Even these tapes cost something

  Secret of the Seal
1992 | L.A. Media Group
Secret of the Seal Celebrity's Just for Kids

"A movie filled with life-enhancing values that the whole family will enjoy!"

I'm not sure my life has been enhanced but it is now 80 minutes shorter...

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The children's novel Tottoi tells the story of a young boy who, with his father and younger sister, returns to the sunny Mediterranean island of Sardinia following the death of his mother. Living with his aunt and uncle, Antonio, who is nicknamed Tottoi by his cousin, helps rebuild the old family home and enjoys swimming in the sea.

In the ancient sea caves, Tottoi discovers an adult Seal and her pup, long thought extinct on the island. He intends to keep his discovery a secret but word soon gets out and it is not long before sinister men are interested in profiting from Tottoi's discovery.

Written by Italian Gianni Padoan in the late 1980s, Tottoi was somewhat of a diversion from his previous works. Since the late sixties, Padoan had worked as a Sci-fi translator, bringing the works of the legendary Isaac Asimov to Italian readers. Continuing down the same vein, during late 1970's he published sixteen novels based on episode scripts from the Gerry Andersen TV drama Space: 1999.

By the 1980's Padoan diversified into nature stories. He followed the first Tottoi book with two sequels: Tottoi and the Horses of the Jar (Tottoi ei Cavallini della Giara) in 1995 and Tottoi and the Dolphins (Tottoi ei Delfini) a year later, co-written with his daughter Daniela.

Tottoi was published in Japanese in 1989 and created enough public interest to be turned into an animated movie by Nippon Animation co funded by ENIT, the Italian National Tourist Board and Japanese TV station NHK. The movie debuted in theaters June 1992, with an artbook detailing the creation process accompanying the launch.

Haruhiko Mikimoto, famous for his work on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Gunbuster and Megazone 23, provided the character designs and the poster artwork. Ryuzo Nakanishi, who had a history in literary adaptations including The Diary of Anne Frank, Dog of Flanders and Ernest Thompson Seton's Monarch, provided the script.

Tottoi gained a video release in 1993 courtesy of Pony Canyon with NHK providing early morning showings on TV. Most recently the Japanese video game publisher Success Corp released an adventure game based on the movie for Windows PC and Playstation 2. In shops late 1999 it was part of a series of educational titles called Anime English Conversation, each was based on a past children's anime movie with the intention of teaching English to a young audience. The series was short lived with only three titles released before cancellation.

The English version arrived in America in 1993 renamed The Secret of the Seal. Appearing on rental VHS once again thanks to the prolific Celebrity's Just For Kids label, home of everything from Revenge of the Ninja Warrior to Wee Wendy.

The localisation was handled by a company called L.A. Media Group who created a movie suitable for TV broadcast, with regular ad break spaces and recap bumpers. Additional narration was added, voiced by one of the small cast of actors, who providing lines for several roles.

The original score was completely replaced with music composed by experienced Dave Siebels, including a newly written ballad. Siebels also contributed to Space Warriors and Little Women as well as the Warner Bros animated theatrical feature The Mighty Kong.

Outside of the rental VHS release The Secret of the Seal also received regular airtime on local TV networks, often in early morning time slots. Outside of the US the movie was broadcast around Europe in its original Japanese form and title with only the alteration of localised dubs.

Neither Secret of the Seal nor any other version of Tottoi have ever been released in the UK.


Tottoi by Gianni Padoan Tottoi Japanese Pony Canyon VHS Tottoi PC Game Success
The novel (in German)
The Japanese VHS
The PC Game by Success
Comparing the original and new logos

Secret of the Seal

Let us pause for a moment to consider the Just For Kids cover. Usually they are pretty good with these, normally using publicity art from the Japanese original but not this time. What we get here is a hideous, mawkish, vomit inducing Disney-fication that you frequently get from cartoon DVDs with titles similar to the latest cinema release from Uncle Walt.

Fig A. Awful, demented looking Disney-kid and slightly worried looking seal who he is almost definitely hugging just a little too tight.

Fig B. An orange fish. There are no fish characters in this at all. No orange fish either. Had this cover been drawn yesterday, he would certainly be a Clown Fish, am I right?

Fig C. Cute, cuddly and, quite clearly female, Mummy Seal. It's got eye lashes. The real one doesn't even have pupils.

Not exactly spot-on and, without doubt, sickeningly sappy!

The movie opens with a young boy racing through a shipping yard on his bike and it is soon clear that he's heading for the hospital. Reaching the steps he dashes inside leaving his bike where it lays. He runs all the way to the ward but a man with a science teacher beard standing opposite the bed shakes his head indicating that he's too late. Not that his timely arrival was important to the patient's survival, you understand. He wasn't transporting a lifesaving organ in his basket.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

A frugal minded doctor takes the respirator away. No sense wasting oxygen on a dead woman. Antonio's mother has died, from "pollution related diseases". That's diseases plural. Not just one but possibly many. Wouldn't have happened if she'd stayed in Italian owned Sardinia rather than moving to the smog choked, acid rain plagued death hole of West Germany. I wonder if this plot point had anything to do with this film being funded by the Italian Tourist Board?

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

The agonising death of his beloved wife is all the wake up call his dad needs and he packs up the VW Camper and the three of them (Antonio has a sister called Francesca - don't get too familiar we'll barely be seeing her again) head back to the clear blue skies of their homeland.

There seem to be two narrators in this story, Antonio and his dad fill the role interchangeably - making the film seem almost self aware. It is worth pointing out that even though he is Sardinian by birth Chipriano has a wonky German accent.

"It was time to start over. A new life, a better life." He states like a third-rate Arnie, quickly followed by; "We'll be back with the story." I'm sorry, what? Ignoring that the tape has only been playing for slightly over three minutes, how does he know that it's a story? And that there's a break? We then get three and a half minutes of mostly text free opening sequence accompanied by a brand new library music loop.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

The Camper's tailpipe sputters clouds of dirt into the air. "I'd better get the car fixed before I pollute the whole island!" chuckles Antonio's father. Should he really be making jokes about that? Isn't it a bit soon? Finally, they reach their destination and this rollercoaster of an adventure can finally begin.

The kids meet their aunt and uncle (oddly introduced by dad as "my younger sister and her husband") and their Bert-browed cousin Billia. No one good has eyebrows like that! I quickly ear mark him as the antagonist for this story. He renames Antonio "Tottoi" and everyone goes along with it immediately. He wealds some power in Sardinia, this kid.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Another thing I noticed is that everyone laughs, all the time. At stuff that isn't even funny. At dinner, Francesca and Antonio are impressed with the custard (Zabaione - it's the closest thing to a plot point this lightweight tale has) and Billia remarks "What a baby!" - the whole party are beside themselves in fits. That didn't even make any sense!

Not many videos have ad breaks but this one does - "The new arrivals to Sardinia found a warm welcome but trouble lurks in Tottoi's future..." Chipriano, Tottoi's dad, intones slowly over footage we have literally just seen. But what is this trouble that he is warning of? Sound exciting! I can't wait to find out what it is!

After the invisible ads we find Tottoi, his dad, sister and uncle visiting the collapsed shack that used to be his father's home. Chipriano intends to completely rebuild it over their summer vacation so they have somewhere to live. Seems like a job that even the Extreme Makeover team would struggle with but good luck to him. Inside they discover a door mouse sleeping under a pile of rubble.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

"It's a nocturnal animal, so it's not awake yet" their uncle tells the enraptured children, and them moves to crush it under his shoe! Tottoi saves the animal from waking up dead and it becomes his sister's constant companion (and is forgotten from the story as quickly as she is).

Billia appears out of nowhere and demands Tottoi come have a ride on Captain Marko's tourist boat. There is no way this guy's not up to something, but what's his plan? When we meet the eponymous captain I think I know what it is. Captain Marko is the most dandiest sea fairing man I've ever seen. Cap on at an angle, pipe constantly in hand and always standing in some awkward, jaunty pose with an arch expression like a man-hungry predator eying up the nearby talent. So what fiendish plot do Billia and Captain Dandy have in mind?

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

With a boat load of tourists they set sail for the underground caverns, passing an expensive looking luxury yacht on the way. Pay attention to the men aboard the yacht - we'll be see a lot more of them - in an hours time. Billia leads Tottoi away from the main crowd and into the secluded tunnels. Next he encourages him to have a swim while he wanders away to light the lanterns further in, his cousin obliges. So this must be part of his nasty plot, right? What will happen next?

"My great underwater adventure began as a simple lark", it is Tottoi narrating now, "I had no idea of the peril that was in store!" Alright, here it comes. The boy himself has now promised us 'peril' so the action must be right around the corner!

Tottoi swims amongst the fish for a while when his peaceful antics are suddenly interrupted by a huge seal! Look out! This must be the event we've been waiting for! Will it attempt to drown him? No. It just swims by him a couple of times and then Tottoi climbs out and runs to Cap'n Marko.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

The saucy seaman doesn't believe Tottoi's tall tale, those seals have been extinct for years. Billia doesn't buy his story either, handing him a photo postcard of the last known seal as if this were proof of something.

Is it just me, or is this seal discovery not that mind blowing? There were once seals, then there were no seals. Now maybe there is one. Not that far fetched. I'm sure there's much more to the story than this, though.

One more phony commercial break. These ad breaks are strange. What do they expect me to do - pause the tape for four minutes and think of washing powder and TV dinners?

The next day (not that you'd know if since everyone only has one set of clothes which they never change) and Billia arrives on his motorcycle to take Tottoi to meet his friends. Catalina, whose dad owns the local hotel, is outraged that Tottoi has been shooting his mouth off about finding a seal, an obvious lie. Seems like there's not very much going on in Sardinia if this is big news. Later, at dinner, Chipriano recognizes the seal postcard as the work of his old friend, the incredibly named Nonni Sparnew.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Tottoi goes to visit him alone, all the more worrying when the narrator states "... Strange and mysterious things went on in the house of Nonni Sparnew".

Nonni more than lives up to his name with a truly awe inspiring mullet, huge beard and a bear skin draped over his shoulders. He lives in an isolated house full of stuffed animals and I don't think he's married. When Tottoi tells him of his unlikely discovery the man simply replies "Can you come to the harbor, 7am tomorrow morning?"

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Another false break and the narrator assures the audience that the story is about to begin.

7am at the harbor. Tottoi boards a tiny motor boat with the huge mountain man and they set off alone to the distant, secluded caves. Local dimwit Pedru waves as they vanish into the horizon. Will he be the last to see Tottoi alive?

"Will Sant Andrea, Saint that blesses the caverns be enough to protect Tottoi?" asks Chipriano in his role as occasional narrator/crap spouter. Oh god, so the young boy really is in danger! I was just kidding, but it seems like things really are gonna take a turn for the worst. He's on a boat trip to death.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

The pair venture deep into the dark caverns. With his bare hand, Nonni scoops up a lump of Seal poo, when the two reach the beach at the back. He gives it a good sniff - "This is recent." I didn't see what he did with it after but I imagine he put it in his pocket for later.

Tottoi discovers a young seal pup hidden behind a rock. He pets it, much to the annoyance of giant mummy seal who approaches from the water. Sparnew hurls a few dead octopeds her way and suddenly human molestation is no longer a big issue with her. Tottoi names the baby seal Zabaione because of its yellow belly (see - I told you it was important). On their way back to the harbor Nonni encourages Tottoi not to tell anyone about what they got up to in the dark cave.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Ok, so still no danger or terrible occurrence, but it is only a matter of time before something happens.

Later that day (or the next day even, I dunno) Tottoi takes his sister down to the harbor to catch octopus for his new Seal pal. For this task he uses a trident. So that's what Neptune needed it for. Billia and his biker gang catch them in the act and demands to know where he and Grizzly Adams went the day before. The dumb kid caves in without even a split second's thought. The gang head over to the caverns to see for themselves.

"I was trying to impress my new friends, wanting them to like and accept me. Telling them the secret of the caverns turned out to be a big mistake..."

So, this is where the conflict will stem from. The local kids are using Tottoi and will betray his trust, and taunt or distress the seals or exploit them. Or sell them out to some seedy adult types who will want to profit from them in some way.

Tottoi leads the gang over to where Zabaione and his mother are chillin'. With the bribery of another couple of octopuses they are left alone with the baby seal. They each take it in turns to stroke the pup and, once momma seal returns to land, their time is up and they leave through the secret entrance.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Oh. Well I'm sure that was just the set up and the real event is coming.

Against a landscape of green trees and a bright blue sky Chipriano claims; "There was menace in the air... the weather suddenly turned sullen. Something bad was about to happen!"

Perhaps I'm wrong, but that seems a little heavy for the preceding scenes of merry seal petting. Maybe trouble really is on the horizon. Now we have Chipriano's brother-in-law joining the roster of narrators as he too proclaims the ensuing stormy weather to be symptomatic of what is in store for the people of the island. To be honest, I don't know if it is his brother-in-law or if Chipriano just forgot his accent.

Early next morning Tottoi goes over to interfere with the seals yet again. This time he goes alone on an inflatable raft. Within the caves he watches as Zabaione's mother teaches him to swim. For the entertainment of the audience we get to listen to a corny pop ballad about the 'loving world that's in your dreams'. The mighty baby seal pushes the young human into the water and the two swim together for a while. Then, due to the night's storm, there is a sudden water swell and the caves begin to flood. Momma seal drags Tottoi safely outside where he is met by Nonni Sparnew. On the ride back to shore Tottoi is forced to agree, for the safety of the seals, never to return to the caves.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

That night is the festival of Sant Andrea and while all the islanders are enjoying the dancing and accordion music those suspicious looking guys from the yacht we saw an hour earlier come to shore. They wander into Catalina's dad's hotel for a drink, where they meet the owner. Catalina senses trouble and hurries away to find Billia and the others. Looks like, after nearly an hour, the plot is about to begin. Catching up to them she admits to telling her father about the seals and now these sleazy low lives have come looking for Tottoi.

Catalina's dad brings Tottoi to them. The boss, accompanied by a genuinely huge lackey who could well be Guile's brother, offers 100 Dollars American to Tottoi for the location of the seals. You see, he has a wonderful sea park back in Florida and thinks they would look great swimming with his turtles. The youngster refuses to hand over his buddies and runs away. Mr Catalina pockets the Benjamin and promises to tell them himself making rounding up Tottoi pointless.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

A few days later dimwitted Pedru sees Tottoi down by the harbor and tells him something worrying about the fancy yacht. The men have left with a homemade cage! The seal lover heads straight for the cavern by boat while Pedru runs as fast as he can to alert Billia and Nonni about these events.

Within the caves Tottoi finds the bad guys armed and preparing to snare Mrs seal in a giant net. The boy attempts to intervene but, amazingly, is shot at by the men. Billia and friends appear through the secret entrance in time to witness the Big Boss grow tired of the chase and blast Mommy seal in the face with his rifle. The huge mammal writhes briefly before sinking and is captured.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Tottoi stays behind to greave with the orphan seal while Billia, Catalina and their nameless companions head back outside to the cliff edge to hurl heavy rocks at the fiendish poachers. None of the bad guys are above attempted child murder and happily fire back with rifle rounds.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Nonni Sparnew and Captain Marko arrive in a speed boat and the mountain man sets about the wrong doers while the sea captain heads inside to rescue Tottoi. The wild man takes out two lackeys before boarding the yacht. Mr Big commits another blatant act of attempted murder - pointing the rifle directly toward Sparnew and pulling the trigger without hesitation. Are all marine park owners this homicidal? Sadly, no bullets so Sparnew is allowed to continue living, and pounding bad guys. Guile's brother is next to hit the deck then be tossed overboard.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Finally facing Mr Big alone, the amusement owner pulls a loaded revolver on the Grizzly Man and once more pulls the trigger laughing crazily. Just a second before the fatal shot leaves the chamber the gun is blasted from his grasp. This time it is the Dandy Captain Marko whose cappin' asses.

With the psychotic attraction magnate subdued it is time for Nonni Sparnew to reveal what we already knew. Mommy seal was shot with a tranquilizer dart and will be fine. After all, who hauls a dead seal back to Florida? Together aboard Captain Marko's boat the cast lead Zabaione and his mum out to sea and to the freedom that they were surely capable of finding themselves if they had wanted.

Tottoi Secret of the Seal Tottoi

Everyone waves a fond farewell to their sea chums as they swim away to safety. Bonus, repeated footage is added of the seals swimming in an attempt to boast the animal content of the video. Credits roll alongside another corny pop song, this time set to the opening credit loop.

So, after all that, what was the secret of the seal, exactly? They weren't magic and they couldn't even talk. All they did was cozy up to a human and get shot in the face. I demand to be told their secrets!

Missing videos Missing videos

Seal Reveal!
The fortuitous meeting of Antonio Tottoi and Mrs Seal.

The Explosive Finale!!
Guns vs. kids. The Hardy Boys come under fire for protecting a seal.

No cuts
Good dubbing
  Didn't drag despite absence of plot
Average new score
  Terrible cover art would put most kids off
  Dumb narration and obvious ad bumpers

Boy oh boy, this is one uneventful 80 minutes: Boy moves to Sardinia, has custard for dinner, finds a seal, shows a seal to an unmarried Grisly Adams type, bad guys find it and the coast guard busts them. And the cast is weighed under with an extensive list of non speaking background characters - Billia's five friends, the nameless Mr Big's three goons, even the Captain, Francesca and Tottoi's family barely get a handful of lines. And the door mouse I guess Mikimoto went into a drawing frenzy and the studio used them all because they didn't want to hurt his feelings.

I wouldn't be surprised if the original book is one of those 40 page breezy kids adventure yarns that schools like to stock. Ones where it is more description than dialog. You read of wonderful landscapes and precise and detailed animal movements and, most importantly, no one gets hurt.

So why am I awarding it the overused (sorry) 3 videos out of five rating? Even though nothing really happens until the last ten minutes it didn't drag although the constant ominous narration foreshadowing some turbulent event that never arrives is grating. The Mediterranean setting is very well realised and authentic. The perfect animated movie for the desperate programmers to fill their TV schedules with during the summer break. Inoffensive and light weight.