Talkin’ Oldies: The Island at the Top of the World (1974)
The Disney studios rarely enjoyed the same success with their live-action films as their animated ones. If asked to name their favourite Disney live-action movie most viewers would probably choose Mary Poppins, directed by Robert Stevenson in 1964 and winner of four Oscars, including a Best Actress award for Julie Andrews. There have been other worthwhile live-action entries from the studio down the years – The Swiss Family Robinson, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea among the more notable titles – but for every hit there seems to be at least one or two misses.
The Island at the Top of the World is a 1974 Disney entry which, like Mary Poppins, is directed by Robert Stevenson. The film is based on a novel by Ian Cameron entitled The Lost Ones; a rather good adventure book for older kids featuring Arctic exploration, lost civilisations and the usual derring-do in the Jules Verne mould.
The film alters the book’s modern day setting, shifting events back to Edwardian times, but otherwise remains relatively faithful to its source material. It has somewhat divided critics over the years… some have been harsh towards the film, dismissing it as old-fashioned and dull, while others have praised it as a rousing exploration adventure. In all fairness this is one of the better live-action movies from the Disney folks and certainly doesn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of any negative buzz.
Elderly London aristocrat Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) sets off on a dangerous expedition to the Arctic in search of his long-lost son Donald (David Gwillim). Donald ran away from home following a heated argument with his father and the last anyone heard of him he was heading further north, into an inhospitable frozen wilderness, in search of a mystical island “where the whales go to die”.
Sir Anthony recruits Professor Ivarsson (David Hartman), an expert in ancient Norse folklore, to be part of the search party. They journey north aboard a huge airship, built and piloted by eccentric Frenchman Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin). After many adventures, the explorers eventually discover a lost colony of Viking throwbacks living deep in the unexplored Arctic wastes, hidden from the rest of the world and able to survive because the valley in which they live is heated by volcanic materials.
Young Donald has been residing among this Viking community since his disappearance and has even fallen in love with a Norse girl named Freyja (Agneta Eckemyr). Alas, the arrival of his father’s search party causes trouble when the Viking elders vote to kill these troublesome intruders to keep their existence a secret.
The Island at the Top of the World benefits from solid performances, an interesting and exciting plot and an unusual setting. Only the weak special effects let it down in places, with obvious back projection work during the airship sequences and a rather fake-looking volcanic eruption at the climax.
Sinden is handed a rare leading role as Sir Anthony and seizes the opportunity with a convincingly stubborn, stiff upper-lipped performance. Good support is provided by Hartman as the accompanying Norse expert, Marin as the slightly ‘cuckoo’ French captain, and Japanese character-actor Mako who plays a friendly Eskimo hoodwinked into joining the expedition.
Events move along briskly, keeping the viewer engrossed throughout. The story is constantly absorbing and filled with a winning sense of adventure. Things briefly slow down in the middle section, where much of the Viking dialect has to be translated by Hartman’s character… the task of listening to it in one language, then again in English, becomes slightly laborious. However, this is only a minor quibble and certainly not enough to ruin one’s enjoyment of the film.
If you’re looking for a family movie that is entertaining and well-made – but perhaps something a bit different from the norm – look no further. The Island at the Top of the World fits the bill and then some.
FMV Rating *** ½