Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

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In 1812, author Johann David Wyss, published Der Schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Family Robinson), a novel about a Swiss family who were shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe-style. The first film adaptation of this novel was in 1940 and after having watched it, Walt Disney decided to make his own film version 20 years later. Directed by Ken Annakin, the Disney film has since been beloved by many and its legacy is present in the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction found in multiple Disney parks. What do I think of the film? Read on to find out!

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

The film begins with a tempestuous sea storm battering a ship. Due to the storm as well as a previous attack by pirates, the entire crew has abandoned the ship leaving only a Swiss family aboard. The family comprises Father, played by John Mills, Mother, played by Dorothy McGuire, and their three children, Fritz, Ernst, and Francis, played by James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin Corcoran, respectively.

Your typical Swiss family with English and American accents!

Once the storm subsides, the family builds a number of rafts to head to a nearby island for shelter. The island is uninhabited by humans, but features a plethora of wild animals including an elephant, tiger, snake, ostriches, toucans, etc.

The family realizes that they have to do their best to survive on the island until they’re rescued and taken to the colony of New Guinea, their original destination. They make a makeshift shelter on the beach utilizing supplies they’ve brought over from the ship. However, due to the presence of the dangerous tiger, the family constructs a treehouse with a retractable staircase further in the jungle. They furnish it with everything they can bring over from the ship including a fully functional organ.

I highly question how the heck this thing is still functional!

While reading one of the geography books from the ship, Ernst comes to the conclusion that this island was once connected via a land bridge between Africa and Asia explaining why there are so many different types of animals on this island.

He knew the question we were all asking!

After originally refusing, Mother finally gives in and allows Fritz and Ernst to sail around the island’s coast in a raft to see if anyone else is on the island. Francis, being too young, stays with his mother and father.

Good decision too! I mean, I love the kid, but having Moochie around would probably have made that trip unbearable!

Fritz and Ernst eventually come across another part of the island and see the pirates that attacked their ship earlier. They’re portrayed stereotypically in the “evil Asians” manner and led by Kuala, played by Sessue Hayakawa. They’ve landed on the island and have taken two people prisoner: a Captain Moreland, played by Cecil Parker, and his cabin boy. While the pirates are preoccupied fighting amongst themselves, Fritz and Ernst manage to free the cabin boy. The pirates see them and give chase resulting in them fleeing into the jungle unable to save the Captain.

Fritz, Ernst, and the cabin boy manage to escape the pirates, but now have to head back to the treehouse by land cutting through the island rather than sailing around the coast. The cabin boy at first isn’t willing to accompany the two boys and even threatens them with one of their guns.

Said the NRA Member!

After getting the gun out of the cabin boy’s hold, Fritz and Ernst realize that the cabin boy is actually a girl named Roberta, played by Janet Munro. She is Captain Moreland’s granddaughter who cut her hair and dressed her like a boy to protect her from the pirates. Now that her secret is out in the open, the trio ventures forth through the island while dealing with quicksand, battling an anaconda, and even saving a zebra.

The zebra apparently received electric shocks during this scene. I’m glad our standards of training animals in films has improved greatly!

Tension builds between Fritz and Ernst due to both of them falling for Roberta. But in the end, the trio manages to reach back to the treehouse in time for Christmas and reunite with their father, mother, and Francis.

Now that the pirates know they are on the island and have Roberta, the next order of business is to protect their treehouse from a pirate invasion. The family lays the island with booby-traps aplenty. Even Francis manages to trap the tiger in a ditch and camouflages the ditch with leaves and branches.

Fritz and Ernst continue to butt heads regarding Roberta although by know it’s clear that Roberta likes Fritz and not Ernst.  Nevertheless, it isn’t long before the pirates arrive at the treehouse and launch an attack on the family. The family fights them off with guns, homemade bombs, and all other weapons they’ve devised. Even Francis’ tiger pit comes to the rescue trapping many pirates and causing many to flee from the tiger.

Brave is the trainer who allows himself to put his back to a tiger!

The pirates finally flee after a ship arrives firing their cannons at them. The ship is captained by Captain Moreland who has managed to escape the pirates and returned with ships and men to launch an attack. He offers to take the family to New Guinea or London or wherever they want to go, but Father and Mother realize that they are happy on the island and don’t want to leave. Fritz also doesn’t want to leave and Roberta wants to stay with him. Francis is too young to go anywhere by himself, so it’s only Ernst who sails to London with Captain Moreland. According to the captain, the island is bound to be inhabited by colonizers soon so the family won’t be all by themselves.

And that was Swiss Family Robinson! Honestly, it’s a decent film and I can see why it’s a beloved classic to many. I personally feel plotwise that the film seems to be telling two different stories: one, a survival story about the family and two, a story about the pirates (who don’t appear in the original novel at all). And I feel this doesn’t work to the film’s advantage. It makes the film seem unfocused and makes it have a runtime of over 2 hours when it really doesn’t need to be so long. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire give great performances while the kids were pretty much what you’d expect from them. All in all, if you’re lenient about the writing, I think you’ll enjoy this film well enough.

So, my final score for this film is 26/35 = 74.29% (C) !

The next review will be posted on December 7, 2021.

11 thoughts on “Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

  1. I thought this was the movie this week, but I managed to second-guess myself into thinking you’d done it already! I agree that the script’s really unfocused and the boys’ performances hurt it really bad. Especially Kevin Corcoran. Like I know it’s bad taste to criticize child actors but there’s only so many times you can listen to him screaming IT’S MY TIGER! IT’S MY TIGER! before it gets reeeeeal old. I can’t believe the Treehouse is still around in the parks!

      1. Between this one and Old Yeller it’s like you were saving all the big ones for the end!

        I hear that kid’s screeches in my nightmares -shudder-

        I went up to get pictures for my post and zero people knew what they were looking at. I guess there’s not enough room back there to make something new?

      2. Are we actually getting to the end? The repository of Disney live-action films seems to be quite everlasting.

  2. I agree with your criticisms of the film, but if you have read the book, you will know exactly why it is that the pirate storyline feels so awkwardly tacked on.

    I had this absolute travesty of a book forced upon me when homeschooled, which was written by a random pastor in the 1700s to teach his sons about life, and they just decided to give it to a publishing company once they grew up.
    I coped with it by just reading it, trying to enjoy how laughably terrible it was, and counting down the chapters till it was done. And I got to read Anne of Green Gables afterwards, which made up for it.
    Little was right about the book. There was no plot, just random day-to-day life on the island. They don’t have to work hard to stay alive, everything they need just randomly appears on the island and the father knows how to use it because he seems to know everything and to have spent his life preparing to be trapped on an island. In fact, I think this is not even a joke, considering the fact that he comes up with all those convoluted ideas for life on the island, but never not once in more than 40 chapters does he or anyone else suggest taking the most rudimentary measures to try to get off the island or escape from it. None of them ever seem to be upset about being marooned on a deserted island with no other human beings around.
    The island is filled with every animal known to mankind from every continent. And as soon as they meet a new one they take it as their mission to kill it simply for the sake of itself even though they have everything they need to survive already. They at one point kill an entire sperm whale, then sit around thinking about what to do with it. The father admits it would taste terrible, so he just uses its innards to have fun teaching his children the art of candle-making. They brutally slaughter a band of monkeys on two separate occasions (beating them to death, planting glue-smeared coconuts on their heads, and setting their dogs on them) for no reason other than an act of revenge for making a mess of an out-of-the-way cabin they barely used at all.
    And no one talks right. The father (who narrates the story) speaks and talks like the most pompous, arrogant, windbag Harvard professor imaginable, seeming to construct all his sentences around sounding intelligent and replacing every small word with a big one. His wife and children talk exactly the same way (or “converse in precisely the same manner”), even the 9-year-old boy. This last fault is probably due to the 1889 translation I was reading, but still the book has few redeeming qualities.
    It actually just goes so bad the author eventually wrote “Having given a detailed account of several years’ residence in New Switzerland, as we liked to call our dominion, it is needless for me to continue what would exhaust the patience of the most long-suffering, by repeating monotonous narratives of exploring parties and hunting expeditions, wearisome descriptions of awkward inventions and clumsy machines, with an endless record of discoveries, more fit for the pages of an encyclopedia than a book of family history.” I’m not kidding. That is word-for-word from the book.

    Neither my dad or I liked the book. Even my aunt, who took over reading it with me while my dad was away and discussed every tedious chapter at length, seemed to want to like it more than anything else.

    So it was no surprise when I opened my copy of The Disney Films by Leonard Maltin, and read that when the director looked at the original novel, he found “it was very old-fashioned” and asked Walt Disney how they could possibly handle it. His response was they would simply throw out the entire book and leave the central premise of a Swiss family marooned on an island struggling to survive. From there, they had to create a central plot and conflict that would be more interesting from scratch, obviously.

    This is all a long way of saying that you can see why my father and I enjoyed this movie a lot more when we watched it on DVD at my apartment last year.

  3. Something I am surprised you didn’t mention is that George Lucas is a big fan of this film – and the scene where the boys are attacked by the snake in the swamp actually inspired the trash compactor scene in the original Star Wars (1977).

    1. I’ve heard that being mentioned on the Internet, but I haven’t found any proof that George Lucas himself mentioned this fact or mentioned naming Anakin Skywalker after Ken Annakin. So I was a little hesitant to mention it until I can verify it for sure.

  4. I quite enjoyed this movie. Felt like retrospectively that it was a turning point of live-action Disney films maturing up a little bit, ironing out the clunkiness that 50s films had. Not perfect, still wish some of the characters were better written. Like Mother was still the typical housewife of the era, and Francis, while nowhere near as bad as Arliss was in Old Yeller, still had that annoying yell and constant talking. Kinda feel bad that Kevin Corcoran only had these types of roles. While I did not mind the pirates subplot, and I enjoyed that final showdown they had, I do wish I saw more of how the family settled in on the island, it was way too quick how they suddenly had that house and everything and didn’t seem like they struggled at all. The love triangle was also weird because it actually didn’t seem obvious at all until the first possible kiss that Roberta was falling for Fritz. Heck, I thought she was more towards Ernst, or that she was just teasing both and didn’t actually like either. Even still, like I said, I enjoyed it, still had that feel good vibes and adventure, and had a little bit of everything that it did better than previous live-action Disney films. It’s one I could definitely recommend it to someone who’s looking to watch an older movie like this one.

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