Barron's Different 'Treasure Island' is Thrilling, But Misses the X

Directed by: Steve Barron, Runtime: 180 minutes
Grade: C+

Crashing waves, creaking windswept decks, and gruff voices aboard the Hispaniola inhabit Treasure Island, suggesting that adventure and copious swashbuckling intrigue shall run rampant as Steve Barron (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) takes the helm on an updated version of the classic story. Those expecting a faithful adaptation should change course, though: essentially, this version operates as a shadow of Robert Louis Stevenson's book, with superfluous flourishes of altered material geared to reinterpret the classic story for a modern audience. Instead of just using what's there as a springboard for something distinctive, it also comes across as bloated and confused, following a clear-cut stream of 18th-Century naval suspense and blustery performances to the island of lost riches. Barron gets us there in style, though, with plenty of rambunctious, gritty seafaring thrills adding to its demeanor, even if it never feels quite right.

The story starts off soundly enough: Jim Hawkins (Toby Regbo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and his mother, while still grieving the loss of his father, cater to a seafaring man at their ramshackle mainland inn. After obtaining from him a logbook and a comprehensive map of treasures belonging to the legendary Captain Flint (Donald Sutherland), Jim and Dr. David Livesey (Daniel Mays), a long-time acquaintance of the Hawkins', take the ledger to Squire John Trelawny (Rupert Penry-Jones), who orchestrates a voyage aboard the Hispaniola to retrieve the treasure. Every ship needs a cook, of course, and it's Long John Silver (Eddie Izzard) -- once the quartermaster for Captain Flint, as we see in a flashback at the film's beginning -- who integrates himself with the crew as the captain's chef. But, of course, Silver's intentions are little more than a ruse, a sly plot to commandeer the ship and its men to find Captain Flint's treasure for himself. And he's willing to manipulate his way through just about anyone to get there.

Steve Barron's production generates a suitable rumble of suspense with Long John Silver's scheming and his calls for the simmering mutineers to have patience, allowing the tension to incrementally mount as Hawkins navigates the ship's denizens and learns more about its underbelly. The audience also has to acclimate to the Hispaniola's rocky movement and rickety depths too, since Ulf Brantås' cinematography goes overboard with dutch angles, jittery movement, and an intense fascination with warped depth-of-field. Careful consideration has been paid to the production's visual style, from the authenticity of the ship's musty corners to the robust costumes adorning weatherworn pirates and officers, yet it's hard to absorb this polish when our point-of-view swoons and half the screen blurs in halfhearted, queasy stabs at nautical atmosphere. Even as brisk music reminiscent of 28 Days Later keeps the momentum going, it's difficult to get wrapped up in Jim's investigative antics when the hazy point-of-view can't stop moving.

Despite its over-enthusiastic visual style, Treasure Island manages to keep itself grounded and bolsters the suspense across three hours with resilient, unique performances, though they fit more in the category of "interesting" interpretations rather than of "convincing". Eddie Izzard's bald, tattooed, crutch-using Long John Silver offers a unique perspective: he's a sympathetic and less-commanding entity with far less of a mythic quality, where Izzard's silver-tongued vocal rasping grants him more snaky charm than sea-worn gristle and enigmatic motivation. The script tries to balance his impulses with humanizing sequences, such as the tender mentoring words he offers Jim Hawkins and a sequence involving his wife, but the shock that Jim experiences when he learns of Long John Silver's intentions is merely his own. Rupert Penry-Jones shapes a sound villain out of Squire Trelawny, a miserly tyrant who'll stop at nothing to get his wages, even though such iniquitous stomping around feels out of place, and Elijah Wood plays Silver's old acquaintance, Ben Gunn, with an enjoyably tweaked, wild-eyed flair.

While it's not absolutely necessary for a swashbuckling adventure to fiddle around with too much substance, Treasure Island can't escape the nagging feeling that it's lacking something ... vital from its modernized digs. For one, it's rarely clear which "side" of the Hispaniola -- the lawful do-gooders or the plundering thieves and cutthroats -- really fits with Jim Hawkins' current outlook at any given point. Perhaps it's supposed to be a gray area, or perhaps it's supposed to create double-edged sympathy for the post-Pirates of the Caribbean crowd and disdain for the officers. This creates a murky and uninteresting moral gray area, though: part of the story's foundation should come in young Jim Hawkins' flip-flopping in loyalty and how it impacts his coming-of-age perspective, yet the story being told isn't concerned with that dichotomy, only enough to hammer home storytelling points for the mounting danger. Hawkins is just caught in the current, and the production wants the audience to enjoy the bumpy, rowdy maritime ride.

Really, there's nothing wrong with absorbing this Treasure Island as an out-to-sea thriller with only names and skeletal motivations tying to the book, where several of the updates make cogent-enough sense in the story's context, snapping together with the plot's forward-moving intentions. Spread across three hours, Bodden musters a brisk, somewhat brutal pirate's tale that's not really for younger audiences; while the second half is, understandably, far more gripping than the sluggish first-half, it's enthusiastically-performed and exciting to a point where it justifies the alternate interpretation it sets out to achieve. The end of the journey, however, is perplexing: it arrives at the edge of its tense, shaky game of danger and lawless politics -- the X on that weatherworn map -- with a peculiar moral decision that the story doesn't feel like it's earned, a choice made over bountiful riches that's frustrating considering the situation and era. That's an area where it really would've been appropriate to stick to Stevenson's roots.

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