Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Swiss Family Robinson

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson

Swiss Family Robinson is a difficult movie to evaluate from a modern perspective. This is only surprising in that most of Disney’s biggest hits have aged extremely well. Walt’s animated classics have remained timeless. The most popular live-action films may require a bit more effort but you can still see what audiences responded to, even if the effect is now somewhat diminished. But Swiss Family Robinson, the fourth highest-grossing film of 1960 behind Spartacus, Psycho and Exodus, is a textbook case of “maybe you had to be there”. Maybe it’s the wave of remakes and copycats that washed up in its wake. Or maybe it’s just that the novelty of finding yourself isolated with your entire family doesn’t seem like such a fantasy in 2021.

Walt and producer Bill Anderson had been kicking around the idea of adapting Johann Wyss’s 1812 novel for a while. They’d both seen RKO’s 1940 version starring Thomas Mitchell and thought it was ripe for the Disney treatment. They considered producing it for television, which makes sense given the episodic nature of the story. Eventually Anderson figured out how to turn it into a movie by introducing the ever-present threat of pirates, an enemy that doesn’t factor into Wyss’s book at all.

Perhaps inspired by the Swiss air, Disney and Anderson revisited the idea while on location in Switzerland for Third Man On The Mountain. They approached that film’s director, Ken Annakin, about Swiss Family Robinson. Annakin picked up a copy of the book and couldn’t for the life of him figure out why they were so gung-ho about this particular story. Still, he agreed to take it on and reportedly used the 1940 movie as a template of “what not to do”.

(Walt would eventually buy the rights to the 1940 movie with the sole purpose of keeping the film out of circulation. Ironically, it’s now available on Disney+ and pops up as a recommendation alongside the Disney version, exactly the kind of comparison Walt was trying to avoid.)

It wasn’t difficult for Annakin to differentiate his movie from the earlier version. Instead of a black-and-white, studio-bound picture, the Disney version would be shot on location in Technicolor and Panavision. Where the 1940 film remained relatively faithful to the book, Annakin and screenwriter Lowell S. Hawley (a Zorro writer making the leap to features) essentially tossed Wyss’s novel aside. Survival is almost beside the point in the Disney version. At the very least, it’s simply assumed. There’s never any question whether or not the family is going to make it. Here, the Robinsons’ primary concerns are comfort and entertainment.

Swiss Family Robinson book-and-record set

The cast was made up almost entirely of familiar Disney faces. James MacArthur, who had made his Disney debut with 1958’s The Light In The Forest and was most recently seen in Kidnapped, starred as Fritz, the eldest son. This will be MacArthur’s final appearance in this column. He’d return to the studio once more in 1967 to star in the three-part Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders) for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color. The next year, he was cast as Danny “Dan-O” Williams on Hawaii Five-O, a role that would make him a TV icon and extremely rich. He’d essentially retire after leaving Hawaii Five-O in 1979, working whenever he felt like it on stage or in guest spots on TV shows like The Love Boat. James MacArthur passed away in 2010 at the age of 72.

Fritz’s younger siblings, Ernst and Francis, were played by Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, once again playing on-screen brothers after Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. Swiss Family Robinson actually marked a homecoming for Kirk, who had been temporarily let go from the studio after The Shaggy Dog. He was developing into an awkward, gangly teenager and the studio couldn’t figure out what to do with him. But after The Shaggy Dog turned into a surprise hit, Disney decided they wanted to keep him in the family. This column still hasn’t seen the last of either Kirk or Corcoran.

Janet Munro was reunited with MacArthur, her Third Man On The Mountain costar, as Roberta, another shipwrecked victim of the pirates rescued by Fritz and Ernst. Munro was also nearing the end of her Disney contract. She and MacArthur were to be teamed again on the comedy Bon Voyage!, but when production was delayed she was reassigned to The Horsemasters, another TV production given an overseas theatrical release.

The Horsemasters brought Munro back home to England, where she stayed and starred in such films as The Day The Earth Caught Fire and Life For Ruth. Life For Ruth netted her a BAFTA Award nomination but the movie was a flop. In 1963, she married actor Ian Hendry. They had two daughters but it was not a happy relationship. Between her tempestuous marriage and floundering career, Munro began drinking heavily. Munro and Hendry divorced in 1971 but irreparable damage had already been done to both her career and her health. Janet Munro died of a heart attack in 1972. She was just 38 years old.

Mother Robinson (neither parent is given an actual name) was played by Dorothy McGuire. McGuire had already appeared as Kirk and Corcoran’s on-screen mom in Old Yeller. She has quite a bit less to do here than in her previous Disney outing. In Old Yeller, she was essentially a single parent while Fess Parker went off to tend to man’s business. Here, she’s in a more passive maternal role, worrying about her kids’ safety and tending to the cooking and the sewing while Father and the boys take care of everything else.

Even though John Mills had never appeared in a Disney project before, this wasn’t his first time on a Disney set. He’d played chaperone to daughter Hayley while she filmed Pollyanna. Father Mills never became as ubiquitous a Disney presence as Daughter Mills. He’s terrific here but as the 1960s went on, Disney’s focus became increasingly American. I’m sure if there had been a need for British father figures, Mills might have become as familiar to Disney fans as Fred MacMurray.

The Robinsons are emigrating to New Guinea when they’re hit by a trifecta of disasters. Pirates attack, forcing the ship to flee into a storm that the Robinsons’ cowardly crew can’t handle, causing them to abandon ship. All of this happens before the movie even starts with the storm playing out under the opening credits. The next day, they discover they’re marooned off the shore of a tropical paradise that is miraculously free of people but teeming with the kind of exotic wildlife typically only found in zoos or roaming the grounds of an eccentric millionaire. These animals are in addition to the two Great Danes and assorted livestock they manage to rescue from the ship.

Once the Robinsons make it to shore, shelter understandably becomes their first priority. Rescue is a distant second. Father raises a quarantine flag on the wreck of their ship. This succeeds in scaring off the pirates, who believe it to be a plague ship, but it would presumably also scare off any would-be rescuers. Father opts to build an elaborate treehouse, ostensibly to protect the family from tigers and such. But it’s also far enough away from the beach that no passing ships would spot them. Again, pirates. But you also start to get the idea that Father isn’t really all that interested in leaving.

For her part, Mother is primarily concerned with young Francis’s safety around animals and the treehouse. Fortunately, the boys are such skilled scavengers (and Ernst is a gifted engineer) that those fears are quickly allayed. Father and Fritz even manage to rescue the ship’s pipe organ and Ernst constructs a fully functioning kitchen and bathroom complete with running water and icebox. All that’s left for Mother to do is pick out the curtains.

Eventually Fritz and Ernst persuade their parents to allow them to circumnavigate the island in order to get some idea of where they’ve ended up. Along the way, they again encounter the pirates, who have captured a British sea captain (Cecil Parker) and his cabin boy. The Robinsons rescue the lad and come to find out that “he” is actually the captain’s granddaughter, disguised to protect her from the pirates’ unwholesome intent. This is really the only hint we get that the pirates are capable of doing much more than pillage.

Swiss Family Robinson comic book adaptation published by Gold Key Comics

Legendary Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, a recent Oscar nominee for The Bridge On The River Kwai, was cast as Kuala, the pirate chief. Hayakawa had been one of the biggest icons of the silent era and the first American movie star of Asian descent. His fame had diminished considerably since then due to a number of factors. His accent became a liability with the introduction of sound. The restrictive (and racist) Hays Code explicitly banned miscegenation, limiting his viability as a romantic lead. And as the country became gripped in anti-Japanese fervor in the years leading up to World War II, Hayakawa increasingly found work abroad. He was filming in France when the Germans occupied the country, trapping him there for the duration of the war. He wouldn’t appear in another Hollywood film until Tokyo Joe in 1949. Swiss Family Robinson would be one of only a handful of film and TV appearances by Hayakawa after the late-career high point of Bridge On The River Kwai.

The depiction of the pirates is really too abstract to be considered offensive. They represent an ill-defined “other”, clearly not Anglo-European but otherwise difficult to pin down. The presence of Hayakawa and the design of their ship marks them as more-or-less Asian but that’s about as specific as it gets. Compared to some of the other Asian stereotypes and caricatures Disney has unfortunately indulged in, the depiction of the pirates is practically enlightened.

Fritz, Ernst and Roberta manage to lose the pirates and make their way back to the treehouse just in time for a Christmas polka party. Concerned that the pirates might come looking for Bertie, Father decides to fortify his stronghold. The entire family gets in on the act, building coconut grenades and log rolls. Francis even manages to capture his tiger in a pit. When the pirates do show up (interrupting a spirited animal race), the Robinsons swing into action, transforming into the most skilled primitive warriors this side of the Ewoks. They’re able to hold the pirates at bay long enough for Bertie’s grandfather to show up and save the day. Despite the rescue, most of the family decides to stick around, as does Bertie. Only Ernst sails back to civilization to further his education.

While there’s nothing about Swiss Family Robinson that strikes me as actively bad, it also doesn’t seem special enough to have become a pop culture touchstone. The cast is agreeable enough. Mills and McGuire make for a warm, believable couple. MacArthur gives his best, most relaxed Disney performance and he’s a good foil for Tommy Kirk. Kevin Corcoran, who had been a bit more restrained lately in movies like Toby Tyler, is unfortunately back to his irritating old hyperactive ways, running around the island on a constant sugar high.

But for an adventure movie, there are only a handful of scenes that generate real excitement. The opening storm is kind of cool. Fritz and Ernst run into some trouble while they’re outrunning the pirates. But most of the action here ranges from silly to goofy. The finale with the pirates is a nonstop barrage of slapstick mayhem with all the lasting consequences of a Road Runner cartoon. And then there’s that whole animal race sequence, in which poor Tommy Kirk learns that it’s impossible to keep your dignity while riding an ostrich.

Swiss Family Robinson theatrical re-release poster

But as I said, maybe you had to be there. Swiss Family Robinson struck a chord as an ideal family adventure (and maybe the perfect fantasy of colonialism), raking in over $8 million in its initial release. In 1962, the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction opened in Disneyland, allowing visitors to climb into a replica of the Robinsons’ home. Although the original ride was refurbished into Tarzan’s Treehouse in 1999, you can still visit Swiss Family Treehouses in Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.

The copycats and ripoffs started arriving fairly quickly. In 1962, Gold Key Comics (who had inherited the Disney license from its predecessor, Dell Comics) began publishing Space Family Robinson. A few years later, Irwin Allen’s very similar Lost In Space premiered on CBS. (Gold Key was already publishing another Irwin Allen comic, so rather than risk antagonizing him with a lawsuit, they decided to just add Lost In Space to their title.) 1975 brought us The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family, about another family named Robinson leaving on their own in the wild. That movie spawned its own franchise, culminating in Mountain Family Robinson in 1979.

There have been several subsequent TV adaptations of Wyss’ book, both live-action and animated. In 1987, Disney Television produced Beverly Hills Family Robinson starring Dyan Cannon, Martin Mull and a young Sarah Michelle Gellar. That appears to be the studio’s most recent attempt at a reboot but they certainly haven’t stopped trying. Over the years, everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Bill Paxton to Will Smith and the entire Smith family have been rumored to be involved in a new version. Back in 2014, Steve Carell was reportedly attached to Brooklyn Family Robinson. It’s been nearly seven years since that news broke, so odds are the project is dead in the water.

Rest assured that sooner or later, Disney will have another go at this property. Swiss Family Robinson is too iconic to leave dormant for long. And honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. Walt’s version is fine for what it was but it isn’t an untouchable classic. Sure, it would be very easy to make an updated version that’s a lot worse. But the template is so universal and basic that all the elements are in place to make it even better. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of the Robinsons.

VERDICT: I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for this one but it isn’t terrible, so I guess it’s a very mild Disney Plus.

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