Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

When I was a kid in the seventies, we took a family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. It wasn’t the Haunted Mansion that scared me senseless, nor the hideous animatronics in the Hall of Presidents, it was just the idea of the Swiss Family Treehouse. Somehow I got the notion that you had to walk all around the attraction on tightropes, and if you fell, then tough luck, you would plummet to the ground or a raging river below.

Well, somehow I got over it and really enjoyed that part of the trip. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the original novel, but there was a Swiss Family Robinson TV series on the air around that time, which starred Martin Milner as the father, and I liked watching that a lot as a kid. I wanted to add that to our rotation here at the blog, but the darn thing’s never been available on home video. I guess we’ll have to make do with Disney’s version, which I’m reasonably confident is a bigger and better production anyhow.

This is a classic adventure tale in the tradition of many Disney films of the day, with one darn thing after another befalling the attractive cast. The Robinsons decided to flee the Napoleonic wars of Europe for a new life in the colonies of New Guinea, but are shipwrecked. From there, they have to put up with sharks, tigers, snakes, you name it. Oh, and pirates. These are fairly awesome, no-joke, downright mean south Pacific pirates, too. None of that “arrr” nonsense.

The cast is led by John Mills, and by chance I’d just finished watching him in a fun 1974 series called The Zoo Gang, which is kind of a Mission: Impossible cash-in set in the south of France. As for familiar Disney faces of the day, there’s also Dorothy McGuire, from Old Yeller, Janet Munro, from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and James MacArthur, who had made Kidnapped the previous year and would stay hugely in demand throughout the sixties before co-starring for more than a decade as “Danno” Williams on Hawaii Five-O.

While it is a good film, this was a long, long one, and boy, did we ever feel it. The problem is that once Fritz and Ernst rescue a cabin boy who turns out to be a girl disguised as a boy to avoid a grisly fate at the hands of the pirates, the simmering jealousy between them becomes incredibly tedious. If, perhaps, you’re a girl who wouldn’t mind imagining yourself in the place of Munro, with two good-looking shirtless young men to choose from, the twenty minutes they spend stewing might possibly be a little more bearable.

There’s enough animal action and close escapes in the film to keep our five year-old entertained, and the climactic battle against the pirates completely thrilled him. The whole film is full of surprising stunts and physical business between the animals. I wondered how on earth the stuntmen playing the pirates didn’t escape with serious injury, never mind the poor ostrich that keeps being mounted, and the tiger and two dogs that get into a rumble. It builds to a terrific climax and some surprising decisions taken in the conclusion, and is overall a very well-acted and well-made movie. If it were not for some mushy stuff as Munro comes closer to making her decision which boy she likes better, he’d probably have called it a complete success!

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