Monday, September 21, 2015

Treasure Island (1973) & Oliver Twist (1974)

          Beyond subjecting the world to decades of iffy TV cartoon series (from The New Adventures of Superman in the 1960s to BraveStarr in the 1980s), as well as occasionally producing live-action programs (raise your hand if you wasted more than a few Saturdays watching The Shazam!/Isis Hour in the ’70s), Filmation Associates made a brief foray into the realm of adapting classic literature for the big screen. Filmation’s take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was followed by a version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and both were released by Warner Bros., which wisely ended the deal before any more mediocrity was unleashed.
          Shamelessly copying the Disney formula of blending comedy with high adventure and songs, Treasure Island is passable at best. The narrative is basically faithful to the source material, and new wrinkles—such as a pirate who wheezes musical notes because of the harmonica that’s visibly lodged in his throat—don’t exactly add value. Worse, the songs are pathetic and unmemorable, and it’s hard to understand why Filmation hired Davy Jones, of the Monkees, to play the leading role seeing as how his character sings just one number. Anyway, intrepid young Englishman Jim Hawkins (Jones) stumbles into possession of a treasure map, which makes him the center of intrigue involving dueling pirate factions. An eventful sea voyage and a surprising trip to a mysterious island ensue. So do silly antics involving a mouse with a taste for liquor, as well as innumerable renditions of the traditional tune “Dead Man’s Chest,” whose “yo-ho-ho” refrain probably should have been retired from other uses once it became a staple of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney’s theme parks. The uninteresting voice cast of Treasure Island also features tiresome TV funnymen Richard Dawson and Larry Storch, and Filmation’s signature “limited animation” style ensures anemic visuals. In sum, Treasure Island is colorful, inoffensive, and altogether mindless—more “yo-ho-hum” than “yo-ho-ho.”
          Yet Oliver Twist makes the preceding film seem inspired by comparison. (To say nothing of redundant—the Oscar-winning live-action musical Oliver!, culled from the same source material, was released just a few years previous, in 1968, and Hanna-Barbera made an animated version for television, called Oliver and the Artful Dodger, in 1972.) Repeating a stylistic misstep from Treasure Island, Filmation modified Oliver Twist by adding animal characters, as if the original narrative was insufficient to command attention. Hence "Squeaky," the nervous frog that long-suffering protagonist Oliver carries around in his pocket throughout most of the movie, and the trio of creepy birds who lurk around the villain's lair and perform evil errands. Whatever. The power of Dickens' story isn't entirely lost, thanks to grim episodes of Oliver being mistreated by various "friends" and guardians along the way to escaping poverty once he finds a wealthy surrogate family. Yet the combination of flat animation and weak vocal performances is toxic. (The cast includes some of the same folks who participated in Treasure Island, notably Davy Jones and Larry Storch.) As for the original songs, they barely merit a mention. Some are generic. Some are insipid. Some are saccharine. All are forgettable. That said, a cursory review of online commentary indicates that Filmation’s Oliver Twist has actual fans, mostly folks who saw the picture at a young age and now retain nostalgia for the escapist pleasures of their childhood. With all due respect to those with fond memories of Squeaky, it's a good thing the Filmation/Warner Bros. union was terminated after just two films.

Treasure Island: FUNKY
Oliver Twist: LAME

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