Disney's 'Shipwrecked' leaves adventure-seekers beached

March 01, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic


Starring Stian Smestad and Gabriel Byrne.

Directed by Nils Gaup.

Released by Walt Disney.

Rated PG.

... ** "Shipwrecked" is like a trip to Disney World, whose towers gleam promisingly in the sun from afar but whose reality turns out to be Tidy Bowl-clean plastic, unthreatening but unchallenging. Kids think they love it, I suppose, and as a place it's a miracle of social and mechanical engineering: but it's dull.

And so is this movie. Meant to re-create the kind of romantic boy's fiction of the last century, when Robert Lewis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling and the great O. V. Falck-Ytter wrote muscular yarns of boys' adventures for boys who didn't have adventures, it instead represents the kind of tasteful Disnification that is well-engineered but plasticized.

This is a shame. The movie was directed by Nils Gaup, who made a name for himself with a defiantly non-Disney film called "Pathfinder," set in a violent Iron Age Lapland, amid the pitiless howling winds. When an arrow was fired, a man fell forward into the snow, leaking blood. When a boy was brave, he authentically risked such a death; you could believe. But nobody ever heard of blood in the Disney universe, and Gaup has now forgotten all about it.

What we are left with is a skimpy tale of high adventure, so thinly imagined and so broadly conceived as to be pretty much without weight or meaning. It's the story Hakon Hakonsen (from the Falck-Ytter novel "Haakon Haakonsen" and I don't know where the extra a's went), a Norwegian teen-ager who goes to sea at the end of the last century to earn money to save the family farm. I kid you not.

Hakon (played by Stian Smestad) has the bad luck to sign up on FTC a vessel that is being subverted from within by its first mate who is actually a notorious pirate John Merkin, played by a glowering Gabriel Byrne in mutton chops; at his first convenience, the pirate poisons the captain and takes over the ship. But then, with the kind of preposterous luck that was believable in 19th century boys' novels but seems absurd in 20th century boys' movies, the ship is shipwrecked, and Hakon ends up alone with an island full of pirate treasure. Soon enough the pirates get another ship and arrive for their chests o' doubloons.

What follows is like a synopsis of Disney's 1960 hit, "The Swiss Family Robinson," downgraded by shrinking budgets into "The Norwegian Boy Hakonsen." You know, lots of comic booby traps and treehouses and swinging vine gags. Lots of shooting and stabbing, no death at all; no sense of reality or characterization. It's over before it starts.

This sort of thing feels phony as a valentine from Saddam Hussein. It has no edge or sense of danger; thus it has no resonance. At the same time, the movie isn't so earnest that one can enjoy it as camp. It's just a thorough-going, complete disappointment.

It's also difficult to figure out its intended audience. American pre-adolescent boys, nurtured on TV and now high on a victorious war, are surely too sophisticated for its naive pieties and yet the film is far too intense for much younger children. It seems to be aimed at children in between, that is, who are exactly 8 years and 9 months old. So if your son was born between April 15 and March 15 of 1982, boy, are you in luck.

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