Sunday, 23 February 2014

Magic Island

Director: Sam Irvin
Writers: Brent Friedman, Neil Ruttenberg
Producer: Debra Dion
Cast: Zachary Ty Bryan, Andrew Divoff, French Stewart
Country: USA
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Ladies and gentlemen, the Dick Van Dyke Award for the Most Preposterous British Accent in a Motion Picture goes to… the entire cast of Magic Island, a mid-1990s children’s fantasy from Charlie Band’s Moonbeam Entertainment.

Throughout the history of the talkies, there have been many hilarious attempts by otherwise competent American actors to replicate a British accent, any sort of British accent: from DVD himself and his notorious catchphrase “Cor Blimey, Maori Poor Pens!” to Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as Victorian England’s only Californian surfer dude. And never let us forget the monstrously bad Mary Reilly in which Julia Roberts’ accent took a walking tour of the entire United Kingdom, something which she actually acknowledged in media interviews but tried to excuse by saying, “We wanted to give the impression that Mary had lived and worked all over Britain and picked up lots of different accents.” (I’m not making this up. I saw her on TV saying this with a straight face, which I suppose shows that she is a good actress after all.)


Thirteen-year-old Zachary Ty Bryan from Home Improvement plays Jack Carlisle, the sort of clean-cut blond American 13-year-old traditionally played by child stars from Home Improvement. As an American playing an American, his accent is okay and the same goes for his obligatory single parent (Schae Harrison: The Bold and the Beautiful) who is too busy with work to notice that her son has no friends. When Jack’s mum skips dinner for a business meeting he is left with their Haitian cook, Lucretia (Ja’net Dubois, mostly a TV actress although she can be spotted as ‘Momma Bosley’ in the second Charlie’s Angels movie), whose accent sounds okay although I can’t guarantee authenticity as I have never met anyone from Haiti. Still, West Indian with a hint of French seems reasonable.

Lucretia gives Jack a book about pirates into which he falls, plummeting out of the sky, together with his shoulder bag. Boy and bag land on Blackbeard’s head, knocking the legendary pirate to the sand and thereby saving his opponent in a scene which will have you thinking, “That’s a point – I must watch Time Bandits again.”

Blackbeard is played as a sort of Happy Shopper pantomime villain by the Wishmaster himself, Andrew Divoff. He has a useless, foppish, heavily bewigged first mate named Saperstein (Third Rock from the Sun’s French Stewart, whose other DTV claim to fame is the title role in Inspector Gadget 2) and two dense comedy pirates, Duckbone (Abraham Benrubi: George of the Jungle, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died and later a regular on ER) and Jolly Bob (Sean O’Kane - who is actually Scottish!). Facing off against them are a trio of ‘buccaneers’ – so they’re like pirates, but good – led by Morgan (Edward Kerr: seaQuest DSV) who is the King of England’s nephew. (There is a scene later on where Morgan bemoans how his father never had time for him, thus mirroring Jack’s situation. Except, well, Morgan’s father was brother to the divinely appointed ruler of a globe-spanning empire, providing  close support to a blood relative who was continually embroiled in domestic and foreign politics and usually fighting at least one war, while Jack’s mum needs to get the Atkinson account faxed by Thursday. It’s not really the same thing.) Morgan is confident if not forceful but makes up for this with his choice of companions, a fierce-some wench named Gwyn (Lee Armstrong: Leprechaun 3) who is “the finest swordswoman in all of Ireland” and a black bodybuilder named Dumas (Oscar Dillon, who was one of Harvey Dent’s henchmen in Batman Forever that same year).

Between them, the pirates and the buccaneers are responsible for, I would say, seven of the ten oddest accents ever heard in a feature film. Gwyn’s is possibly the worst which is odd because: aren’t there some Irish people actually living in America? With the exception of Dumas, who is meant to be West Indian (we eventually find out that he is an ancestor of Lucretia and one of his relatives wrote Jack’s book), the actors produce accents which can only be described as ‘Britoid’. That is: they are clearly meant to be British accents, and they sound more British than, say, French or Japanese, but that doesn’t mean that they even remotely resemble any of the many accents spoken throughout the British Isles. They’re not Southern English, Scots or Irish although there are hints of those accents so presumably those are stronger influences than, say Brummie, Geordie or Welsh. (Dumas has a vague accent which seems uncertain whether it should be West Indian, American or Britoid. By comparison with the others it’s quite reasonable.)

You just wonder whether any of these actors has ever actually met anyone from the UK. Or seen a British film or TV show. Perhaps American actors train for British roles by watching Mary Poppins, Mary Reilly and re-runs of Frasier (famous for managing to extract a hilarious Britoid accent from an actress who was actually British).

Anyway, the pirates and the buccaneers are both searching for a treasure on Magic Island, a storybook isle populated by ghosts and monsters. Morgan and friends consider ‘Mad Jack’ to be a sorcerer and he impresses them over the course of the film with modern day miracles such as a Walkman and a cigarette lighter (though there is never any suggestion that he is enough of a rebel to actually smoke – it’s just a plot device). Climbing a pizza tree for food, Jack encounters a ‘sandshark’ – basically a big lizard which burrows through loose sand like a sort of low-rent Tremors graboid, except this actually has a shark fin on its back. Jack defeats it using bubblegum. He subsequently encounters Lily, a young mermaid who saves him from drowning and thereby is magically granted legs for one day. Which is convenient.

Played by 13-year-old Sally-Ann Friend, Lily is a real problem because she spends the whole film wearing a sea-shell bra and a loose, flimsy skirt. There is a romantic subplot between her and Jack which ends with a couple of chaste kisses which is just creepy. I mean, bless, young love and all that, but I think that I speak for adult heterosexual males everywhere when I say that watching skinny, scantily clad 13-year-old girls makes us uncomfortable. Unless they’re playing a coquettish Lolita in some serious drama, 13-year-old actresses should not really be strolling along beaches - wearing what is, effectively, a small bikini – while making goo-goo eyes. (Lily’s accent, while not Britoid – god I love that word now! – is nevertheless very, very odd. Fair enough, it’s not clear what accent a mermaid would actually have, but why not just stick with the actress’ natural accent? Or maybe that is her natural accent.)

Among the other strangeness encountered on the island, as the buccaneers and pirates make their separate ways towards the treasure, occasionally encountering each other, is a trio of carved talking heads – one silly, one angry, one female – voiced by no less a trio than Martine Beswick (Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Cyclone), Isaac Hayes (Shaft, South Park) and Saturday Night Live alumnus Terry Sweeney. Eventually a stone door is located by both parties, which Jack successfully opens by lifting the toenail of a large stone statue sat astride the entrance. This then comes to life – and so, in turn, does the film.

Animated by Joel Fletcher, who also worked on Dragonworld and now does CG animation on movies like King Kong and X-Men III, this 30-foot high statue is the undoubted highlight of the film. It’s very Harryhausen-esque, almost like Talos’ little cousin, and is not only well-animated but very well matted into the action as well, actually interacting with the background and the characters. Without wishing to belittle Magic Island – which is a fun kids film that TF Simpson thought was great – the sequence with the stone giant is like something from a different, better film. It has certainly notched this movie’s MJS rating up a couple of points.

After Jack defeats the stone guardian, the opposing teams meet up again inside the chamber where a vast amount of treasure is stored. This was hoarded by a warlock named Carabas who is in fact still there as a golden face on the wall – which is actually director Sam Irvin sticking his head through a hole in the set. Blackbeard suffers for his greed by being turned into living gold, unable to move as the walls start to grind towards each other, threatening to crush pirate and buccaneer alike. Everyone escapes but, alas, Lily’s legs have vanished and she’s back to being half-fish, so Jack pulls her out on a rug, just before the walls finally close.

Having returned Lily to the sea, and with Saperstein, Duckbone and Jolly Bob eager to be Morgan’s new crew, Jack takes his leave back into the book – and wakes up in his bed. His mother has skipped the meeting and come home to be with her son, which is a happy ending although it’s not exactly narratively satisfying because Mrs Carlisle’s change of heart is unexplained and unrelated to her son’s magical adventure. Normally you would expect the character who has the adventure to learn something about themselves and alter their attitudes or habits, but here it’s the other half of the faulty relationship who mends her ways, for no real reason.

Lily gave Jack a seashell to remember her by, which had all the hallmarks of being the item that would make him think ‘Was it really a dream?’ but in fact that is not mentioned in the epilogue whereas Jack’s torn and wet jeans are clear evidence that what he went through was real.

With its comedy villains, harmless swashbuckling and spooky encounters, Magic Island is good, solid fun for undemanding kids. I can’t see it going down so well with youngsters of Jack’s age but that’s okay. You should always make your child protagonist older than your child audience because kids aspire to be older. For adults, the highlights are the stop-motion stone giant and, of course, the hilarious bad accents. Irvin’s direction is fine, the sandshark and other special effects are okay and the Mexican locales are suitably photogenic and magical.

Zachary Ty Bryan, who was halfway through his eight-year Home Improvement run, had starred in Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter the previous year (some sort of contractual thing I guess as his Home Improvement co-star Taran Noah Smith went on to make Little Bigfoot 2 a couple of years after this). Bryan later had roles in The Rage: Carrie 2, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and episodes of The Outer Limits, Buffy and Smallville. Andrew Divoff’s massive genre CV includes Neon Maniacs, Graveyard Shift, Oblivion 1 and 2, Xtro 3, Nemesis 4, Brian Yuzna’s godawful Faust and a 2002 version of Dracula starring Patrick Bergin.

Director Sam Irvin was a protégé of Brian de Palma and has directed a wide range of features, ads, video etc; from our point of view the interesting ones are Oblivion I and II, Elvira’s Haunted Hills and a Making Of featurette for Gods and Monsters (a film on which he was co-executive producer). He also produced Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy. Neil Ruttenberg wrote Deathstalker II and also Prehysteria 3 on which he collaborated with Brent Friedman. Friedman’s other credits include Syngenor, American Cyborg: Steel Warrior, Prehysteria 2, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and episodes of three series on which he got a producer credit: Dark Skies, Enterprise and the 2002 version of The Twilight Zone.

Cinematographer James Lawrence Spencer lit a whole bunch of Band films in the 1990s, including kidflicks such as Prehysteria 2 and 3 and more adult fare: Beach Babes from Beyond, Dreammaster: The Erotic Invader, Blonde Heaven and Beach Babes 2. He DP-ed second unit on Castle Freak and Lurking Fear, and as a grip/gaffer/sparks he has worked on the likes of Creepozoids, Assault of the Killer Bimbos, Critters III and IV, Puppet Master II, Trancers II, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Amityville Dollhouse and The Dead Hate the Living.

MJS rating: B

review originally posted 12th October 2006

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