Sunday, July 12, 2015

Pirate Watch: Treasure Island (1950)

After watching Johnny Tremain, I've been curious as to how the other Disney live-action films of my youth hold up.  I won't likely be reviewing Son of Flubber for example, but some of the more "adventure" type titles I haven't seen in a while are on Amazon streaming, so...  here we go.

I don't know how many times I watched this one as a kid, but it was more than once.  And, I read the book when I was 10, which is really the perfect time to read Treasure Island.  At 10, I wasn't terribly interested in romance in my books, and there's absolutely none to be had in the novel, but I was interested in pirates and cutthroats and treasure chests and maps (my second grade teacher, two years prior, had known this so much she brought me a souvenir treasure map from The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, and I studied it like it was going to find me a genuine treasure).

The thing about Treasure Island, both book and movie, is that it's just shockingly and relentlessly dark.   The movie is almost entirely from the point of view of Jim Hawkins, a bright young lad and the perfect fiction-suit for us kids who wanted to imagine ourselves among buccaneers and swashbucklers.

The movie follows the book fairly closely, if recollection of a book I haven't picked up in 3 decades serves.  Pirates meet at the inn where Jim Hawkins and his mother live and work, murders and whatnot occur, Jim and some local gentlemen come into possession of a map and go in pursuit of treasure.  Foolishly, the doctor hires a ship's cook he trusts who turns out to be the shadiest pirate in fiction.

It's all a pretty straightforward story from a "then this happens, then this happens" with the big twist being that (spoiler) Long John Silver and the crew he's helped bring along with him are actually treacherous pirate-types.  But what's fascinating is really that the story is so much about Jim's weird relationship with Long John Silver as first a friendly cook who'll let him raid the apple barrel, and then as the ne'er-do-well pirate who overthrows the gentlemen who've chartered the vessel.  Silver lies to anyone and everyone, including (and especially) Jim - which is hard to sort out when you're a kid watching the movie and almost sweet when you're watching it as an adult.  Because even as Silver is using Jim as a hostage, you're never really sure where Silver and Jim stand as friends or foes.  But you wind up knowing that maybe Jim got to that cranky old murderer.  He'll still be a murderer out there on the high seas, but he was nice to a kid once.

It's a bit of an interesting coming-of-age tale as it's full of stabbing, shooting and other pirate-y stuff that I'm not sure today's white bread version of parenting would allow on their reading list or even the bloodless violence of this movie.  And maybe just because, at the heart of the movie, it doesn't have much nice to say about the adults around Jim, with his awakening really being as much about how, man, adults either don't know what they're doing, or they're lying through their teeth, and the adult that isn't doing either of those is few and far between.

This is some fairly dark, piratey stuff.  And as I have no kids, I don't know how I think you parents out there feel about skeletons used as pointers, the insecurity of homelife when you live and work in a bar at age 10, mutiny, marooning Ben Gunn (the original Golum), etc.. et al.  But it's still a pretty fun movie, even if it's ripe for an update that isn't Treasure Planet.


J.S. said...

A little scariness helps build a sense of wonder, I think. Also, a little darkness and scariness in movies gives kids a chance to be brave. Kids need a chance to be brave. They don't need to be traumatized, but they like to be brave.

The League said...

All I know is that I hope Raylan likes Pirate-Talk, because he'll be getting plenty, ye dirty swabs!

Jake Shore said...

This was my favorite of Disney's live action films. Great story, great performances. I read the book for the first time only a few years ago and was a little bit of a let down. The opening is great, but much of the book, for whatever reasons, Stevenson rushes past dramatic exciting moments or they take place "off screen" so to speak, while Stevenson goes in to great detail on dull moments like Jim making his way around the island in Ben Gunn's rowboat. It's weird.

I agree with J.S. If my kids are any measure, a reasonable amount of danger or scary is good, so long as the bad guys get their comeuppance. My oldest boy liked me to make up bedtime stories that starred him. One of these tales involved the two of us walking around the mall. I told him to wait for me on a bench while I went into Foot Locker (and yes, I am a bad parent in the story). While he's sitting there, a "bad guy" comes and grabs him or steals something from him (I don't remember). Anyway, Batman swings down, punches the villains' lights out and saves the day. My son, however, was not satisfied with this ending. He added his own climax, in which Superman shows up after Batman's capture and proceeds to pound the living pulp out of the bad guy. My boy was very insistent on this ending in whatever iteration I told this story. To him, the bad guy had to be beaten so bad as to never be physically capable of harming anyone again.

Or maybe he was just trying to show his dad how to do his job.

The League said...

That's remarkably telling of the kind of security kids are looking for - a removal of ambiguity in the form of Superman. I can get behind that. I'll be babysitting the new nephew at some point, so I need to get some of this sorted out. There's probably a comic story in there somewhere that could explore Bruce Wayne's permanent reaction to bad guys needing their teeth removed and why he gets mad at Superman for not doing so.

Yeah, I haven't read the book since I was 10 or so, so its hard for me to say how it stacks up, which is why I won't re-read the book any time soon. The movie is pretty great, and I believe it won some Oscars, but I'd have to check.