Thursday, November 03, 2005

It Came from Netflix: Treasure Island (1999)

I’ve always liked sea stories, and the whim hit me to rent whatever live action versions of Treasure Island Netflix carried. Sadly, the signature version, the 1934 classic with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, is not yet available on disc. Hopefully the upcoming DVD of Boy’s Town will sell in sufficient numbers to convince the studio to release more of their family films from this era, such as Treasure Island, The Sea Wolf and Captain’s Courageous*.

[I wrote that last night, and then this morning learned that Captains Courageous, I film I otherwise hadn’t thought about for years, is due for release next January. Weird how those coincidences happen.]

With 1972 Orson Welles version also missing in action, I was basically stuck with this and the 1950 Robert Newton film. I started with the 1999 version, drawn by the casting of Jack Palance as Long John Silver. However, while I fully expected this to inferior to the 1950 version, it proved much worse than I had feared. Overall, the production looks like an inexpensive TV movie, the direction is entirely flat, and the script seems to have been rather tragically ‘updated’ for modern audiences.

For instance, when pirates raid the inn where young Jim Hawkins lives, he flummoxes them with bits of business right out of Home Alone. Indeed, to my complete lack of surprise, the film’s attempts at comedy proved utterly and woefully tiresome. Meanwhile, the fact that Jim regularly mixes it up with bloodthirsty, full grown pirates and always gets the better of them is just too moronic to justify our suspending disbelief. Once, maybe; but he does it like three or four times, and in extended scenes, too.

Probably the oddest bit was when, to my vast bewilderment, 12 year-old Jim has three brief run-ins with a jocular street whore (!!). I mean…huh?!

Aside from the script, the acting is often the film’s most problematic aspect. The kid playing Jim, Kevin Zegers, just isn’t very good here, although he’s had a busy acting career both before this and since. Zegers has an especially solid roster of appearances in genre films, including In the Mouth of Madness, Komodo, Wrong Turn, Fear of the Dark, The Hollow and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. He was also the lead in three Air Bud movies. Given the level of Rowe’s direction, which is entirely in line with his long resume of episodic TV work, it’s possible that Zeger’s shortcomings here were not entirely of his own making.

Meanwhile, the part of Billy Bones has been pumped up a good deal, apparently because the role is played by the film’s other (sorta) name actor, Patrick Bergin. He pretty much is the lead character in the movie’s first twenty minutes. Indeed, except for a brief appearance early on, Palance doesn’t make his entrance until over a third of the movie has gone by. Bergin makes a stab at bringing some life to the proceedings, but frankly seems weighed down by the knowledge that his career is in the cinematic dumpster. Once you’ve played a supporting part in garbage like Beneath Loch Ness, it must hit you that basically you’re just going to be taking jobs to pay the bills.

Palance, meanwhile, is sadly just too old and painfully frail to play Long John Silver. (Let me put it this way: This was made nine years after City Slickers.) He’s still got screen presence, and pulls off the impish scalawag aspects of the role, but at seventy is all too patently fragile for his ‘action’ scenes. The editing tries to disguise this fact, but not very successfully. Perhaps the lamest part is that the camera angles are all shot north of Silver’s signature peg leg, so that Palance doesn’t have to hobble around on one. Instead, he inadequately suggests his infirmity by pretending to limp around on a crutch.

Still, you’ve got to give a film extra points for including an expository title card saying “Three (gruelling) months later…” First, and most obviously, the word is ‘grueling,’ and second, why is it in parenthesis? In any case, crap like that is just going the extra mile.

Meanwhile, Jim has a couple of run-ins with a pirate named Mad Dog. At one point there’s a ghastly ‘comic’ chase scene with Mad Dog falling face down in a pigsty whilst pursuing the lad. Ho, ho. Then five minutes later (in terms of screentime), Jim overhears another pirate announcing that Jim “is the one who killed Mad Dog!” Which, I must admit, surprised me, as we never saw Mad Dog die. I mean, what the hell?

Indeed, as things progress it becomes increasingly clear that screenwriter/director Peter Rowe hadn’t felt very obligated to follow Stevenson’s book. By the end of the film, the novel has basically been tossed right out the window. So many characters are dead that the movie resembles a really bad production of Hamlet, and the corpses strewn about are so numerous that they suggest a very lumpy carpet.

This latter bit follows a gunfight that is just retarded. First, in order to make the gunfight work, the crew of the ship has been ridiculously reduced (this might also be due to budget constraints) to the point where apparently the entire crew of the large ship had been perhaps a dozen people. This allows for the pirate and non-pirate forces to be roughly equal, which is mandated by the script if not common sense.

However, they didn’t really have ‘gunfights’ back in the days of flintlock pistols and rifles. Aside from being woefully inaccurate (no rifling in the barrels, among other issues), the rate of fire was such that after the first volley guns were inevitably abandoned for close order fighting with blades. This doesn’t happen here, and they pretty much ignore the fact that the fight we see lasting under five minutes would have taken a good twenty at least had the guns been reloaded in real time.

Most annoyingly, all the good guys in the book (the Doctor, the Squire, the Captain) here are trying to steal Jim’s portion of the treasure. Whatever. I can only imagine two reasons why a hack like Rowe would feel justified in rewriting Stevenson. One was to make an oft-told story ‘fresh.’ However, that ignores the fact that there’s a reason it’s an ‘oft-told story.’

The second possibility is that Rowe, like so many would-be artists these days, might have felt the material had to be ‘updated’ and made more ‘realistic’ for today’s wiser, smarter audiences. (See the hilariously awful Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter, for example.) Thus the representatives of bourgeois English society turn out to be far more corrupt than the pirates themselves. Yawn. This is even worse, as it explicitly suggests that an undeservedly smug Rowe thought he was ‘improving’ on Stevenson’s book. If so, sir, than frankly you are an ass.


At 9:11 AM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

Teen blogging about staying tuned with friends
Nearly three in five school-age teens with Internet access have created online content, including Web pages with artwork, photos and stories -- and about a fifth have their own blogs, which also allow friends ...
Just like so many Americans my friend loves the clubs and club music lyrics so he went ahead and built an awesome website about club music lyrics. When he's in high spirit he goes to the site and start reciting all his favorite club music lyrics. Says it's good for the heart. Guess what? I gave it a shot and it works great!

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's another nineties TV version, financed by Turner that's pretty decent, IIRC. Julian Glover played probably the best screen version of the doctor character, most of the supporting cast was semi-famous, and Charlton Heston was a surprisingly good Silver. good location shooting too.


At 10:48 AM, Anonymous John Bohlke said...

What, no muppets? It is somewhat live action. The fact that I can remember very little about it probably has no correlation with its level of quality.

At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Cobracmdr said...

I believe in the original book Silver did in fact hobble around on a crutch rather than have a peg leg.


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