Monday, 29 April 2013

Review - The Island at the Top of the World (1974 - Dir. Robert Stevenson)

If you're a lover of matte shots then pop along to NZPete's blog where he tirelessly showcases the best in matte paintings. That's where I saw a shot from this film that prompted me to give it a watch. Yes, it's a Disney film, but it must be relatively obscure because I'd never heard of it.

Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden in top quality eyebrow raising form) is an explorer trying to find his son. He gets news that his son was investigating a mysterious island somewhere in the arctic, a place where whales go to die. So Sir Anthony gets his team together, including archeologist Prof. Ivarsson (David Hartman), comedy French Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin) and fake Inuk, Oomiak (Mako). (Couldn't they have got that guy out of Atanarjuat, he might have even done a few scenes haring around as nature intended. Then maybe Agneta Eckemyr would have joined in too with all of the naked frolicking. Ahem. Need to remember that this is a Disney film.)

Strangely the film that this strongly brings to mind is The Evil Dead. I'd better explain. Sam Raimi threw so many filming techniques at The Evil Dead to get his vision across. The Island at the Top of the World does the same thing: matte shots, rear projection, green screen and miniatures all feature, flitting between techniques from shot to shot. It all gives it a homemade hand-crafted feel that I can't help liking.

The mattes by Alan Maley are pretty impressive. They give the sets and landscapes a lavish feel that would have cost a fortune to actual build. Here are a few examples for your delectation:

(For a comprehensive discussion on the effects in this film head to NZPete's. I don't have the space, or for that matter the knowledge to cover them properly. But they're great.)

The miniature shots of the Hyperion, their airship, are occasionally stunning but sometimes a bit wobbly and Monty Pythonesque. Both are fun so it's not really a problem. (As for the killer whales...) My favourite shots are of the Hyperion navigating through mountains in the fog and remind me of an episode of Thunderbirds where Thunderbird 2 was flying through a similar landscape. Brilliantly atmospheric shots.

The story does its job in getting us from one beautiful location to another. It also gives the lead actors a chance to wear some beautiful sweaters. For a Disney film they were pretty brave to have a fair few of the actors not speaking English and not subtitling them. At times they rattle on for ages but it's all clear what's happening due to body language and context. It's mildly amusing to make up your own translations too. Have a go if you feel that way inclined.

The Island at the Top of the World is a nostalgic trip into a land jam-packed with old-school special effects. The music caps off the nostalgic feel. (As with A Bay of Blood, I could sit and listen to the music on the DVD menu for ages.) Perfect rainy day fodder, but fun nonetheless. Way better than the low budget sequel The Island Round the back of the Happy Shopper in Greasbrough too.

If you like this you could also try:
The Land That Time Forgot, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Island at the Center of the World.

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