Something of a precursor to the experimental period during which Walt Disney Productions expanded its live-action mandate to include darker subject matter than usual (the era that generated films including 1979’s sci-fi epic The Black Hole), this adventure/fantasy saga almost completely eschews the cutesiness and slapstick normally associated with the Disney brand. It’s not a wholly successful endeavor, particularly since the secret culture revealed midway through the picture turns out be nothing more than a lost tribe of Vikings, but the movie boasts a fair amount of danger, as well as copious amounts of old-school special effects, which are similar to those featured in the studio’s enduring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
Set in 1907, the picture opens in London, where wealthy aristocrat Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) hires visiting American archaeologist Professor Invarsson (David Hartman) for an expedition to the North Pole. It seems Sir Anthony’s estranged son, Donald (David Gwillim), disappeared while investigating reports of a mysterious island in the Arctic, rumored to be adjacent to a mythical bay where whales go to die. Sir Anthony also hires French aviator Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin), who has built an propeller-driven airship, to provide the expedition’s transportation. Arriving in the Arctic after a few in-flight scares, Sir Anthony’s team discovers that Donald made contact with Vikings who live in a valley that’s heated by a nearby volcano. (Among other practitioners of fantasy fiction, Marvel Comics has employed the same contrivance, although Marvel’s “Savage Land” is in Antarctica.)
The long stretch of running time comprising the adventurers’ clashes with the Vikings is fairly drab, with the Vikings portrayed as superstitious primitives determined to murder outsiders, so the movie loses a great deal of energy in the middle. Things pick up during the extended chase/escape sequence that comprises the movie’s final third, because the heroes slide down chutes inside ice floes, run from lava, and survive an attack by a pod of killer whales.
The acting is as perfunctory as the characterizations (Hartman later quit performing and became a long-running Good Morning, America anchor), but the vintage FX create an almost surrealistic quality—particularly when matted moving objects are partially transparent—while the great composer Maurice Jarre keeps things lively with a robust score. It’s also enjoyable to see the wonderful Japanese character actor Mako contributing a typically zesty performance, although he’s mostly wasted in the stereotypical role of an easily frightened Eskimo who tags along for the journey to the secret island. Adding to the indignity, Mako ends up sharing several of his scenes with Sir Anthony’s pet dog.
The Island at the Top of the World: FUNKY