Odyssey Moving Images // 1982 // 81 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // April 16th, 2012
A rediscovered children's classic as witty as Pippi Longstocking!
A fun family adventure about genocide -- starring Mickey Rooney!
Seriously, what to make of Treasure Train, an understandably obscure children's film from surrealist artist Fernando Arrabal (The Tree of Guernica)?
Our tale concerns children Toby and Liz, who live with their aunt and uncle. One day, Cambodian refugee Hoang comes to live with them. Hoang is just staying with this family until he can be adopted, but what he really wants is to go back to Cambodia, find his mother, and marry her. What Hoang doesn't quite understand is that his mother is in all probability not alive any more, since in flashbacks, we see the country under siege.
The children spend their days having all manner of modest adventures, generally taking their bicycles out and pedaling around, doing "explorations."
On one such outing, they meet a crazy old man in a whimsically elaborate wheelchair (Mickey Rooney, Pete's Dragon). The old man claims to be the Emperor of Peru. He enchants the children with nonsequitors, and behind his shack, they discover an old steam locomotive. The children decide to use it to take Hoang back to Cambodia before he can be adopted away.
That's pretty much it. That's the sum and total of Treasure Train, a film that strives to be a fanciful, timeless adventure, but ends up being strained, creepy, and overall pointless. I know Arrabal is something of a renaissance man, having written plays, novels, essays, poems, film scripts, and operas; he's had exhibitions of paintings and he's directed his work for film and stage. Here, he seems to be trying to tell a simple story of the faith of children and the boundless capacities of their imaginations, but he ends up with something that looks like it belongs in the K. Gordon Murray universe of weird foreign family films.
Most of this French Canadian film consists of a sort of manufactured whimsy that seems rooted more in an adult's view of childhood than a child's view of the world. For instance, Toby is prone to having "little boy" fantasies. He imagines he's a race car driver, a fireman, an orchestra conductor, an astronaut rescuing some kind of space queen, and so on. But these fantasies play out awkwardly, thanks in part to the low budget, but also to their execution. They're always accompanied by some kind of narrator -- in some, Hoang is there as a news reporter wearing a pork pie hat and trenchcoat -- and Toby's actions and reactions seem less to do with how a child might act or react than to what an adult would find "cute." Like most of the film, these sequences forced and unnatural.
We get flashbacks of Hoang's story of persecution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a topic that I'm guessing would fly over the heads of the intended audience. These scenes -- in which we learn that Hoang's dad is in a concentration camp, his mom is likely headed for a similar, if not worse, fate, and children are routinely dragged off by pirates -- are unsettling, but Arrabal doesn't provide a whole lot of context. Hoang's decision to rescue his mother and marry her is probably supposed to be endearing, but it leaves an awfully uncomfortable feeling, particularly in a scene in which Liz tries to teach him the proper way to kiss his intended bride. That Hoang sounds like he was dubbed by Herve Villechaize of Fantasy Island doesn't make things any more palatable; in fact, all the dubbing has an off-putting feel to it, with words and mouth movements rarely synching up, odd speech cadences, and things like laughing and crying sounding completely unnatural.
Mickey Rooney's benignly crazy old man sometimes seems anything but benign, and scenes of dwarf noblemen and a vague religious allegory featuring clowns might please fans of Arrabal's other work, but don't really cut it as kiddie fare. Most frustratingly, the whole thing turns out to be nothing more than a set-up for an adventure that never happens. The children learn (from Rooney) how to operate the train, they find coal to power it, they map out their trip -- but the film never actually gives us the trip, ending with an odd, unfinished coda.
The disc of Treasure Train (Blu-ray) from Odyssey offers a reasonably clean 1.66:1/1080p image, though it's far from great. There are two mono audio options, meaning you can watch the film with a badly dubbed English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track or a badly dubbed French track. The lone extra is an interview with Rooney from 2011, whose generic answers to questions about making the film ("He was great, and so was the crew, don't forget to mention them") suggests that Treasure Train was not a stand-out experience among his hundreds of film and TV appearances. A quote on the box compares the film to Pippi Longstocking, whose track record in films is right down there with the Garbage Pail Kids.
I'm all for children's entertainment that's more challenging than the norm and deviates from generic, but weird for weird's sake isn't a viable alternative.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Odyssey Moving Images
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated G