Another screen version of Daniel Defoe's classic story probably isn't high on many people's list of must-see films. That's a shame, because moviegoers who avoid this intelligent, free-form adaptation will miss the season's most appealing surprise.
Although it's an oft-told tale of shipwreck and survival, this is no lame Story Theater edition for schoolchildren. Crusoe is storytelling in thrilling visual terms, retelling the tale with such clarity and economy that you'll feel as though you're encountering it for the first time. In a sense, you are. Directed by cinematographer-turned-moviemaker Caleb Deschanel, who was responsible for the memorable images in the last great children's adventure, The Black Stallion, this version alters Defoe's plot without defiling it. This time Crusoe is an early 19th-century slave trader in Virginia who learns to reconsider his notions about race relations when he washes up on a deserted tropical island. With an expert's eye and an artist's glee, Deschanel offers up a bounty of remarkable images—from a curious creature in the sand to the ceremonial cannibals who threaten Crusoe—yet none of his clever compositions are self-congratulatory.
Shot primarily in the Seychelles islands, his images always service the story first, and his film exults in the elusive sense of wonder that distinguishes the best adventure stories. Although he has no co-stars to speak of—Friday has been banished from this version—Quinn could easily be upstaged by the settings. But Deschanel finds Quinn's face as compelling as the scenery, and like his director, Quinn never panders to the audience. He makes Crusoe's callousness as real as his redemption. As is the movie itself, he's terse but articulate, particularly in his haunting final close-up.
In an era of far too many wretched movies, stumbling upon an unheralded gem like Crusoe is like finding a $100 bill on the sidewalk, except that this is a discovery you want to share. (PG-13)