The Island at the Top of the World cannot be faulted for misleading the viewer about what awesome stuff might be stashed away on this island hidden in a cloud. All hopes of some fantastical treasure or creatures are immediately dashed when one character breathlessly advises that it contains the mythical graveyard of the whales. Surely there is something mythical that will take your breath away about it, but I’m guessing it’s just the overpowering stench of acres of dead whales.
This Walt Disney film coming in the decade immediately following Disney’s death easily demonstrates (along with other films of the era like Superdad) the problems the studio had figuring out how to release quality films. This fantasy/adventure film is simply abysmal when compared to earlier similar efforts like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Swiss Family Robinson. Kirk Douglas vs. a giant squid compared to Good Morning America‘s David Hartman playing interpreter for a bunch of crabby ass Vikings tells you everything that went off the rails for Disney films during the 1970s.
The problem isn’t necessarily in the set up as Sir Anthony Ross cajoling Professor Ivarsson to join him on an expedition to find his missing son who was lost in the Arctic is fraught with the possibility of adventure. But the only adventure turns out to be a final half hour of them being chased by Vikings through a series of progressively bad special effects.
Ross employs a large blimp piloted by an over cautious Frenchman to take him and Ivarsson to the Arctic. Along the way, they pick up an Eskimo who was Ross’s son’s friend and with him when he went missing. Using a whalebone as a map and following the path of a bunch of whales, they arrive at the hidden island, leaving the Frenchmen and the now damaged blimp behind to travel on foot.
The inhabitants of the island are a race of Vikings who haven’t changed in a thousand years and fear the arrival of outsiders due to a prophecy they believe in. While the government leaders are willing to listen to Ross and talk about his son, the religious leader of the clan denounces them as a danger and sets about having them burned at the stake. Escape (with the help of the son’s sexy Viking girlfriend) and extended chase scenes follow.
So much fails in this film that you wonder if the whales are swimming off to die from sheer embarrassment. David Hartman treats his role as the expert archeologist as if he was your good-natured 8th grade science teacher, painfully explaining every obvious thing he sees, constantly remarking about how the weapons could be museum pieces and so authentic and gushing over seeing a real life Viking long boat just like real live Vikings used. Okay, we get it, these are Vikings, unchanged and untouched by the modern world, stop treating us like we’re visually impaired.
The film also senselessly beats the viewer over the head with what must have been some terribly misguided attempt at authenticity by having the Vikings speak in foreign languages throughout forcing Ivarsson and Ross’s son to constantly slow things down by repeating everything said in English! The son taught his girlfriend English so why couldn’t he teach at least one or two other Vikings English to save the viewer the headache of having to listen to all this guttural blather?
Even the potential for some type of interesting conflict between the father and son (Will he agree to go back? Does he hate his dad? Will his dad let him lead his own life?) quickly evaporates as the son is happy to see dad, ready to come back, and eager to join the family business without any complaint.
Of course none of that would have mattered if the movie delivered some excitement, but the combination of a story filled with no surprises and the single worse sustained use of abusively bad special effects, prove a deadly combination.
Why such a visually ambitious film was made without either the resources or ability to do so is a mystery. Right from the beginning with the model of a giant airship sailing against various cheesy backgrounds all the way to the end with a volcano spewing animated fire, The Island at the Top of the World insists on overdosing us on unconvincing matte paintings, green screen effects and miniatures.
There are shots of characters walking into sets that are clearly no more than paintings, shots of colored smoke badly superimposed over thermal vents, shots of characters looking down a mountain at a composited shot where the relative size of everything looks terrible and even lazy shots of characters just standing around in front of a background of water that is obviously just a grainy photo of water! At one point when the film actually shot a scene with the cast outdoors without any hideous effects, it was so unexpected as to be jarring!
The Island at the Top of the World is the sort of road trip from hell that despite the cringing you did when you first meet the fussy French pilot and his stowaway poodle, by the end of things, you can’t wait to see them again because they’re the only thing remotely intriguing about any of this. Why couldn’t they have let the dog out for a walk to nip at the Vikings and left David Hartmann and his affably cardboard personality on the blimp in a kennel?
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