Island at the Top of the World

Something I love about my family are the weird, idiosyncratic movies that have been with us for as long as I can remember. I’m sure your family has them too. The kinds of films that are almost a family institution, like the post-Christmas-dinner nap/singsong/fistfight, yet barely appear on anyone else’s radar.

For example, Murder She Said is a major deal within my family and this had a major impact on my development. Do you know what it’s like to be 6 years old and be able to rattle off every line of a 30-year-old black and white Miss Marple movie? Compare this with the kid in my class who knew every line of The Terminator and would frequently reenact the entire movie in school. I bet that guy is making millions now.

Then there’s also The Scarlet Pimpernel (starring a young Ian McKellan), which is a useful tool for defusing family arguments. When things start getting out of hand and everyone’s voices are booming a little more than they should, you just need to drop a mention of this movie and everyone’s eyes glaze over and a happy smile appears on their faces like their medication has finally kicked in. This is the film that taught me the cruel reality that videotape starts to really lose its quality after a couple of hundred viewings.

For me though, nothing can match The Island at the Top of the World. This movie had such a profound effect on my youth that it has become the yardstick by which all adventure movies are measured.

Rather than try to bluster my way through a summary of the story, here’s the blurb from the back of the box:

An American archaeology (David Hartman) joins a rich English businessman, an eccentric French inventor, and an Eskimo trapper (Mako, from Rising Sun), on an awe inspiring expedition to the Arctic. They're looking for a missing son, but they discover a world forgotten by time -- a world of 10th century Vikings, erupting volcanoes, and the legendary whales' graveyard.

The film itself has an impressive array of talent attached to it: directed by Robert Stevenson, who also directed many of Disney’s most popular live-action movies including Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, the screenplay was written by John Whedon, grandfather of Joss, and the music was composed by Maurice Jarre, father of Jean-Michel.

It’s not the cleverest movie you’ll see and at times it will push your suspension of disbelief to breaking point. But it’s a kid’s movie. Y’know… for kids! And that’s just par for the course for kid’s movies. Show me a kid’s movie that doesn’t require a conceptual leap of faith and I’ll show you one dull kid’s movie.

What makes Island at the Top of the World stand out is the charm with which it goes about telling its fantastic story and the spectacular, if slightly contrived set-pieces dotted throughout the movie. For example, at one stage, the characters outrun a flow of lava. If you leave your ‘real-world logic’ at the door and forget about things like “second degree burns”, this is a lot more enjoyable; after all, this is a Disney movie, and you’re only in trouble if the Lava actually catches you. As a child, this scene blew my mind and the sight of Donald Sinden being chased down by red-hot molten rock will stick with me forever.

And balls to people who complain about the special effects. More balls to people who try to give up excuses like “they were good for the time”. The effects in Island at the Top of the World are incredible. In terms of the the spectacle they create and the sense of scale they help achieve, it’s easy to look on Island at the Top of the World as some proto-Lord of the Rings. The sight of the airship (the Hyperion) coming out of its hanger is just one example. I almost had a fit when I saw Disney had recreated this image for a restaurant in Disneyland Paris.

Also, I have to question some of the so-called “mistakes” in the special effects. For instance, in a scene where the evil high priest is blue-screened in front of a giant fire, his blue eyes meant that you could see the flames in his eyes. Is this really a mistake? Or another kick-ass idea in a movie full of kick-ass ideas? I’m suggesting it’s the latter. If you pay close attention to this scene (and I have, believe me), you’ll see that this effect gets more pronounced as the priest gets angrier.

It’s almost a quarter-century since I first saw this movie. Watching it now is a weird experience. I used to know every line of this movie off by heart, but this useful knowledge has been buried under mounds of useless trivia (did you know you can tell a whale’s age by cutting its earwax and counting the rings?), so I get this weird, comforting, giddy sense of deja vu. Great times.

Now if you don’t mind, I think it’s time I watched this again.

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