This jolly, anthropomorphic, anime adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure yarn was commissioned to celebrate Toei Studios’ twentieth anniversary. Less faithful than Osamu Tezuka’s New Treasure Island (1965) or Osamu Dezaki’s 1978 adaptation (the only one that doesn’t feature talking animals), this tweaks Stevenson’s story for the kiddie matinee crowd. Young Jim (Minori Matsushima), his mouse friend Gran and his adopted baby brother Baboo, abscond with a murdered pirate’s treasure map. Sailing the seas in their nifty, toy boat, they fall afoul of porcine pirate Captain Silver and his motley crew. Silver tries to nab the other half of the map belonging to pistol-packing, little girl Kathy (Soko Tenchi), a pirate’s daughter whom Jim befriends. Aided by a friendly, cannon-toting, walrus (goo-goo gajoob!) our heroes escape numerous traps, visit a secret hideout, outfox rival pirates and face double, triple and quadruple crosses from Silver’s crew.
Much beloved in Japan for their quirky fairytales, Toei animators understood what children adore: fast-paced action, loveable characters, and rapid-fire gags presented in bright, primary colours that leap off the screen. Less ambitious thematically than Tezuka’s productions or the later works of Studio Ghibli, Animal Treasure Island still delivers the goods. While Ikeda takes directing and co-writing honours, the twin guiding lights are actually, legendary animator Yasuji Mori and anime wizard Hayao Miyazaki. Mori, Toei’s secret weapon toiled on a series of classic features between the late fifties and early eighties. His late sixties peak – including The Wonderful World of Puss ’n’ Boots (1969) – surpasses much of Disney’s work from this period. Mori’s appealing character designs and inventive animation are well showcased here. An exploding bomb kicks off the eye-catching, title sequence with characters jiving across the screen. Jim’s voyage across the rolling waves, dodging bullets and weaving past mighty whales is beautifully realised and set to the jaunty theme tune (“Go, our pioneer, go!”).
With his degree in world children’s literature and forceful personality, key animator and story consultant Miyazaki often had greater influence upon Toei’s finished product than credited directors. His touch is apparent in the redrafted plot, finely detailed, epic scale slapstick, and the presence of strong-willed heroine Kathy. He later reused the concept of a drained lake revealing the missing treasure for his feature debut, Castle of Cagliostro (1979) and reworked the nasty Silver into the heroic Porco Rosso (1992). Animal Treasure Island is surprisingly violent at times, with poor Jim repeatedly pounded by the prickly porker. However, its colourful action scenes tap into a child’s love of reckless mayhem. Standouts include hundreds of animals brawling through the pirate’s hideout (including an elephant firing coconuts from his trunk, machine gun style), a foiled raid on Silver’s ship, and that loveable walrus blowing bad guys away with his hand-held cannon like a preschool Rambo. Rousing entertainment for restless kids, from those days before cynicism afflicted children’s entertainment.