This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.
When one looks at a studio and all the films they’ve made in a given subgenre, it could be easy to forget what the first incarnation of a particular type of character is. As I revisited Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island I realized that this was the Studios first treatment of pirate lore in a feature film, seeing as how it was the first entirely live-action film Disney made.
In fact, once I got the pirate notion in my head I watched with an eye for that and I found that many of the men that Long John Silver recruited, as cast in this film, seemed to be models for the Pirates of the Caribbean animatronics that would follow soon thereafter.
Disney, as it was widely reported, had been seeking to enter the live-action film world. The desire was, in part, to produce cheaper films that were easier to turn a profit on. Aside from being a first it’s interesting to note that, based on what the average production timeline on an animated feature, Peter Pan was likely already in the works. So Disney’s hand at working with a seafaring tale and representing pirates was being tested.
Another interesting correlation between those two projects is the involvement of Bobby Driscoll. Driscoll was literally the first actor to be a contract player for Disney. In fact, his loan to RKO, which earned him an the Juvenile Award at the Oscars for The Window, was thanked in the credits of that film. He voiced the prior incarnation of Goofy’s son, Junior, and also appeared in So Dear to My Heart and Song of the South. After working on Treasure Island he served not only as voice actor but also as the model for Peter Pan, which proved to be his last involvement with Disney and one of his final roles in film. The end of Driscoll’s career and later on life are progressively sadder stories. You can easily find those on the IMDb if your day is going too well and you need a depressing interlude. However, the fact remains that in participating in some of Disney’s classics and being the pioneer of actors signing with Disney, Driscoll and his films serve as milestones. In the studio era if you had no contract players you had no chance, he was the linchpin to the early parts of that plan, and certainly this film.
The film preserves Hawkins’ perspective and tells itself through his eyes such that some things are learned after the fact through dialogue. The difficulties this film faces are due to some slight pacing issues, some over-the-top performances and a few overly-simple characters, but it is and enjoyable version of the tale.
Another interesting historic note is that The Muppets, after Jim Henson Productions were acquired by Disney, did their own Treasure Island, which I just recently saw as well. It’s true to form for the Muppets down to the musical treatment, the involvement of Tim Curry and the casting choice among their stable of characters.
Disney has also put a sci-fi twist to the tale via the animation in Treasure Planet, which I need to see and is currently streaming on Netflix (US). However, currently the most well known Disney pirate property is the one one based on the ride that was, in part, inspired by this tale, The Pirates of the Caribbean. I’ve seen all those films and they go up and down quality-wise.
So here you have another Disney table-setter in more ways than one that is worth checking out for cinematic purposes as well such as the production design and cinematography.