The closing credits for "The Sea Gypsies," a picturesque but trifling adventure movie about castaways aimed at the family and juvenile markets, list more animal trainers than actors with speaking parts. The cast was similarly outnumbered in "The Adventures of the Wilderness Family," the last feature directed by Steward Raffill, but his affinity for wild critters and spectacular scenery is still not matched by adequate skill at characterization and storytelling.
Whenever there's a lull in a Raffill script, a frequent occurrence, expect a bear to enter and give the actors another workout. "Wilderness Family" was overstocked with obstreperous bears, and so is "The Sea Gypsies," in which a sailing party is shipwrecked on an island in the Aleutians. My hunch is that Raffil won't be able to sustain a feature without marauding bears until he hires a legitimate writer to supply the dramatic elements he doesn't know how to invent.
"The Sea Gypsies" fails to develop two potentially interesting pretexts for an adventure movie: an account of people on a round-the-world sailing voyage aboard a vintage 60-foot ketch and a story of castaways trying to survive in uninhabited country. Raffill appreciates the beauty of seascapes and landscapes, but he can't seem to perceive the drama inherent in character traits and relationships or in the skills required for feats like sailing or surviving in the wild. One comes away from this film impressed by random vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the Aleutians but without a hint of what it might actually take to be a sailor or a Robinson Crusoe.
Out of some mad impulse to spice things up while remaining basically wholesome, Raffill has revised the idealized, symmetrical nuclear family of his last picture, which consisted of stalwart dad, pretty mom, two glowing kids of either sex and one loyal mutt. Robert Logan, the father in "Wilderness Family," returns in "The Sea Gypies" as a widower with two daughters, played by 13-year-old Heather Rattray and 8-year-old Shannon Saylor. Naturally, the loyal mutt remains, but a pair of interlopers join the ill-fated voyage: Mikki Jamison-Olsen as a photo-journalist and 12-year-old Cjon Damitri Patterson as a black runaway-stowaway.
After some gratuitous bickering, the career woman gets permanently moony over the widower. The kid functions as a surrogate interracial son and brother, but it's unclear what the future is supposed to hold for him. Does he get adopted by this bunch or return to his real family?
Several things in the movie will not survive scrunity or even idle curiosity. For examply, food would appear to be a compelling problem once the castaways are washed ashore with only bare hands and a single pocket knife to work with. Nevertheless, the hunting episodes invariably lack urgency and credibility. Logan tries to run down herds of carbou and bison with a homemade spear. When he comes across a trapped doe, he's too tender-hearted to kill her. In every instance the music cues us to believe that hunting food is essentially a lark.
Raffill and his father Joseph, who functions as his producer, were born in England and broke into the American film business as anmimal handlers, suppliers and wranglers. The most appealing aspect of the Rafill productions is the spacious, sharp-focus color photography in natural surroundings.
Although it's set in the wild. "The Sea Gypsies" cannot transcend an insipid conception of the appeal of lost-in-the-woods or stranded-on-desert island adventure stories. It imparts a fleeting, negligible sense of peril along with negligible practical infomation. Writers exist who specialize in such fiction. Raffill needs to look one of them up before he engages his next squad of animal trainers.