“Kon-Tiki” might as well open with “Once upon a time …” This handsome dramatization of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 raft voyage from Peru to Polynesia has the feel of a boy’s adventure: “Across the Pacific With Six Men and a Parrot.”
Irony and complicated character development would constitute excess baggage. The film harks back to the era of “Swiss Family Robinson,” when films were like well-made hospital beds, all four corners neatly tucked. Nominated for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film, it was shot simultaneously in Norwegian and English versions, the form in which it’s being released in the United States.
The film opens with an anxious childhood prologue on an icy lake that establishes Heyerdahl’s tough luck around bodies of water. Cut ahead to the South Seas, where the adult explorer (Pål Sverre Hagen) subjects his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), to all manner of primitive tropical hardships. Heyerdahl’s character is briskly sketched: intrepid verging on foolhardy and largely oblivious of the feelings of others.
Next we leap to a glorious postwar New York City where every conceivable sponsor turns down the chance to underwrite his proposed 4,000-mile trek on a balsa-wood flatboat. Still, Heyerdahl is determined to make his mark in anthropology. Proving that distant islands could have been settled by pre-Incan Peruvians floating west rather than Asians sailing east would be a major coup.
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (“Max Manus”) rapidly introduce the team: Anders Baasmo Christiansen as a cowardly, inept sponsor who repeatedly endangers the mission, Gustaf Skarsgård as the token Swede. They note that publicity hound Heyerdahl recruits two radiomen to broadcast dispatches of their progress, but only one navigator.
At sea there’s a good amount of smooth sailing, guitar playing and manly joshing, with thrills and calamity just when your attention might drift. Christiansen frets that the hemp ropes holding the craft together are decomposing, a curious whale nearly upends the boat, and sharks eye the crew ravenously. The storm sequences are fantastic, but Rønning and Sandberg build the story by letting us get to know the men cramped in a small ship.
Heyerdahl is an intriguing mix of qualities, at times a dashing (if inexperienced) sea captain, then an Ahab-style obsessive. He insists that all will be well as long as they follow the methods of prehistoric mariners and trust in their Tiki good-luck charm. The fact that he’s guessing at those ancient sailing and construction techniques supplies an undercurrent of angst.
After the crew’s tumultuous and triumphant landing on an atoll in French Polynesia, the film concludes with an epilogue reminding us that adventures distract us from life’s challenges but do not erase them. Heyerdahl wrote a bestselling account of his voyage, and his documentary became Norway’s only Oscar-winning film, yet to strong-minded Liv he was fleeing his family duties. Most historians and anthropologists remain skeptical of the theory of east-to-west migration across the Pacific. In the film’s terms, though, the adventure is achievement enough, and there’s much to admire in a man who never veered from the course he set.