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If you asked me to give an example of a Disney film that is of the adventure genre, I would have to say: The Island at the Top of the World.
Based on a novel by Ian Cameron, this film is so Jules Verne-like in terms of its adventure. The story just reeks of adventure and not a minute goes by where you don’t feel a sense of adventure. Granted it’s not as fast-paced as later films such as the Indiana Jones franchise, but it’s still the most adventurous Disney film in my opinion. Without further ado, let’s begin the review of this film!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The movie opens up in the city of London during the year, 1907. An archaeology professor and expedition leader named Professor Ivarsson, played by future Good Morning America host, David Hartman,
enters upon the home of Sir Anthony Ross. Sir Anthony, played by the late Donald Sinden, has specifically requested to see Professor Ivarsson for an important mission: to go on an expedition to the Arctic. Why? To find Sir Anthony’s son.
Apparently Sir Anthony’s son, Donald, went away to the Arctic in search of a fabled island called the Graveyard of Whales. The place is said to be a mysterious, hidden island masked by clouds in the Arctic. It’s name the Graveyard of Whales because folklore says that it’s the place where whales of all species go to die. The place is so mysterious that even the Eskimos themselves fear it and believe that it’s guarded by evil spirits.
One day, after having arguments with his father about his future, Donald decided to go in search of this place and has since had no contact with Sir Anthony. So, Sir Anthony assumes Donald to be lost and wants to lead an expedition to find Donald. Sir Anthony wants Professor Ivarsson to accompany him as he feels that the Professor possesses archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, and geographical knowledge that may come in handy.
At first, Professor Ivarsson has no interest in the expedition as he feels that the Graveyard of Whales is purely fictional and a waste of effort to even attempt to go find. But, when Sir Anthony shows him a clue that Donald left behind: a whale bone that doubles as a map for Eskimos,
Professor Ivarsson relents and agrees to go on the expedition. So, the two of them head straight for France. Why France, you may ask? Well, apparently, the two of them aren’t the only ones to go on the expedition. In France, Sir Anthony has already paid for the services of a Captain Brieux, played by Jacques Marin, to join them. Why bring him along? Well, Sir Anthony intends to head to the Arctic not by boat, but via airship…and Captain Brieux has designed the world’s first airship, the Hyperion. And since he designed it, he’s also the one who will be in the pilot’s seat.
After a brief disagreement between Sir Anthony and the Captain regarding departure time, they’re soon on their way flying towards the Arctic.
The flight is uneventful besides some flippant disagreements between Sir Anthony and the Captain regarding the urgency of the mission and a scene where the Captain has to fix a broken propeller in mid-air!
As they get closer to the Arctic, we start seeing more icebergs and some awesome documentary-style shots of Arctic wildlife.
After that, they soon come to a small fort called Fort Conger, a sort of last pit stop on the way to the furthest North. The place is populated with Eskimos and run by a British guy who may or may not have a name. If he did, I’m not sure.
They land the airship there and Sir Anthony has a talk about Donald with the British guy in charge. The guy explains that Donald stopped here on his way to the Graveyard of Whales and was accompanied by an Eskimo named Oomiak. Sadly, Oomiak returned from the expedition without Donald with the explanation that they were attacked by evil spirits during a huge blizzard and Donald was nowhere to be found. Oomiak was so frightened of the incident that he doesn’t want to head that way again.
Oomiak is played by the Japanese actor whom the Nostalgia Critic is quite familiar with, Mako.
Now, Mako’s performance is the only main one in this film with whom I have a problem. He’s a Japanese playing an Eskimo which honestly doesn’t offend me since I’m of neither ethnicity, but I’m sure somebody (or bodies) might be offended. And he’s played as the stereotypical native: bad English, somewhat foolish actions, below the White man’s level of intelligence, etc. I honestly don’t blame Mako for this, rather I feel the fault lies with the the writers who wrote this part. Anyway, let’s continue.
Sir Anthony isn’t convinced with Oomiak’s story and actually tricks him into coming aboard the Hyperion with them when they head off again to find Donald. You can see that Sir Anthony is a man who’s willing to do anything to find his son, no matter how dubiously ethical it may be. But, he’s shown to not be hard-hearted as he promises to bring Oomiak back after he’s helped them find the location of his son.
As they fly further north, Professor Ivarsson notices in the waters a plethora of different kinds of whales all swimming towards one location: the first proof they have of the Graveyard of Whales possibly being real.
As they fly even further, they notice an island covered by a cloud, another sign of the supposed mythical island! Captain Brieux is hesitant to fly in the clouds as it could be unsafe, but Sir Anthony’s desire to find his son sways him. They fly into the cloud, but unfortunately, the strong winds and snow are no match for the Hyperion as they bash the Hyperion against the sharp, snowy cliffs. Oomiak, Professor Ivarsson, and Sir Anthony fall out of the airship while Captain Brieux is blown away with his airship to what appears to be his demise.
As they feel sad over the loss of their Captain and airship, the trio treks on by foot and soon discovers the fertile, green island fueled by volcanic activity that they’ve been searching for. The place seems civilized, populated by people, and even has buildings. Unfortunately, out trio are soon captured by the locals who appear to be Vikings. They dress like Vikings, look like Vikings, and even speak what Professor Ivarsson identifies as ancient Norse like Vikings (in reality, the actors playing the Vikings are speaking modern Nordic languages: Norwegian, Swedish, etc.)
Professor Ivarsson serves as a translater between the trio and the Vikings. Apparently, the Vikings think that the trio have come to invade their land. Professor Ivarsson explains that they’re just here to look for Donald Ross. When they hear the name of Donald, the Vikings get alarmed and one of them heads down to the village to warn somebody. The other Vikings then explain to the trio that Donald Ross is safe and sound and lives on a farm with a family. They agree to let the trio see Donald.
As they head towards the farm, we learn more about these Vikings. Apparently, they’re the descendants of a Viking expedition and have lived here for centuries. They’re totally cut off from the outside world and have a prophecy that invaders from the outside world would come to take over their land which explains why they’re cautious about the trio.
When they reach the farmhouse where Donald was staying with a Nordic father and his daughter, Freyja, played by Agneta Eckemyr, they discover Donald to be missing. Freyja has learnt English from Donald having taught her, so she explains to the trio that Donald has been taken by the Godi’s men.
The Godi is the high priest of the land and when he heard the news from that one Viking of the three invaders searching for Donald, he assumed that Donald is treacherous as well and ordered his arrest. Sir Anthony then insists to see the Godi, so that he could explain everything to him. The Nordic father and Freyja take the trio to the official Viking council to put forth their case.
The council takes place in a huge temple, lit only by torches and filled with statues of Norse gods.
There, Sir Anthony is reunited with his son, Donald, played by David Gwillim, and through translations between the leaders of the Viking council and Donald, Sir Anthony starts to explain that he’s come in peace only to find his son. The leaders of the council appear to listen to him until the red-robed Godi appears telling the council leaders and villagers that Sir Anthony is just telling lies and that all the “invaders” must be put to death.
Our “invaders” are then all tied to poles on a Viking ship that’s set on fire and put out to sea.
Luckily, they survive as Freyja swims ashore and saves them without the Godi and the villagers seeing. But, once they find out that the “invaders” have escaped, a
search party mob is underway to track down the “invaders” and dispose of them properly.
The rest of the film involves our “invaders” running away from the ensuing mob by traversing nigh the entire island. All this goes on while Sir Anthony and Donald patch up their differences that they had which caused this whole hullabaloo to begin with.
In the end, our “invaders” escape by staying on a floating piece of ice and trying to row it away from the island. They’re soon attacked by two killer whales, but fortunately, their lives are saved when the whales are shot with a gun. Who shoots the whales and saves our “invaders”? Why, Captain Brieux, of course!
After rescuing them, Captain Brieux tells our “invaders” that after the blizzard, he and his airship crashed to this particular part of the island. All is not lost though as he feels that the airship can still get them out of here if they eliminate all excess weight including the motors. This would make the airship a balloon that would float where the wind takes them, hopefully to nearby Greenland, after which they can figure out their plans from there.
Everyone board the airship, but sadly, this plan backfires as the wind changes and drives our “invaders” back to the volcanic island and into the pursuing mob. Mostly everyone in the mob is terrified at the sight of the airship and runs away, but the Godi takes action and starts firing flaming arrows at the airship. Our “invaders” manage to jump out of the airship in time before it crashes on the Godi and apparently killing him.
The end of the movie shows our “invaders” back at the village council where the leaders of the council apologize for everything and blame the Godi for doing wrong by leading the village to hatred and violence.
They allow the “invaders” to go back home on two conditions: that they never tell anybody about the existence of this island and that Donald stays behind forever. Naturally, Sir Anthony is super opposed to this, but all is settled when Professor Ivarsson volunteers to stay behind instead as he feels that this is an archaeologist’s paradise.
Farewells are bid and Sir Anthony, Captain Brieux, Oomiak, and Donald head back home while also taking Freyja with them as she and Donald have fallen in love. And that’s The Island at the Top of the World. Like I said, there’s only word to describe this film: adventure!
From the very beginning of this film, we’re dropped into a world of adventure without much anything else leading up to it. The film has all the requirements for an adventure: an ensemble cast heading on an expedition, a mysterious island, non-British cultures, non-White cultures, etc.
The acting is pretty good, with Donald Sinden’s just being the best stereotypical Victorian English man that you could possibly ask for. Mako’s performance, like I said, was not the best, but it’s more the writing’s fault than his.
The visuals are just amazing, especially shots of the Hyperion, and this movie definitely deserves to be seen on a big screen. The story does have a few weak points, but the enjoyment of all the other factors makes you forgive them or not even notice it.
I wish this movie were more well-known and recognized. Thankfully, Disneyland Paris had a recreation of the Hyperion airship in its park. If you haven’t seen this film, please go ahead and do so.
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
So, the final score for this film is 32/35 = 91.43% (A-) !
The next review will be posted on February 23rd.