Monday, February 29, 2016

Island at the Top of the World ( 1974 )

" Where the whales go to die. All those great creatures from every sea, lying there, from the beginning of time. "

Island at the Top of the World, an adventure film from Walt Disney Studios, has fallen into oblivion just like the burial grounds of the whales that the heroes of the picture are searching for. 

The arctic graveyard turns out to be quite an amazing sight...and so does the film, which combines a fun and thrilling plot with an amazing visual theme. It takes place at the turn of the century and tells the story of an English aristocrat who employs the aid of a French airship captain and an American scientist to go to the Arctic to find his son, who went missing during an expedition to find the legendary whale burial grounds. In their quest for him, they discover a hidden island of Vikings untouched by civilization. 

Walt Disney Studios had made some stellar adventure films in the 1950s and 1960s such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, and In Search of the Castaways. However, after Disney's death in 1966, the studio was captained by a committee and the production values of their films declined drastically. 

Island at the Top of the World was the studio's attempt to recapture the glory days of Disney's live-action films and create an entertaining adventure picture for children and adults alike. As far as that goal was concerned, they accomplished it...but it took a few decades before the film found its audience. Island at the Top of the World was a dismal failure during its initial theatrical release and, even today, few Disney fans count it as a favorite. 

The reason behind this? The timing just wasn't right. Critics and audiences during the early 1970s wanted something more than an old-fashioned steam-punk style adventure film. Also, the actors are not as engaging as they could have been, even though they handle their parts very well, and watching the film, you get a feeling that it was hurriedly assembled. Had Walt Disney been alive during its production the cast would have been top-notch, and the special effects made better. In truth, the film was six years in production, so time was not an issue. As far back as 1968 the studio was planning storyboard drawings to create this adaptation of Ian Cameron's 1961 book "The Lost Ones". 

The primary disappointment was the use of painted mattes throughout the film. In spite of being excellently painted by Peter Ellenshaw and Alan Maley, they hinder the realism of the picture during the action sequences. A less heavy reliance on the blue-screen, and the use of miniatures for the villages and volcanoes would have been better. These are the only major flaws in the film, however. The sequences of the airship "Hyperion" sailing through the foggy skies were extremely well filmed for its time and Maurice Jarre ( Lawrence of Arabia ) composed a memorable score for Island at the Top of the World, using ancient Nordic instruments to add to the film's authenticity. 

Donald Sinden, David Hartman, and Jacques Marin portray the principal characters with Mako playing a large supporting role as their Eskimo guide. David Gwillim and Agneta Eckemyr come in mid-way through the film to provide some youthful love interest as well. The characters travel high above icebergs, journey into a volcano, fight off killer whales, and are chased throughout the island by a mad and powerful Norseman known as the Godi, before they are able to escape back to Paris. 

If you are looking for an entertaining and action-packed film to watch on a Saturday evening, then don't steer away from Island at the Top of the World. It packs in more than its fair share of thrills and leaves you with the urge to set off on your own reckless journey into the skies with an airship. Great fun! 


  1. I LOVE this movie! Grew up on it and am always surprised more people don't know it. It is thoroughly entertaining, colorful, and full of adventure. (I had a crush on David Gwillim when I first saw this movie.) And I love the music, it's my favorite Maurice Jarre score.

    1. I'm glad to find another fan of the certainly is entertaining! Wish I "grew up" with the movie too....