This film is pretty much what it says: an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel Treasure Island with lots of animals in it. The only human characters are the main character Jim, his baby brother Baboo, and a girl named Kathy who shows up about halfway through the movie. The rest of the cast are anthropomorphic animals of all kinds, and the film is full of all the swashbuckling seafaring adventure that you would expect of a pirate story.
I’ve never read the novel it was based upon, but I did look over a summary of the plot for comparison. It seems that Animal Treasure Island is a very loose adaptation. The basic premise is pretty much the only thing the two stories have in common. A boy named Jim with large dreams of exploring the ocean lucks upon a pirate treasure map and the money to finish his own homemade boat. So he sets off with his mouse pal Glan and his baby brother in tow, running afoul of pirates lead by a pig named Captain Silver.
The film is very kid friendly with no death or bloodshed, though there are a ton of action scenes with cannons firing and boarding parties as the pirates loot their way across the high seas. It’s a pretty well-made film, with a lot of exuberant charm. Apparently Stevenson said of his book that his goal was to make a story for boys that was pure fun, without any highfaluting literary themes to get in the way. This film definitely accomplishes that goal quite well (even if they did have the audacity to put an icky girl into the movie). There’s nothing much to think about with this film. It’s a fun-filled adventure, and that’s all it wants to be.
The most notable thing about it from a modern perspective is that it was one of Hayao Miyazaki’s early important roles in film. He is credited with the adaptation in addition to being one of the key animators, so he probably had a fairly large impact on the writing and plot of this film. It’s pretty easy to see his influence if you look for it, though it might be arguable whether that influence was from Miyazaki or on him. The stubborn and resourceful Kathy can easily be seen as a prototype of the precocious female leads of his later films. Jim often reminded me of the main character from Castle in the Sky, both in appearance and in his amazing climbing skills. There’s also a certain attention to mundane detail in the animation that also reminded me of Ghibli films, especially the scene where Jim is drawing his boat design.
It’s no surprise that with Miyazaki on board the animation is fantastic, although he certainly wasn’t anywhere near the only key animator for the film, and I’m not at all sure what scenes he was directly responsible for. The rolling ocean waves are among the most notable moments, and the loving care that had to have gone into their animation is another similarity to Ghibli’s lush nature scenes. Unlike most animation, anime or otherwise, the ocean is often a vivid shade of green in this film rather than blue. I’m suspect the choice was meant to contrast with the blue sky, and it does work, if a bit jarringly. The sword fights and cannon blasts are equally impressive looking, and overall the entire film is a joy to look at.
If I had to track down some flaws, it would be the strange way that the walrus guy suddenly becomes the target of all the other pirates. He is simply a member of the pirate crew for most of the movie, and without any transition or explanation he’s suddenly Jim’s ally with all the other pirates out to get him. The shift is certainly foreshadowed since the walrus is always a pretty nice guy, but there’s no clear-cut moment where the pirates decide he’s no longer on the team, or where the walrus decides to abandon the pirates. It’s also a bit odd how little Jim seems to care about his brother, usually ignoring the baby outright and otherwise just being irritated by him. I suppose that’s just how little boys often feel about their baby brothers, but it did seem kinda wrong.
But if those are the only flaws I can come up with, then we’re dealing with a pretty good movie. On top of being a great look at Miyazaki’s early work, it’s a fun and exciting story of exploration that has everything you could ask for from a children’s pirate tale, and it looks fantastic on top of that. So if your inner 10-year-old (or your real life 10-year-old) is hankering for some good old-fashioned pirate action, then you’ll probably be quite happy with Animal Treasure Island.