Animal Treasure Island is a criminally underrated Toei anime film from 1971. If the “1971” part instantly made you think “no, there’s no way I’m watching this”, you might need a little backstory. For one, this is from an era where Toei put a TON of money, work and talent into their movies – a lot of their 60s and 70s input aged wonderfully from a visual standpoint. And some of it aged just as well in other ways, this movie being one of them.
A lot of the people who later went on to form Studio Ghibli were heavily involved with this, including a young Hayao Miyazaki who animated a very lengthy action sequence for it and was credited as the “idea man”. This was back when the Oscar-winning anime director had yet to become the intensely jaded, cynical man he is today and could bring himself to help come up with stories that existed not to attempt to teach us any kind of lesson, but simply to entertain the hell out of us. And for better or for worse, they were also given a massive budget to work with. This was a movie they had a lot of faith in… so it’s a damn shame that it didn’t do very well back in the early 70s (it lost to an Ultraman movie, something Miyazaki wasn’t very happy about). As a result, Toei’s higher ups decided to not fund movies of this caliber anymore, so Miyazaki and the lot scurried off to Nippon Animation for their next projects while Toei were busy making (among many other things) sedated alternatives to bloody and hyper-sexual Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa manga.
And you can tell why they had hope for this movie: it’s technically just a series of gags and action scenes, but it feels like they really tried to make it the most exciting series of gags and action scenes out there. There is a certain, perhaps often-ignored art to delivering shallow fun in a way that is as involving as possible to the audience, and I’m convinced that director Hiroshi Ikeda understood this quite well. Everything from the fun direction, wonderful animation and musical accompaniment to the stylish background art reeks of talent and enthusiasm. The characters are lively, cartoony and expressive, moreso than… pretty much 99% of all anime ever. The action is smooth and fluid, the scene composition is great and Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe’s scenes even show some really impressive water animation.
For a movie containing on-screen deaths and a villain that attempts to murder the child protagonists more than once, Animal Treasure Island is a pretty joyful and light-hearted ride. It’s the kind of movie where even when something really tense is going on, you know everything will turn out okay anyway and the good guys will prevail, either through their own wits or through ridiculous coincidences… but that’s honestly okay in this type of movie, and to fault it for this would mean criticizing it for what it wasn’t trying to be. It’s all about careless fun, and the characters mirror this pretty well; despite being a little on the dense side the male lead is very fun to watch, and despite being a total scumbag, the pirate captain becomes oddly very likable too. Kathy, the female lead, was either Miyazaki’s own idea, or simply an idea that he quickly grew to like – she’s a tough, surprisingly badass character that always manages to one-up the bad guys in some way… even at the point where it seems like she finally became a stereotypical damsel in distress.
In short, this is a worthwhile movie as long as you don’t expect to take much away from it beyond childish fun. Hell, if this fantastic video of Miyazaki’s scene from the movie doesn’t make you want to give it a shot, nothing will.