragard in the 10th century; perhaps this material was from a discarded feature prologue. There's a 1968 pre-production trailer and teaser showing that the movie was planned at least six years in advance. It proves that the post- Walt Disney organization did things the corporate committee way, and had to get some kind of approval for projects from higher sources. There are some trailers and TV spots, and an unrewarding selection of effects plates without mattes, or added smoke and fire effects.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Island at the Top of the World rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: featurettes, trailers, raw dailies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2004


1. The shot of the Viking buildings looks identical in style to concept art for the previous year's Lost Horizon remake. Stylistically, it looks as if every Island artist went off in their own direction, unsupervised.

2. Sky Captain is similar to Island at the Top of the World. If the Disney film were filled with picture-perfect images and shots crammed with hundreds of Vikings and dozens of boats, it would still be the same dull story, overbalanced by out-of-control effects work.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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