Glasgow, 1858 and two children, Mary (Hayley Mills) and her brother Robert (Keith Hamshere) turn up at the docks to try to board a steamship, but the guard will not let them in, even after he hears their sob story. The siblings are accompanied by a older gentleman, Jacques Paganel (Maurice Chevalier), a professor from the University of Paris who has found a message in a bottle while out fishing for sharks. It is he who works out a way to get on board under the nose of the guard, and soon they are in the presence of the captain, Lord Glenarvan (Wilfrid Hyde-White), but he is not impressed with their story either...
After 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was such a hit for Disney, it's natural they should return to the Jules Verne well to draw some more adventure from it, and In Search of the Castaways was the result. It's unmistakably a lesser film in comparison, and seemed like more of a vehicle for the studio's brightest live action star at the time, Hayley Mills, than a dedicated attempt at getting the pulse racing with a hearty dose of derring do. Neatly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley into a ramble around the world, surprisingly where the film was let down was in the special effects department.
Especially when you recall how well served 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was by those Disney wizards to create a convincing environment for its plot, yet here there are blatant rear projections a-plenty and too many obvious model shots which take one out of the movie somewhat. To compensate, the performances are lively, if nothing to stretch the cast too much, so Hyde-White is a decent old buffer, Chevalier is charm personified, and Mills is the kind of girl who can wrap anyone she meets around her little finger, not because she's manipulative but because nobody wishes to let her down and see disappointment cloud her features.
Once this party have their differences worked out (Paganel stows away, then is revealed when it's too late to turn back), they can set about taking their steamship down to the Southern Hemisphere and the first port of call, the Andes of South America. It is here that Paganel has deducted from the message that the children's father must be stranded, and the episodic narrative progresses in its most impressive stretch, where the seekers encounter an earthquake which sends them hurtling through the ice on broken off boulders, and onto a plain that features an enormous tree that provides shelter when there is a huge flood in the area.
Whatever deficiencies visually, you have to admit there is some degree of high spirited endeavour here, even if the songs don't amount to much - the filmmakers appear to agree, as at the halfway mark they abruptly stop. But then you're put off by a plot twist that reveals the searchers were in completely the wrong part of the planet thanks to Paganel making a stupid mistake and being unwilling to admit it until they have been stuck in the mountains. Yes, we do get to start the story afresh, but you do feel as if the first forty-five minutes have been a complete waste of time, although once we reach New Zealand and the customary villainy of George Sanders perhaps things don't seem too bad. Still, in spite of compensations In Search of the Castaways is never as good as you think it could have been, not that it's poor, simply underwhelming. Music by William Alwyn.