Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

“What about our sons? What future is there here for them?”

Swiss Family Robinson Poster

Synopsis:
A Swiss family — father (John Mills), mother (Dorothy McGuire), and three sons (Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur, and Kevin Corcoran) — emigrating to New Guinea in the early 19th century is shipwrecked on a remote island, and must fight against marauding pirates while rebuilding their lives and rescuing a captured teenage girl (Janet Munro).

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Review:
This enormously popular adaptation of Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel is notable as the first widescreen Disney movie filmed with Panavision lenses, and for its fabled location shooting on the island of Tobago. According to TCM’s article, filming conditions were often treacherous, with star John Mills stating in an interview:

“If a scorpion doesn’t bite me during the night I get into the car, and if it doesn’t skid off the edge of a cliff, I reach the mangrove swamp. I walk through; and if I’m not sucked in by a quick-sand, eaten alive by land crabs, or bitten by a snake, I reach the beach. I change on the beach, trying to avoid being devoured by insects, and walk into the sea. If there are no sharks or barracudas about, we get the shot – and then do the whole thing in reverse, providing, of course, we haven’t died of sunstroke in the meantime.”

Dozens of animals from around the world were shipped to the island, under the care of no less than 14 trainers. The movie cost 4.5 million dollars to make, but was (and remained) so popular it is considered one of the most profitable films of all time — and its fame lives on through reconstructions of the family’s elaborate treehouse at theme parks around the world.

Unfortunately, despite its beloved status, the film is far from a true classic. There’s plenty of adventure to be had, but it’s all so patently unbelievable — a chase between people riding zebras and ostriches?? — that only the youngest or most naive of viewers will be taken in. The two primary plot elements driving the narrative are the family’s attempts to stave off a persistent band of pirates (led by Sessue Hayakawa), and the love triangle that instantly emerges when the two older Robinson brothers conveniently stumble upon (and easily rescue) a teenage girl. Who will win her heart? How will the other boy handle his defeat? Munro is a sweet and lovely actress, but her characterization here does no favors to her gender, and is especially disappointing after her sparkling turn in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) the year before. [Thankfully, she got back on track with her notable performance as a deep-throated romantic interest the following year in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961).]

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful cinematography on the island of Tobago
    Swiss Family Robinson Still

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for fans who remember it fondly from their childhood.

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