We usually stick to talking about things we love because not only we like the stuff but because it lets us write better reviews. Nothing gets the reviews flowing on to the page like something you love. But sometimes we find some unique and interesting enough but perhaps doesn’t fall into the love category. They might not be as good as the things we love but for one reason or another they are so fascinating they have to be talked about. This vintage anime movie has many unique oddities worth discovering and examining if you are interested in the roots of Japanese animation.
There are many different ways to approach a work and for the most part we tend to put a lot of emphasis on characters, their development, and the relationships presented. However, those are not the only things that we can appreciate and they are not the only things that can give a work merit. For Animal Treasure Island we take on something perhaps we rarely do here on the blog, we are looking at style and direction and its context in anime history.
Jim is a young boy who works at an inn and dreams of one day owning his own ship. One night a shady man on the run from assassins takes refuge at the inn. When the assassins find their target Jim and Gran, a friend, barely escape with their lives but gain a map to the treasure of Captain Flint for their troubles. They soon find that both the pirate Long John Silver and Captain Flint’s granddaughter Kathy are after the treasure as well. Kathy and Jim have to learn to work together to reclaim the treasure and keep it away from every other pirate on the high seas. Oh did I forget to mention that everyone in film is a talking animal except for Jim, Kathy, and a baby? This means that Long John Silver is a pig, Gran is a mouse, and various pirates are monkeys, walruses, dogs, and other animals.
The plot differentiates itself very quickly from the actual story of Treasure Island holding on to the barest of semblance (i.e. pirates, a treasure map, and a boy named Jim). The character development is pretty poor, creating friendships and relationships out of thin air at times. This was especially true with Jim and Kathy who really have no transition from a hostile team-up to loyal friendship rather it happens because it is necessary. The same can be said for characters changing alliances. This is fed into by the scenes having little lead in which creates a disjointed feel of having things merely happening back to back but never feeling like it is one whole, cohesive vision. That being said, it is not by any means a boring film to watch.
Animal Treasure Island is a fun romp for kids and a very loose adaptation of a classic. But it is worth talking about because if you look at the credits you will see Hayao Miyazaki listed under idea consultant, key animation, and scene design. This was one of the first films that Miyazaki worked on as a professional in the animation business. While he did not direct this movie, its influence on his style is well-documented and immediately obvious. Kathy would clearly go on to influence Miyazaki’s strong female characters. From her design to her attitude she is very prototypical to a strong a brave heroine without the refined grace that would appear when Miyazaki was director. Also many of the fights scenes including the one major navel battle and the fight at the very end on Treasure Island between Jim and Silver add to how Miyazaki would later direct his action scenes. The real beginnings of Hayao Miyazaki are apparent in this film.
The thing that struck me the most in this film was its art style and its one of the reasons Animal Treasure Island is worth a gander. From the opening still it was apparent just how much western influence was involved in this production. The backgrounds, the character designs, and the use of colors all combine into a very stunning visual style quite reminiscent of what Warner Brothers and Disney had started doing about a decade earlier. I found this especially potent in Animal Treasure Island’s very flat and geometric approach through out but especially in its background and scenes. But the show creates a lot of well used depth through color and the use shadow and light. This is not to say that none of these stylizations were implemented before but when much of anime was taking a different approach, Animal Treasure Island was looking to capture a style that was popular overseas.
If you ever thought that the Japanese making anime with the rest of the world as a target audience was a new phenomenon you are sadly mistaken. Japanese animation studios have longed for a global audience. Everything about this movie screams that it was made for international appeal. This is first shown through their choice of a beloved piece of western children’s literature for their starting point. I remember back in college we had everyone do a list of their top ten favorite books of all time. The number one most mentioned title was Treasure Island. There are also musical numbers included in the film as if it were a Disney film. So way before we were getting a Trigun and a Cowboy Bebop movie there were films like Animal Treasure Island. Japanese studios have always been trying for a international audience but have only dabbled in.
Being a Treasure Island fan from childhood, I was rather curious about this movie (or most adaptions of the book) but really you can’t go in expecting too much Animal Treasure Island may not be a masterpiece of cinema, but it is certainly a unique work, the type that fans in the U.S. rarely have a chance to view considering its age. The story is flawed deeply but it was still a joy to watch because of its many connections to the past and present of anime. It is pretty rare for me to recommend something based on its style alone, but Animal Treasure Island goes on the exception list.
The Discotek Media version comes with the original Japanese dialog and soundtrack and well at the original English dub and songs as they would have played had you gone and seen in the theaters in the U.S. back in the seventies. It is a good transfer for a film released back in 1971 so there is not much room to complain. Overall its as much as you could ask for with a niche boutique release of an older anime film. I’m glad to see someone taking the time to bring over these smaller but significant anime movies. These are little titles that could easily go overlooked in favor of newer and flashier titles. Discotek also has Puss ‘N Boots which I hear is another good classic title also had key animation work by Miyazaki. If you are interested in the development of anime through the years, want to track the carrier of Hayao Miyazaki, or just want to see a fun little kids movie then I suggest you support little releases like this.