The Golden Seal

Director: Frank Zuniga   
Steve Railsback, Michael Beck, Penelope Milford

In the over ten years I have spent working on this website, I have reviewed a lot of movies. One of my aims I have held since the beginning was not only to review a lot of movies, but review a variety of movies. This way, I can almost guarantee that any visitor to this website can find something that will appeal to him or her. But it was perhaps inevitable that despite my best efforts, I would review more movies of a certain kind than others. If you look at my genre index, you will see that the genre I have picked to review movies under more than any other genre is the action genre (I have a weakness for action movies.) And the genre that I have chosen the least amount of times to add to this web site has been the family movie genre. Why do family movies account for less than ten percent of the total amount of movies I have reviewed for this website? Well, there are several reasons for that. My tastes are more mature than the attitude you typically find in family movies. But also take a look at the new release section of your neighborhood video store - you will see that family movies are dwarfed by the amount of movies that deal with other genres. They simply don't make that many family movies, especially family movies that happen to be unknown movies. But variety is the spice of life, so I do make an effort every now and then to review a family movie. I also have been trying to review different kinds of family movies as well. For example, I have reviewed animated movies like The Last Unicorn. I have also reviewed serious dramas like The Rivals. And some seriously bizarre movies like King Kung Fu.

One of the sub-categories in the family movie genre I have dealt with several times has been the "boy (or girl) and his animal (or animals)" category. Examples of my dealings with this genre's category include Escape To Grizzly Mountain, White Wolves, and Blizzard. Even though I may not have thought too much of the movies I have reviewed in this genre's category (Blizzard is the only one that immediately comes to mind that I have liked), I must admit that when it comes to watching a family movie for this web site or for my private viewing hours, I find myself drawn to watching an example of this genre's category if the opportunity should arise. One reason is that I love animals. I definitely like eating animals (namely chickens, cows, and pigs), but I also appreciate animals when they are alive. Even the lowliest animal seems to have a grace and majesty that I find fascinating. Another reason why I like watching these kind of movies is that while growing up, I didn't get a lot of chances to interact with a wide range of animals, even though I grew up in what might be considered the sticks. Well, I have to admit while growing up there was a pet in the house for many of those years, but it was only one kind of animal - a cat. Although I enjoyed the company of the cats we had in our family while I grew up, it got kind of one-note after a while. The cats we would get acted mostly the same after a while, and always got into the habit of one day disappearing. The strangest thing was that the stray Manx cat that hung around our property lived the longest and died a natural death.

With cats becoming kind of one-note after a while, I sometimes got jealous of other kids who had other kind of animals for pets, such as dogs. (Though today I'm glad we never got a dog, since I would probably be the one who would have to walk him, and we lived at the top of a steep hill.) This brings up another reason why I seek out these animal-oriented family movies - I get to see a kid living out a dream of sorts, getting the opportunity to play with a baby grizzly bear, a reindeer, or a dolphin. Watching these movies, I imagine what I would do if I was given this opportunity as a kid or as an adult. But maybe the biggest reason why I enjoy watching movies that mix children with animals is the frequently wholesome tone these movies have. Don't get me wrong, I'm no prude - I enjoy violent action and horror movies, as my past reviews have probably told you. But it's nice once in a while to watch something that attempts to have an assuring tone, especially since these kind of family movies are usually not as strident as your typical modern family movie. So when I got the opportunity recently to watch the boy-and-his-animal movie The Golden Seal, I grabbed it. The movie takes place in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Eric Lee (Torquil Campbell) is a lonely boy living alone with his father (Railsback, Helter Skelter) and mother (Penelope Milford, Coming Home) on one of the islands. One day during a storm, he stumbles across a seal that has come to the island to give birth to a pup, and he and the seal quickly bond and become friends. But this is not just any ordinary seal - this seal is the legendary golden seal told in stories by the local natives, a seal that has powers that could be considered magical. But it is not just sought by the natives - white men also seek the seal for its pelt, which is worth thousands of dollars. And Eric's father is one of those men who are determined to catch and kill the seal. Can Eric save his new friend from the hunters, including his father?

There is one thing about The Golden Seal that I don't think even the more cynical-minded viewers of it will deny. That is that the movie looks great. The end credits reveal that the movie was not only filmed in British Columbia (probably no surprise about that, even though this movie was made before the big boom of Hollywood productions filming there), but that parts of the movie were actually shot in the Aleutian Islands themselves. This movie has the expected snow-capped mountains, rocky beaches, and islands where nothing seems to grow except grass. Yet all of this looks somewhat different from the usual mountains, beaches, and islands we have come to expect from movies set in isolated places. It looks fresh, like nothing I had seen before. There were times where I almost got distracted from the action of the movie from this scenery in the background - it's gorgeous and haunting at the same time. But there is more to admire about The Golden Seal than just its beautiful backdrop. I found that the acting by the leads was somewhat stronger than what you usually find in a boy-and-his-animal movie such as this. As the biggest name in this movie, Steve Railsback manages to make his character somewhat sympathetic. We see that he has been hurt by being branded "crazy" from claiming he saw the seal years earlier, and that he wants respect, as well as the ability to provide for his family. Railsback shows this without overplaying it, and injects warmth to his character whenever he can. And as his character's son, Campbell is an ideal child actor. Some parts of the movie threaten to make him go overboard (playing with the seal, or fighting off the hunters), but Campbell restrains himself and has an ideal childhood level of awe and determination.

The supporting cast, like Railsback and Campbell, are careful not to go overboard as well, and make worthy contributions by their presence. As the blind but very wise elder Aleutian native that tells Eric the story of the golden seal, Seth Sakai (Seven) manages to not make his role a stereotype. He manages to give the indication that his character has a sense of humor, for one thing, and it's a shame that he only has two scenes to really perform. A larger part goes to Michael Beck (The Warriors) as the mysterious man who abruptly enters the lives of Eric and his family with plans that are just as mysterious as he is. Beck gives his character an appropriately creepy quality in his early scenes which explodes into determined menace later on, though he wisely never goes over the top with the villainous side of his character. He's a real bad guy, not a really bad guy. There's one thing that Beck wasn't able to do for his character, however, and that is come up with an explanation as to how he actually arrived on the Lee family island. There's a hint that he may have been shipwrecked (we never see a boat of his), but I think kids as well as adults will be confused about this murky part of the movie. That is not the only thing questionable about the script of The Golden Seal. Who, for one thing, is presently in charge of the trust account in Juneau set up in the previous century that will supposedly pay out thousands of dollars for the seal's hide? And wouldn't the golden seal be more valuable if it were captured alive? (Surely this would surely attract a lot of rich customers.) Plus, why does everyone say that this seal is golden when it looks more like it was dyed a light shade of brown?

There are not only questions like those that come up during the movie, but moments that are questionable in nature. This movie was rated PG back in 1983; it would probably get a PG if it was resubmitted to the MPAA again today, but I bet it would have come close to getting a less family-friendly PG-13 rating. There is some tense scenes of violence including one moment where Eric almost gets shot, and there is actually a line of dialogue in this supposed family movie that has one character saying, "I ain't gonna rape your sister." Plus, there is more swearing than you usually get in a family movie. Actually, there's one moment where I could believe the swearing, where Eric first sees the golden seal ("Holy s*it!", he exclaims.) That's a believable reaction to seeing something magical, and about the only moment where the movie gets close to magic. The scenes with Eric and the seal are supposed to be magical, but they aren't. Take the first time Eric gets close up to the seal. You would think there would be a quiet awe to the scene, but director Frank Zuniga screws it up. As Eric ponders what is in front of him for the first time, the seal trots around from one end of the screen to another while barking "BORK! BORK! BORK!" endlessly. This ungraceful movement and loud noise breaks the spell of magic. Also, aside from a subsequent scene of the two new friends swimming in the ocean together, that is about it for all the interaction the two have together before the hunters enter the picture. When Eric subsequently protests and attempts to stop the hunting, I didn't believe it; he and the seal had too little time to bond. The main reason why The Golden Seal ultimately fails is because it's missing the heart and magic needed to depict something so fantastic.

UPDATE: "Gareth" e-mailed me with this:

"There's a pop band here in Canada called Stars that I'm fond of, and their lead singer did a small solo album a few years ago.  It begins with a cheesy voice-over "It began one stormy night in the Aleutian Islands..."  and I was curiously where it came from.  With a bit of Google-fu, I ended up at your review of The Golden Seal.

"It turns out that singer Torq Campbell was the young star of this film. 

"And this solo side project is called "Dead Child Star" - which strikes me as both poetic and a bit tragic, especially in the context of his recurring themes of holding on to one's innocence and playfulness.

"Anyway, neat site - I look forward to digging to find some interesting gems in your trove of reviews!"

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See also: Blizzard, Escape To Grizzly Mountain, White Wolves