With the success of Walt Disney’s adaptation of the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea it’s no surprise that Disney would try and adapt more works by the world renowned author, and so almost ten years since James Mason and Kirk Douglas wrestled with a giant squid aboard the Nautilus we got Haley Mills and Maurice Chevalier traipsing across the glove in Disney’s adaption of the Jules Verne book Captain Grant’s Children. This was not one of the better known works of Verne thus Walt had no compunction about changing the title into something a little more catching.
The basic premise of both the book and the movie is that the children of missing Captain Grant (Jack Gwillim) had received a bottle with a note from their father, who was presumed lost at sea many years ago when his ship the Britannia went down. In the book after the bottle containing the note was discovered in the belly of a shark Lord and Lady Glenarvan of Scotland contacted the grant children to let them know that their father may still be alive, but when the government refused to launch an expedition to find Captain Grant the Glenarvans decide to do it themselves. Disney had this opening condensed a bit and has the movie open with teenage Mary Grant (Hayley Mills), accompanied by her younger brother Robert (Keith Hamshere) and professor of geology Jacques Paganel (Maurice Chevalier), who in the movie is the man who found the bottle in the shark, sneaking aboard the Duncan, a steam powered yacht owned by Lord Glenarvan (Wilfrid Hyde-White), who was the owner of the Britannia and Captain Grant’s employer.
Lord Glenarvan thinks the story of the bottle and the shark to be complete poppycock and that Professor Paganel is a fraud, believing that the man is just using the children’s plight to scam some of the reward money which Glenarvan had put up for information pertaining to the lost ship and her crew. Lucky for our young heroes Glenarvan’s teenage son John (Michael Anderson Jr.) becomes immediately infatuated with young Mary and he is able to convince his father that they can’t risk the chance that the note is genuine and so they must help in the search for Captain Grant. Most of this is played for laughs with Wilfrid Hyde-White playing the slightly buffoonish lord who can be swayed by a little flattery, along with some antics of Maurice Chevalier trying to steal food and wine, and Haley Mills and her budding love with the young lordling.
The first problem to arise is that the note is in bad shape and thus for a location they only know the latitude (37 degrees) but as the note mentioned being captured by Indians Professor Paganel states that the only place where there could be Indians on the 37th Latitude is South America. This is but the first time Paganel will state something to be certain only to shortly be proven completely wrong a short time later. These wrong assertions do lead to some fun adventures though; on their trip through South America they will be menaced by threats of varying natures.
As this is light family fare none of the dangers comes across as all that life threatening, even while being carried away by the Giant Condor young Robert never loses his smile, and when our group finally reach their destination, only to find out that the three white men they’d heard were being held by the natives were not from the Britannia, you can almost hear the “Waa-waaaaah” on the soundtrack. It’s by this time that Paganel realizes that the shark that he pulled the bottle from was a mako shark and as they are not to be found in the waters around South America the Indians in the note must have referred to the aborigines of Australia, which funny enough was where Lord Glenarvan originally wanted to start the search.
When they eventually reach Australia they encounter a smooth talking Englishman by the name of Thomas Ayerton (George Sanders) who claims to have been mate aboard the Britannia, stating he was the sole survivor. He also informs them that the ship sank off New Zealand and if Grant is alive that is where he would be. Paganel insists that it would be impossible for the bottle to have originated from those waters but because he has been such a colossal idiot for most the movie Lord Glenarvan ignores him and of course this is the one time he turns out to be right. Seems Ayerton was member of Grant’s crew but he is a traitorous bastard and a gunrunner to boot. He plans to maroon our heroes on the same shores he marooned their father, where they could quickly find themselves on a Maori menu.
Lucky for our intrepid group they are first locked in a room with Bill Gaye (Wilfrid Brambell), one of Grant’s surviving mates, and who has kind of gone full on Ben Gunn from Treasure Island with his eccentric madness. Though a bit crazy he’s also quite crafty and over the years had fashioned a long rope to aid in their escape, and his plan only needs someone of Robert’s diminutive size to fit through a tiny back window. With the angry Maori hot on their heels they escape across taboo territory under the raging fires of a volcano that geologist Paganel is able to set off.
After escaping the Maori they are able to sneak aboard Glenarvan’s yacht, free the crew locked below, and capture Ayerton and his confederates. They also find Captain Grant as he was helping to broker a gun deal between Ayerton and Maoris. The ending of this movie is a mess, how Grant escaped and ended up being a go-between with Ayerton and the locals doesn’t make much sense but the movie wraps up so damn fast one isn’t give much time to question it. The movie then ends with the reunited family heading back to Scotland with young love in full bloom.
Director Robert Stevenson took the gruff thrilling adventures of the Jules Verne novel and then replaced them with wacky capers and songs by the Sherman Brothers, it’s not a bad movie, and it did quite well at the box office during its original release, but it’s not one of the Disney films that stood the test of time such as their adaptations of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, or Swiss Family Robinson. Haley Mills is of course quite delightful as the brave Mary Grant but I’d sooner be eaten by a shark then spend any length of time with the rest of this cast of characters,which is why In Search of the Castaways isn’t a film many people bother to search for.
Note: The character of Professor Jacques Paganel in the book was an unexpected passenger aboard Lord Glenarvan’s yacht – he’d missed his steamer to India by accidentally boarding on the Duncan – and his purpose was to provide color commentary on the flora, fauna, and geography of numerous places the adventures visit, an element typical of a Verne story.