Sunday, July 24, 2016

From My Collection: Swiss Family Robinson Movie Review

So as my son gets older I find myself wanting to introduce him to the films I found to be magical experiences when I was a boy. And so he’s seen the Star Wars trilogy and E.T. and The Wizard of Oz. But there’s one that I loved that was perhaps less well-known, certainly less popular compared to those blockbuster classics. Disney’s live action adventure Swiss Family Robinson won’t be making anyone’s list of the greatest films, but boy is it fun!

This movie has everything: a shipwreck; exotic locations; a menagerie of incredible animals; pirates; guns; coconut bombs; and the coolest fucking treehouse you’ve ever seen. That treehouse is so awesome, so wondrous that it became a beloved attraction at both Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom theme parks.


Walt Disney was sort of masterful at identifying little-known works that contained the right elements of magic or adventure to translate to the screen and capture imaginations. He was right to hit upon the novel by Johann David Wyss about shipwrecked family on their way to a new life in New Guinea. Mother and Father are played by Dorothy McGuire and John Mills, two established and respected actors with successful careers already behind them. Landing two big names speaks to the power the Disney studio had at the time. Their three boys are Fritz (James MacArthur), Ernst (Tommy Kirk), and Francis (Kevin Corcoran. Fritz is the eldest, maybe eighteen or twenty. Ernst is a teenager and Francis is still a boy under the protection of his mother while the older boys have the freedom to explore and to work.

Like great classical storytelling, the family gets through the story having to overcome different adversities and elements at every turn. They manage to escape the foundering ship and get ashore past the reef. They survive the first night under a makeshift tent in spite of a violent storm. They begin to conquer the animals (although I’m not sure there’s any single place in the world that is home to elephants, tigers, monkeys, and ostriches). Finally, they conquer their environment – as man has done throughout history when he’s found new land to settle – by building shelter in the trees, installing a method to bring fresh water into their home and even refrigeration. But even as man has successfully overcome the challenges of the living environment, he has continued to be besieged by attacks from fellow man.

And so the story (screenplay by Lowell S. Hawley) sends in the pirates after all seems well and good for the Robinsons. They’ve been avoiding the pirates and hoping to simply go undetected by them from the moment of their arrival. The screenplay is at least good enough to give them time to settle first. The older boys go exploring to find out how big the island is and encounter the pirates, who are holding a ship’s captain and his granddaughter (disguised as a boy to keep the pirates from violating her, a fact never made explicit in this family-friendly movie, but you can read between the lines) captive. The boys are able to free the girl, but they are pursued all the way to the other side of the island by the pirate tormenters, led by a chief played by Sessue Hayakawa.

The director, Ken Annakin, had already worked on a series of adventure films for Disney prior to this. His skill set includes focusing on relationships and character in the midst of high adventure. When you think about all the set pieces and all the things that happen in this movie, but then realize that we know so much about how all the family members relate to one another, whether it’s Mother’s protection of young Francis, the sibling rivalry between Fritz and Ernst, or the respect as men relationship between Father and Fritz, you begin to understand why Annakin was a sought-after director by studios for most of his career. There’s nothing flashy about his work and you won’t find him in the film books as an auteur or one of the greats, but he was a great hired hand who understood his role and his craft.

Annakin’s best work on this film is the final act, which involves the family fortifying their home and buttressing up their lines of defense for the inevitable attack we know is coming and that serves as the film’s climax. The whole battle that ensues is sort of hilarious from the perspective of being fifty years removed from the movie’s production. It being a Disney family film, there is no blood and, to be honest, I didn’t see anything that could be construed as on-screen death. When three or four pirates fall into a pit containing a hungry tiger, they comically leap out immediately, cartoon-like, and run off screeching. Several more pirates run back to the shore after the footbridge they’re crossing collapses. A dozen tree trunks are made to come rolling down the hill, crushing several pirates, but it appears nothing more than their egos are bruised. And they go away defeated. Coconut bombs exploding nearby make them hightail downhill. It’s all so comically bloodless. What’s so fascinating about the tone of it is not just that it’s bloodless, but that the whole tone and look of the film doesn’t seem any different than, for example, a contemporaneous war movie. But family friendly action-adventure movies today are made to look less realistic, more like cartoonish or heightened reality to reinforce the idea that it’s all make-believe. But Swiss Family Robinson is all natural colors and settings, so the effect is this weird cartoonish danger where we sort of know nothing bad is going to happen even though everything about the environment suggests otherwise.

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