Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS / THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT

Maurice Chevalier and Hayley Mills
















THE CHILDREN OF CAPTAIN GRANT/aka Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, 1867. Jules Verne.

 IN SEARCH OF THE CASTAWAYS (1962). Director: Robert Stevenson.

"No matter where you are in the world, it is always different but it is always the same."

The Novel:

Jules Verne wrote Les Enfants du capitaine Grant [The Children of Captain Grant aka In Search of the Castaways], a three part novel, just before writing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Although it never became as well known as other works by the French author, it is a masterpiece, beautifully written, continuously suspenseful, and full of colorful adventures and thrills. The two young children of the missing Captain Grant are convinced that he is still alive due to a message in a bottle, and set off on the Duncan with Lord and Lady Glenarvan, who are touched by their story, to find Grant. The French geographer Paganel guides them, first to South America, and then to Australia and New Zealand. Despite all the changes in setting and solid research, the novel never becomes a dull travelogue and pulls one along from start to finish. Although two of the main characters are children, this is not juvenile fiction; in fact scenes when the group are captured by cannibalistic Maoris are not only gruesome but quite revolting. Verne not only throws multiple twists and turns at the reader, but sometimes piles danger upon danger -- the group take refuge in a tree during a flood, which catches fire, but when they try to escape into the water, a group of hungry gators come by etc. All in all, an excellent read.

The Film:

Having had a great success with an adaptation of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Walter Disney studios decided to try for another hit with Verne. 20th-Century Fox came out with Journey to the Center of the Earth and Columbia beat them to the punch with Mysterious Island [both a dreadful serial version in 1951 and an excellent feature film ten years later], so Disney turned to The Children of Captain Grant, probably attracted to its youthful protagonists and colorful storyline. Unfortunately, Disney also turned a rather brilliant adult novel [even if the emphasis is on harrowing action] into an unremarkable kiddie feature that hasn't stood the test of time at all well. The basic plot remains the same, but everything has sort of been dumbed down and anything remotely offensive to children or their parents excised, giving the whole thing a sanitized air. In the novel the characters often go through Hell but in the film it all seems like a jolly good time, even when they're careening down an icy mountain slope on a piece of cliff that has broken off during an earthquake [this scene is therefore deprived of true thrills]. There is one marvelous bit of business in the movie, and that is when the flood overtakes them and they must seek refuge in an enormous tree in the middle of a formerly dry stretch of land [this, too, is taken from Verne]. Although the FX in the film are variable and often out-dated, in this sequence they are quite impressive. Once the story moves from South America to New Zealand, the film loses its tension [the only reference to cannibalism is a quick remark about a ":stew pot"].

Still, the movie is at least well-acted by Hayley Mills; little Keith Hamshere as her brother; Michael Anderson Jr,. as Glenarvan's son [not in the novel, if I recall correctly] and Mills' love interest; the ever charming Maurice Chevalier as Paganel; George Sanders as the villain of the piece [who was much more complicated and interesting in the book]; Wilfrid Hyde-White as Glenarvan [his wife has been eliminated]; and Wilfrid Brambell as the rather loony Bill Gaye [don't remember if he is in the book or not]. Chevalier and Mills sing a couple of pleasant enough songs, including "Let's Climb." [At least the studio resisted bringing in, say, Fabian or Frankie Avalon to play a role and warble a ditty or two.]

A remake is in pre-production for 2014, so let's hope that this time they get it right. Verne and the novel deserve better. 

Verdict: The Children of Captain Grant. ****
             In Search of the Castaways **1/2.

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