‘Kon-Tiki,” a movie that re-creates Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 crossing of the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft, is caught halfway between a Boy’s Own Adventure and a character study of a charming monomaniac. Pål Sverre Hagen, who plays Heyerdahl, is tall, trim, and impossibly blond, and he has penetrating blue eyes that almost — but not quite — shade into madness. If they’d gone all the way, it might have made for a more interesting movie: “Tintin Goes Bananas.”
The movie we’ve got is rousing and beautiful to look at and undercut by compromises onscreen and off. For one thing, this Norwegian production (nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar that it rightly lost to “Amour”) was shot twice, once in Heyerdahl’s native tongue and once in English, and it’s the latter that’s getting released here, in a version 17 minutes shorter than the Norwegian cut. The actors’ English is crisp but stiff, and there are moments you can sense the missing footage like a phantom limb.
The idealistic young Heyerdahl is seen early on in Polynesia with his anthropologist wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), theorizing in excitably square fashion that the Pacific Islands may have been settled not by Asians from the west, as most experts believed, but by South Americans from the east. (Despite the hero’s successful voyage — 4,300 miles in 101 days — many experts still believe migration came from the west, although recent genetic research has indicated some influx from South America as well.)
There are a few amusing scenes in New York as the hero comes up against the fuddy-duddies of the National Geographic Society and other establishment bodies, but soon he’s in Peru, ready to cast off the Kon-Tiki with five crew members. The raft was built scrupulously to ancient specifications, which entailed lashings made of vines rather than the solid modern wire some of the company had hoped for.
From there, the film plays out as a less eventful “Life of Pi,” lighter on the CGI but also on the drama. This version of “Kon-Tiki” — as opposed to Heyerdahl’s own 1950 documentary, which did win an Oscar — invents action scenes to get us over the long haul of 101 days on a raft without a whole heck of a lot happening. That results in the movie’s undeniable highlight, an extended scene involving the barehanded capture of a massive shark and a white-knuckle dip in the ocean on the part of Heyerdahl’s engineer Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), who is made out to look like the soft-bellied sissy of the crew.
By all accounts except this one, Watzinger was as hardy as the others: philosopher/photographer Bengt Danielssen (a very likable Gustaf Skarsgard), troubled Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann), and the less-defined Erik Hesselberg (Odd-Magnus Williamson) and Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro). But the filmmakers feel the need for drama, or the right kind of drama, as they hint at Heyerdahl’s less salutary leadership qualities (impulsiveness, manipulativeness, an inability to listen) without bothering to explore them.
It takes a very special kind of person to embark on a project this deranged — especially when he can’t swim — and the movie only seems to give us half of him. “Kon-Tiki” represents the official story — you sense there’s a lot of national pride riding on the movie — but it also wants to be the most dramatic version of the story, and while the contradictions don’t sink the film, they certainly rob it of impact.
“Kon-Tiki” is stalwart and uplifting and there are passing moments of wonder. And, yes, Heyerdahl pulled off an astonishing accomplishment, no matter what he did or didn’t prove. The movie is suitable entertainment for 12-year-old kids of all ages, so ignore some of us if we wish for a deeper, weirder version of this story — maybe one directed by Werner Herzog and starring the late Klaus Kinski.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.