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The Island at the Top of the World: 30th Anniversary Disney DVD Review

The Island at the Top of the World (1974) movie poster The Island at the Top of the World

Theatrical Release:
December 20, 1974 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Robert Stevenson / Writers: John Whedon (screenplay), Ian Cameron (novel)

Cast: David Hartman (Prof. John Ivarsson), Donald Sinden (Sir Anthony Ross), Jacques Marin (Captain Brieux), Mako (Oomiak), David Gwillim (Donald Ross), Agneta Eckemyr (Freyja), Gunnar Öhlund (The Godi), Lasse Kolstad (Erik), Erik Silju (Torvald), Rolf Søder (The Lawspeaker)

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The year is 1907, the place is London, and wealthy, eccentric Englishman Sir Anthony Ross plans to embark on an adventure.

When The Island at the Top of the World opens, Professor John Ivarsson (David Hartman), an American archaeologist, abruptly meets with Ross (Donald Sinden) to discuss this unexpected mission. Reluctantly and without much choice, Ivarsson is soon setting off with Ross on an immediate expedition to the Arctic,
on an improbable journey to find Sir Anthony's missing son.

The only information they have is that Ross's son Donald was in search of a fabled whale graveyard in an unchartered land somewhere north of Scandinavia. While the mission's aim seems starkly unfocused, its mode of transportation is empowering. That's because they are flying in the Hyperion, a cutting-edge dirigible piloted by Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin), an animated Frenchman who is only now unveiling his spectacular invention.

With a bit of deception, Ross adds to his search party the great Oomiak, a fearless Esikmo guide who braved the Arctic with Ross's son before his disappearance. Rounding out the crew of the Hyperion is Captain Brieux's cute French poodle. The fluffy dog, who takes a liking to Oomiak, provides the closest thing to comic relief in this stiff production.

Englishman (Donald Sinden), Frenchman (Jacques Marin), and American (David Hartman) set off on a fantastic voyage. Another 'rion' for Mako in his second Disney film.

Ross remains confident that he can find his longlost son, in the face of a daunting climate and practically no guidance. Against these odds, it appears that they may be on the right track when they encounter an undiscovered world of semi-barbarian Vikings. One of these is Freyja (Agneta Eckemyr), a pretty girl that knows Donald and can speak perfect English from his teachings.

Where The Island at the Top of the World fails its audience is by making Ross and company's unlikely adventure far less interesting than it should be. At each of the film's turns, the proposterous is taken in stride, a luxury normally afforded to knowingly wacky Disney comedies. In this seemingly serious story, though, unflinchingly accepting the coincidences makes it hard to submit emotion and be genuinely concerned with the characters and their journey.

Even if the film didn't demand so much leeway in the story department, the characters are problematically lacking in a quest for sympathy. Even for a noble goal, Ross's connivery seems distasteful. His counterparts are equally uninteresting, as the French captain is simply a pompous caricature and Professor Ivarsson's everyman resorts to nonchalant narration, monotonously spouting out his wisdom about ancient cultures without the tiniest bit of enthusiasm.

Ivarsson and Ross show their sweaters off to their new Viking friends. This guy's not a big fan.

Probably the most likable character in the lot is the unusual Oomiak. The Oscar-nominated Japanese actor Mako, who made his film debut in Disney's The Ugly Dachshund, revels in his broken English and makes good use of his range of facial expressions and manmade sound effects.

No other cast member stands out, at least not for good reason. Donald Sinden hams it up with overacting, furrowing his brow and delivering the simplest of lines with an unncessary drama and superficial intensity. On the other hand, David Hartman is so reserved and low-key that he fades into the background in spite of the top billing. Together, it's as if the two leads are in separate movies altogether.

On paper (as in the source material, Ian Cameron's The Lost Ones), this adventure might well play better, as many of the film's shortcomings are in its execution. Visual effects are generally poor, even taking into account the pre-digital environment of '70s cinema. Some strings are evident on the dirigible, and the depiction of fire in volcanoes and elsewhere ranges from unconvincing to plain hokey.

Two beards and a blonde (Agneta Eckemyr). Brrr. Baby, it's cold outside!

Director Robert Stevenson, the man behind twenty Disney films including widely embraced comedy hits like The Absent Minded Professor, Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, ventures into a new domain here and his winning hand can't do much to make this adventure as interesting as, in theory, it should be.

Island doesn't waver in particular places, but rather the whole affair seems undercut by shortcomings. Beyond the ice, the beards, and the unsurprising escapes from unthreatening peril, there is perhaps the film's greatest weakness:
clunky dialogue, much of which is delivered in Old Norse and then translated (or not), making the unlikable characters' plight even more tedious, especially for the younger viewers this might or might not have been aimed at.

This straight-faced adventure greatly differs from the winning formula comedies that Disney was putting out in the '70s, and as such, was one of the studio's most highly-anticipated productions of the decade. It aspires to be a grand fantasy spectacle in the vein of Jules Verne's writings and Walt's cinematic adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unfortunately, Island seems more like apt material for "Mystery Science Theater 3000" than exhilarating adventure or genuine Disney entertainment.

Buy The Island at the Top of the World from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital Mono (English, French)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: September 7, 2004
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

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VIDEO and AUDIO

Disney's DVD release presents The Island at the Top of the World in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and for the first time, the film is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The opening credits screens are soft, grainy, and plagued with scratches and imperfections.
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Though things get quite a bit better after that, the transfer is still heavily affected by imperfections (print flaws and what appears to be compression artifacts) and a mixture of softness and grain, particularly in the first half.

Long (distance) shots are usually more problematic, and grain is most apparent on the dated-looking matte effects. Though the colors maintain richness, there does, at times, appear to be a bit of an orange or pink tint, making for some unnaturally bright fleshtones. Certain scenes even have a couple of unmoving flaws on the print for several minutes on end.

For some reason, the film begins to look considerably better in the second half. Artifacts and print flaws remain present, but are less distracting. Overall, it's an inconsistent, and often unsatisfactory video presentation. Though the DVD is a dual-layered disc, it just barely uses more data than a single-layered one. Less compression would have almost certainly made for a better transfer.

In the audio department, the film is given a Dolby Digital Mono track. The sound mix is less active than you might expect for an action film, especially in the first half of the film. Dialogue remains discernible at all times, but the range and depth of the sound feels limited, though it's unclear if this is because of the sound equipment or the transfer.

There are some signs of life in an Arctic storm, and things pick up for a fiery stake-burning and volcanic explosions. Generally, a film receiving special DVD treatment like this would get a 5.1-channel remix from Disney, so it's a bit surprising that this action film is left only with its original sound mix. Still, it's an adequate, if mostly underwhelming mix.

Winston Hibler hosts the 1974 Behind-the-Scenes Featurette. A composite shot in Special Effects Camera Dailies.

EXTRAS

It may well puzzle one why Disney chose to bestow The Island at the Top of the World with a 30th Anniversary Edition, but there's a few unexpected, but welcome bonus features provided here.

Most substantial is a 1974 Behind-the-Scenes Featurette. Producer Winston Hibler introduces and narrates this promotional piece (6:12), which offers insight into the film's story, design, and score by Maurice Jarre.
There are some fullscreen clips of the film, as well as on-set footage of production and some animation of unknown origin.

Special Effects Camera Dailies provides 3 minutes worth of effects shots directed by production designer Peter Ellenshaw. These dailies (which are silent, outside of the music they're set to) also show off compositing of live action elements with paintings done by Alan Maley. Short, but interesting to see.

As most catalogue titles don't include one trailer, it's great that Island includes a whole bunch. First is a 1968 Pre-Production Teaser, narrated by Island producer Winston Hibler. This short preview (1 minute, 48 seconds) lays out the film's general plot and showcases conceptual artwork for what promises to be "one of the truly great motion pictures of our time." This teaser, which offers surprisingly good video quality, shows how far in advance Disney was looking towards this movie, as well as some story elements that would change in the final film.

Conceptual art seen in the 1968 Pre-Production Teaser. The Island at the Top of the World DVD Main Menu.

Then there are 2 trailers (running about 5 minutes together), which proclaim the film comes in the "Walt Disney/Jules Verne tradition." The first of these also previews the featurette "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too", which accompanied Island in theaters.

There's even 4 TV Spots included, which further illustrate how the film was promoted. Each spot runs 30 seconds long, except the last which is just 10. These brief ads are a neat and simple inclusion, which we have hardly seen on DVDs for classic Disney films.

Last is a Still Gallery not announced on the package. You navigate through a collection of 50 stills, including conceptual artwork, costume sketches, production photos, and poster art. Most of the photographs are in color. One very minor drawback: there are no thumbnails, or easy way to access a specific photo.

The 16x9 menus show a bit more effort than usual, as they feature some interesting animation and illustrations, in addition to the typical score selections. The disc opens with a 1½-minute promo for classic live action Disney fare on DVD and video.

The view from the top of the world. Give me back my son!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Island at the Top of the World reminds us of what an adventure film was like thirty years ago; it lacks the gloss and polish of today's aspiring blockbusters. Island also lacks strong sympathetic characters, which coupled with uneven performances and a coincidence-filled course of events, makes for a film which reaches for spectacle and merely hits "fairly engaging."

Disney's 30th Anniversary Edition presents the studio's atypically serious adventure alongside a handful pleasantly surprising bonus features. There's room for improvement in the presentation of the film itself, but the anamorphic enhancement and extras make this DVD undoubtedly preferred to the previous Anchor Bay disc, and garners a recommendation for fans.

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Reviewed August 27, 2004.