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Treasure Island (1950)
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!" It's the quintessential pirate song, and Treasure Island is the quintessential pirate movie, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel by the same name. When young Jim Hawkins (Bobby Driscoll) gets his hands on a pirate treasure map, he doesn't know at first what it is... but his friends certainly do, and before you can say "Ahoy!", Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey have commissioned a ship and crew to head out to the West Indies in search of the fabulous pirate gold buried on "Treasure Island." Jim, of course, wants to go along – how could he resist such an adventure? – and he's in luck. But a mangy crew of pirates is also keen to get their hands on the treasure map, and the treasure itself...
The true star of the film is not really young Jim, but the memorable character of Long John Silver. Played to the hilt by Robert Newton, with a piratical drawl, wildly flashing eyes, and a parrot named Captain Flint on his shoulder, he stands out among the more naturalistically-played characters such as Jim, the Squire, or the captain of the Hispaniola. Nonetheless, Newton carries off the role in good style; possibly his over-the-top rendition of the character works because the character is bigger than life to begin with.
Adult viewers will, of course, know that Long John Silver is not the mild-mannered, respectable ship's cook that he pretends to be at the beginning of the film... if not from reading Stevenson's novel, then just from the fact that the character has made its way into popular culture. Child viewers, however, may very well not realize this at first, and so their experience will be all the more exciting as they share Jim's ambivalence and then enthusiasm about John Silver.
Disney's version of the character of Long John Silver is actually quite substantial, even within the confines of a relatively short film. He embodies both mystique and peril, and despite his treacherous nature he never becomes a figure of complete evil. For Jim, he exerts a profound fascination: unlike the squire and the doctor, he treats Jim as an adult, entrusting him with secrets and letting him take on the role of a fellow seaman. Self-serving behavior, in that he wants to gain Jim's trust in order to exploit it? Perhaps... but perhaps there's more to it than that.
In modern times, Silver's character might well have been left as a cardboard evildoer, in order to hammer home the message "Don't trust strangers!" But then, is "Trust no one!" really such a great creed to live by? Certainly, in Treasure Island, Jim and his companions come out ahead by virtue of being willing to trust someone who has previously betrayed them, counting on the spark of humanity and affection that Jim's presence has ignited. By the end of the film, Jim has certainly gone through a tumultuous and dangerous series of events, but in return he's not the wide-eyed, naive boy that he was: he has learned the value of friendship, he has faced up to difficult challenges and stood his ground, he has learned to make decisions and take action on his own, and he has come to appreciate that a person might be more complex than just "good" or "bad." All this, without the film stepping aside from its straightforward adventure story to moralize in the least.
How does the film stand up for an adult viewer? Quite well, actually. It's an entertaining tale of swashbuckling adventure, and I found it to be fun to watch. This was Walt Disney's first live-action film, and for adult viewers, it's amusing to catch some of the little details that aren't quite right: watch out for a very fake seagull on a string, for tropical vegetation that's decidedly non-tropical (not surprising, given that it was filmed in England), and a sky-and-clouds backdrop with wrinkles in it. Still, these little details are almost more charming than distracting, given the overall slightly theatrical feel of the film as a whole.
Parents should note that many elements of Treasure Island are actually quite scary. For the youngest viewers who are used to G-rated fare, this is a good film to watch (at least the first time) with a parent. But in the end, I think that this is what will make the film even more captivating for the younger set: it balances threat with rescue and danger with reprieve, all while maintaining a consistently dramatic tone. In this way, the film is more dramatically consistent and engrossing than more modern children's films that rely on humor to counter the "heavy" parts of the plot.
This DVD release of Treasure Island is the complete, uncut version (96 minutes). In 1975, a theatrical re-release cut a number of the violent scenes in the film in order to qualify for a G rating. As I've noted, many elements of Treasure Island are in fact fairly scary... but these are essential elements of the film, and cutting them out to "lighten" the film would be artistic butchery. If we're to feel the tension of anticipating the pirate attacks, or feel genuinely anxious for the safety of Jim and his friends, we have to see the pirates as the threatening, dangerous murdering sort that they really are. Similarly, it's important to notice the contrast between the drunken, violent pirate crew and Long John himself... a disreputable character, but perhaps not an unredeemable one.
Considering that Treasure Island is more than 50 years old at this point, it does get some leeway in terms of wear and tear on the print. Nonetheless, it looks like the restoration done on the picture was minimal at best, which is quite disappointing. The print is very dirty, with numerous black speckles and spots appearing throughout the film; this is most noticeable in the opening sequence, and tapers off somewhat later on. There is actually not much noise at all in the image, but unfortunately the clarity that this affords is reduced by the heavy edge enhancement that's apparent throughout the film. On a few occasions there's a distinct fluctuation in color from one frame to the next, usually giving a slight reddish tint for a while until it changes back to normal.
The contrast is considerably heavier than the ideal; several nighttime scenes end up looking nearly completely black, with detail completely gone on any object in shadow. Daylight scenes, however, show good contrast and detail.
During most of the scenes, the colors look satisfactory and sometimes even look very good (which only serves to emphasize how much better the film would have looked with a proper clean-up job). The colors range from bright and natural to slightly muted, and remain clean with no bleeding.
Treasure Island is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is close enough to the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 to be acceptable.
The soundtrack for Treasure Island has been remastered in Dolby 5.1, and it does a respectable job, though not surprisingly it doesn't have much of a surround presence. At the least, the remastered soundtrack does provide a bit of spatial separation for the sound, though as a whole it does have the slightly flat sound I tend to associate with old movies.
The dialogue is fairly clear and always understandable; while the actors' voices exhibit a tiny bit of stridency or harshness, there's no distortion at all, even at the higher volume levels. I was pleased to note that the various parts of the soundtrack, including music, sound effects, and dialogue, are very well balanced, with each aspect of the track taking precedence when it should and remaining in balance with the other elements the rest of the time. All in all, Treasure Island's soundtrack could have been better, but especially for its age it comes across satisfactorily.
The DVD comes with trailers for several other Disney films, including The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Finding Nemo. Rather annoyingly, a long preview for The Lion King plays automatically when you put the disc in; fortunately, it's skippable. The menus are straightforward and easy to navigate.
Treasure Island is an entertaining film whose swashbuckling adventure story has aged very well. Adult viewers will enjoy it either for its nostalgia value or just on its own merits; I hadn't seen it before watching it on DVD, and I enjoyed it, though I do wish the restoration job had been more thorough. Younger viewers should find it particularly compelling, with thrills, scary moments, and an adventurous young hero. Parents will then find Treasure Island definitely worth picking up. It's recommended.