From the 1950s through to the late 1970s, Walt Disney Pictures worked a hugely successful formula for generating a regular stream of family-oriented adventure and fantasy movies. Rather than follow the director-centric model of other American studios, it continued to press a producer-controlled model: directors assigned to films like employees, and the same creative talent – both behind and in front of the screen – re-used and recycled from one picture to another. The result of this process is that today, decades later, one can essentially recognise a Walt Disney production from orbit. They look the same, sound the same; their base aesthetic is immediately identifiable to even the most casual of viewers.
In the best cases, this stable production process enabled impressive advances in technology and visual effects. It also provided opportunities for individual talent to particularly excel and stand out; Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins (1964), for example, Peter Finch in Kidnapped (1960), or David Tomlinson in, well, pretty much any role in which he was cast. In the worst cases, however, this homogenised production model could result in films that were particularly over-familiar, bland, and forgettable.
That is certainly the case with The Island at the Top of the World, a 1974 generic riff on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea model that simply echoes older, better films and fails to contribute much in its own right. It is directed by Disney stalwart Robert Stevenson, whose earlier work including both Poppins and Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971) demonstrated a far more inventive and engaged approach than he shows here. It is a perfectly watchable film in some respect, but it does test the viewer’s patience somewhat. The target market of children – particularly those watching the film today – seem likely to drift off in search of something more interesting.
It all begins in quite a brisk and enjoyable manner. In 1907, archaeologist John Ivarsson (David Hartman) is hired by rich industrialist Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) to support an expedition into the Arctic to search for his missing son. Accompanied by the French dirigible pilot Brieux (Jacques Marin) and Inuit tracker Oomiak (Mako Iwamatsu), what they find is an entire secret island hidden beyond the Arctic Circle.
Early scenes are arguably the most solid of the entire film. Sinden plays Ross with an archetypal level of brusque English aristocracy, while Marin is a small delight as the proud airship captain. Mako, always a good value actor, does his best with a role that is underwritten and based a little too heavily in old-fashioned “eskimo” racism for the viewer to enjoy (not to mention it’s a Japanese man playing an Inuit).
Later scenes are where the film particularly seems to drag. It follows a slightly tedious pattern of captures and escapes that all takes a little too much to resolve and fails to introduce anything particularly new for its audience. The dialogue, from John Whedon’s screenplay, lacks much in the way of spark or energy (Captain Brieux aside). That leads the weight of entertaining the viewer to be placed on the narrative – which feels overheaded – and the visuals – which, by 1974, are looking remarkably out of date.
Disney would continue to struggle to find commercial success under their old model through the following years before making a major gambit to tackle darker themes and storylines from The Black Hole through to the mid-1980s. The Island at the Top of The World is simply too ordinary, too familiar, and most importantly too late.