Norway’s film Kon-Tiki received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Knowing this creates a feeling of incongruity when, in the US release, its characters speak in plain English. It’s not a redub or a remake: directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg shot the movie in both Norwegian and English takes, and between those takes and some stealthy dubbing were able to assemble two separate cuts of the movie. Initially, this seems like a sad concession to impatient American audiences, and it may be that, in part. But watching Kon-Tiki in English, we might see that the decision makes sense: this is a movie that English-speaking American kids might want to see.
That’s not to say that Kon-Tiki is exactly a lively romp. Smaller children will likely be bored and, in a few shark-heavy scenes, terrified. But adventurous children of about 10 or 11 might well lose themselves in this true story of Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen), a scientist who means to prove his theory that Polynesia was settled by South Americans, rather than people from the west, per the prevailing theory of his time. In 1947, he sets sail with a crew of five on a balsawood raft, constructed only with materials that would have been available to ancient South Americans.
Thor pitches this journey as a legitimate science experiment, but it seems equally rooted in showboating stunt-craft. But the inflated nobility conferred upon the trip by both Thor and the movie lends the story a charming retro zip: it’s an adventure that draws from science and anthropology, rather than a race to find hidden treasure or save the human race. It’s difficult to imagine an explicitly fictional epic getting away with these half-idiosyncratic, half-flimsy motivations.
If Kon-Tiki is the good kind of square, and its filmmaking is, for the most part, the good kind of old-fashioned. Rønning and Sandberg, often shooting on real open water, capture both the beauty and terror of nature in all its hugeness. One shot starts on Hagen’s face (Thor approaching and then facing the camera, gazing at something the audience can’t see, is a recurring visual motif) and pans around 360 degrees to take in the vast ocean and, finally, back to the tiny raft. The combination of physical locations and special effects is often seamless. In a low-key sort of way, it’s just as convincing as Life of Pi, which features similar threats and inspirations.
Perhaps as tribute to the story’s real-life origins, the movie doesn’t goose up the excitement; sharks circle and thunderstorms rage, but suspense is episodic and momentary, rarely sustained. And unlike Life of Pi, there’s little sense of moral metaphors or spirituality at play beneath the basic high-seas survival. Several of the crew members disappear into another sort of sea, one of tan skin, blonde hair, and red beards. They’re tested physically, but none of them changes much, save perhaps the inexperienced refrigerator salesman Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen). Predictably, you can forget about getting to know Thor’s wife (Anges Kittelsen) beyond her status as an affectionate but naysaying worrier.
The movie does make one attempt to place the crew and their mission into a greater context of exploration and discovery, pulling the camera up and up into the stars and above earth before plunging back down to the ocean. It’s a neat trick, one that also renders the final stretch of the movie that follows somewhat anticlimactic.
But as a telling of a great Norwegian adventure story, Kon-Tiki works well enough. Playing in the US, even in its alternate-take English version, it takes on the extra dimension of another country’s mythically proportioned historical triumph. The filmmakers estimate that 20% of Norway has already seen this version, released there in 2012, and so hope the appeal crosses national as well as linguistic borders. As US viewers acquaint themselves with Kon-Tiki, they may all feel like enthusiastic kids again.