9 March 2007 | tedg
Two Heads, One Leg
Its rather hard to appreciate in the sea of movies we have now. But once upon a time the world of imagination was owned by books, and this was a king among them. Stevenson invented the modern notion of pirates: the business about eyepatches, rum, wooden legs, and parrots of course. But more than that, the concept of honor and ritual among these thieves. Its the notion that pirates had a code, with rules that was so compelling.
That allowed him to weave a story that stuck. It wasn't so much the romance of the thing, others would try that. It was the way he could cast two societies against each other, using the society of pirates to illuminate the society of gentlemen. Trewlaney, after all, was just as venal as Long John. All the business about shifting control of the ship, the island, the map, the compound and the treasure the business about shifting allegiance, and loyalties, all this is the stuff that makes this work.
Regular readers know that I'm concerned about construction. I strongly believe that the best, most effective, longest lasting narratives have structure that matters. Oh, it helps to have color, adventure, but if it doesn't have structure, we have nothing to hold on to, no way to map our way into it. Consider what an effect this story has had on imagination.
Disney chose it for his first fully live action feature knowing its importance. The genius Disney had was intuiting the importance of structure and having a similar intuition about how it needed to be recast for different media and artistic goals. Its not just times, its not just book-to-movie that he wanted to change, but change the world from one where evil truly exists, to one where evil is a transient illusion only.
Remember that Disney evolved his sensibilities when the conventions of noir were maturing, and he found a spot as the inventor of a counter-noir. In real noir, the world is driven by some amoral goddess who doesn't care whether we are happy, only that she (and we as viewers) are amused. In Disney antinoir, we may go through bad parts of town, but some effervescent pixie dust is always there to ensure that good prevails. The world is good. Its a belief in a kind of God that is rather modern.
There's much to explore in Disney, but I'm more attracted to Stevenson here. His book (his first!) came after "Moby Dick," so the malevolence of a one-legged English-speaking seaman was already cemented, as was the general notion of symbology of the body. So it was hardly original to (intuitively) engineer the shape of the characters as well as the situations, as mentioned. The parrot effectively gave Silver two heads, and there's only one leg. This would have mattered in literary conventions of the time.
If you read the book, you'll note how the bodily features figure, each almost as agents independent of the bodies they lived on.
Does this movie leverage that? No. Its Disney's method to take the entire structure apart, taking the most recognizable bits to recreate something new. It drove me nuts with "Alice in Wonderland," because that structure is profoundly significant. Everything here is focused on that rascal Long John, who in the book had a black trophy wife he was bringing the loot home to. Long? Heh.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.