The X Marks the Spot
The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo: Treasure Island
(Adapted for Television by Walter Black)
A Book Review by Ronald Milligan
There is something about the ocean and sailing the open sea that stirs the emotions of adventure and free spirit. And for those with a rebel strain and a flair for the dramatic, the ethos of the sea-going pirate has a strong allure. Somehow going back to the sea works to restore the soul. And, as we shall soon see, the voyage can create a longing for box-office gold. Leave it to The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo to offer up a superb introduction to the one classic pirate tale that continues to fuel a vast ocean of buccaneer adventure and imagination: Treasure Island.
This shakedown cruise back to Treasure Island affords us an opportunity to peer into the ancient waters that have launched a thousand multi-media voyages, from amusement park rides to lavish costume dramas to over-the-top Computer-Generated monstrosities. The search for box-office treasure is not limited to the many film retellings of the tale that have featured the likes of Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn and Kermit the Frog. We also get the variation of the theme with the introduction of Errol Flynn as Captain Blood and the mega-Disney movie franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean.
The work by Douglas Fairbanks with the 1929 silent adventure film, The Black Pirate, created one of the first Technicolor productions by Hollywood (also see Debra's book report Glorious Technicolor). The movie sails valiantly into the uncharted and choppy waters of the very early 2-color Technicolor process. The Black Pirate also acquaints us with an initial debut of the pirate management credo: “Dead men tell no tales.”
The original Treasure Island is an adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. The tale is basically one of buccaneers in pursuit of a buried treasure. Although this book is one of the most frequently dramatized novels of all times, Stevenson originally conceived it as a modest coming-of-age story for boys. As was common during this era, the story was initially serialized in the children's magazine Young Folks during late 1881 and early 1882 under the title Treasure Island, or the mutiny of the Hispaniola. The author by-line belonged to the pseudonym, "Captain George North". The narrative story consisted of six parts, first published in book form during the latter part of the subsequent year, 1883.
In telling the tale of Treasure Island, Stevenson borrowed heavily from the themes and story elements found in popular early 19th-century sea novels about sea captains, ship-wrecks, desert islands, pirates and buried treasures. The book did such a good job of bringing together all the earlier pirate essentials in one place that Treasure Island became a touch-stone document for research, serving as a compass rose for many buccaneer stories to follow.
Treasure Island also became immensely influential in forming our modern perceptions of pirates and of how they operate. Some of the more fascinating factoids, fictional but nonetheless factual, about the sea-tossed world of pirating are:
— treasure maps marked with an “X”
— tall and fast sailing schooners
— the Black Spot
— remote tropical islands with sandy beaches
and, last but not least —
— one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders.
This Magoo television screenplay was aired in two episodes, thereby making it one of the longer and more detailed presentations in the Famous Adventure Series. This episode packs a lot of adventure and intrigue into the cartoons on the screen. We cover all six sections of the book, although some details are abridged. Most fortunately, we are guided by the first-person narration of the young boy protagonist, Jim Hawkins.
This version is wonderfully and honorably consistent with the book. Overall, the dialogue is faithful to the original work by Stevenson. Like each of the Famous Adventures that involves sailing ships (Moby Dick, Captain Kidd, and The Count of Monte Cristo), the animation more than capably serves the story in setting the mood. In fact, the animation is artfully achieved, presenting yet again a consummate example of the minimalist style of the United Productions of America, or UPA. This style, or stylization, provides an excellent backdrop for this tale, one that does not over-shadow the dramatic performances of the cartoon characters.
UPA was founded in the wake of the bitter strike of the Disney animators in 1941. This action by non-unionized workers prompted the exodus of several highly-skilled, long-time staff illustrators in the Walt Disney organization. A small percentage of these graphic artists disagreed with the ultra-realistic trend in animation that Disney had been pioneering. This mutineer band believed that animation did not have to be a painstakingly realistic imitation of life. In fact, many of these illustrators believed that their artistic medium was being constrained by efforts to depict cinematic reality. Although the UPA library can not compare with the legendary cartoon works of Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or Walt Disney Productions, the successes of the Mr. Magoo productions are forever linked to the UPA animators. (To read more about the Disney Strike of 1941 and the UPA Studio see Disney on Strike! and Beyond Disney.)
Magoo generally portrays a hero in many of the Famous Adventures episodes; in Treasure Island, however, Mr. Magoo plays one of the definitive leading villains of literature: Long John Silver. Here is a character you’re never quite sure about. Ambivalence does not begin to describe your feelings about his feelings. His motives are hardly ever pure, but his apparent fondness for the trusting young Jim Hawkins makes you wonder if he is really all bad. Young Jim is never quite sure himself, which only adds to the suspense as the story unfolds.
Magoo does a masterful job creating the duality in the character needed to portray Long John Silver. At first, Silver is ostensibly a hardworking and likable seaman, but his villainous nature is gradually revealed as the plot advances and his own dark plot is divulged. Although willing to change sides at any time to further his own interests, Silver does display some compensating virtues when it comes to his alliance with young Jim Hawkins. Silver genuinely acts as a mentor and protector while, at the same time, he takes advantage of the boy to advance his seizure of the treasure. Perhaps Long John Silver hoped to instill in the boy some of his own swashbuckler spirit. Young Jim might someday follow in his sea-roving waves, aboard a grand ship that sails the oceans blue, in ways Silver could only dream of doing.
Jim Backus once again performs marvelously with his voice-acting Quincy Magoo as Long John. He splendidly navigates the choppy seas between the scheming leader of the marauding gang and the charming, storytelling sea cook that Silver slyly uses as his cover. I must say, Magoo is very believable here as the cutthroat villain.
In the end, the mutiny fails, but Long John Silver does escape with a small portion of the treasure. The rest of the good crew of the Hispaniola sail back to Bristol where they then divide up the treasure. Young Jim tells us that there is more treasure left on the island, but he for one will not undertake another voyage to recover it.
In the world of today, that ending sounds appallingly like the set-up for a sequel, but not-to-worry. Many a future buccaneer has set sail to Treasure Island in search of that remaining treasure — but —
A sequel — Scupper that!!
A prequel — Avast!
Shiver me timbers! Not a one has hit pay-dirt like the original!