By 1959 Walt Disney had a lot to smile about. The grand old man had mined the collective consciousness of childhood memory, making the successful transition from animated to live action movie-making by mid-decade. Moreover, Disney’s visionary leap into serialized television, particularly when most old-time movie moguls had positively cringed and shied away from the small screen, had yielded rich returns with ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Disneyland’ franchises, as well as the theme park inspired by the latter. The war years, however, had been lean for Walt, buffeted by a nearly all-out annexation of the studio by the War department and a strike in 1944 that did much to dampen the work environment and all but crippled Walt’s ability to do business. But Disney – a gambler at heart - had rebounded with such stellar hits as Cinderella (1950), Lady and the Tramp (1956) and Sleeping Beauty – the latter, a very costly but spectacular artistic achievement; the second highest grossing movie of 1959 save Ben-Hur.
Undeniably, the studio’s most lavish, all-star live-action feature to date had been Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954); a dramatic amalgam of Jules Verne’s episodic 1870 novel. Walt had hedged his bets by casting Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, James Mason and Peter Lorre in the leads. Now, with a renewed surplus, Walt seemed poised for an even more ambitious undertaking; one that would take director, Ken Annakin, his cast and crew half way around the world to the isolated tropical paradise of Tobago; the smaller of two islands that make up the Republic of Trinidad. Disney’s version of Swiss Family Robinson (1960) is very loosely based on Johann David Wyss’ 1812 novel, ‘Der Schweizerische Robinson’; a rather lumbering and prosaic piece of literature, more involved in its meticulous and lurid fascination with uncharted exploration than in evolving a character-driven narrative.
In reassembling this threadbare story as an ensemble action/adventure yarn, Walt threw out all but the framework of the novel, influencing screenwriter, Lowell S. Hawley to insert sequences with a tiger, pirates and a young girl named Roberta; a love interest for Fritz, the eldest of the Robinson’s three sons. None of these plot devices exist in the novel. Walt was also adamant to have two Great Danes, rescued along with the family from the shipwreck, engage in a spirited confrontation with a Bengal tiger. Annakin had his reservation, fearing the tiger – no matter how well trained – would turn on the dogs and maul them. Assured otherwise by the animal wrangler, Annakin shot the sequence with great reluctance. It would prove to be one of the early highlights in the film.
Shooting on a remote island came with its own set of drawbacks, not the least being the added expense of trucking in cast, crew, supplies and yes, even the animals - as well as build virtually all the sets from scratch. These included a replica of a capsized tall ship, effectively anchored and bolted to the craggy embankment jutting from the water to keep it from being dislodged by rough tides, and a spectacular tree house, constructed within the python-esque extensions of a gigantic Saman tree. John Howell’s set was not only functional it also had to support crew, rigging, lights and cameras unseen in the finished film. The set remained intact for several decades until a hurricane decimated it in 1974. But the allure of its memory proved so popular with audiences that a replica tree house was eventually erected as an attraction at both Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World.
Swiss Family Robinson was a costly endeavor to say the least, one exacerbated by tropical storm Edith delaying the movie’s completion by almost three weeks. Nevertheless, Tobago lived up to its billing as a fragrant and fertile paradise. Co-stars James McArthur and Kevin Corcoran had their own behind-the-scenes adventures along the way. McArthur, of his own accord, scaled trees and man-made ramparts with equal aplomb to show off his physical agility. Corcoran inadvertently suffered a scare when the baby elephant he had befriended accidentally stepped on his head, burying his face in the sand during low tide.
Walt cast Swiss Family Robinson primarily from a roster of home-grown talent. James McArthur, Kevin Corcoran, Tommy Kirk, Dorothy McGuire and Janet Munro had already established themselves in other Disney live-action features. In fact, McGuire had played mother to Kirk and Corcoran in Old Yeller (1957), while McArthur had achieved pin-up popularity among the prepubescent teen population as the Mohawk Indian brave in A Light in the Forest (1959). Meanwhile, Munro had proven her metal as the winsome lass opposite Sean Connery in Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). To this mix, Walt hired British star of stage and screen, John Mills and international star, Sessue Hayakawa as his pirate leader. Mills had long been admired by Walt, while his daughter Hayley was already achieving her own stardom in Disney’s Pollyanna (1960) and was soon to be cast to equally precocious effect in The Parent Trap (1961).
Swiss Family Robinson is imbued with a sort of marvelous ‘on the spot’ ingenuity, taking full advantage of the raw locations and using them to their best advantage. Virtually all of the animals the family encounters were not indigenous to Tobago and had to be imported. These included zebras, pot-bellied pigs, turtles, a pair of Great Danes – rechristened Duke and Turk for the movie – a Bengal tiger, a baby elephant and a wily ostrich that gave Tommy Kirk a run for his money during the spirited ‘animal race’ that leads into the movie’s climactic showdown between the family and marauding pirates. Kirk was instructed by the ostrich’s wrangler to never turn his back on the bird, or face the real possibility of being gutted by its clawed and leathery feet.
The Lowell S. Hawley screenplay begins, as does the novel, with the stormy shipwreck of the Robinson clan. They were bound for New Guinea before their vessel was deliberately steered into an oncoming tropical storm to evade attack by pirates. The captain and crew having abandoned ship in the gale and presumably lost at sea, the Robinsons find themselves at the mercy of high tide. Father (John Mills) suggests they build a raft from the damaged tall ship and make a break for the island not so very far away. Eldest son Fritz (James McArthur) and middle child, Ernest (Tommy Kirk) do their part to aid in the rescue and salvage attempt while the youngest, Francis (Kevin Corcoran) mischievously encourages the captain’s dogs – Duke and Turk – to doggy-paddle behind the raft; and this after Father had explicitly forbade them to follow.
Arriving safely on land, Mother (Dorothy McGuire) suggests the family give thanks to the Lord. After a sleepless night, Father takes Fritz and Ernest back to the ship to salvage what’s left of the supplies and livestock. In the meantime, Francis sets a noose trap for a baby elephant he has decided to tame as his pet. The device works like a charm, but it also brings out a hungry Bengal tiger intent on making Francis its noonday snack. Thankfully, Duke and Turk arrive in Francis’ defense. Mother is rather standoffish about the prospect of remaining on the island. She would prefer Father send smoke signals to encourage any nearby ship to come to their aid. But Father wisely reminds her that the pirates who drove them into the storm are likely to still be in the vicinity and eager to plunder the island if they suspect it is inhabited.
Instead, Father and the boys set about to make Mother as comfortable as possible for however long their stay may be. They concoct and then build a miraculous tree house complete with all the modern conveniences; running water, a cooler and stove, and, lofts suspended high atop the branches by interconnected staircases. Mother and father’s loft also comes complete with a retractable sun roof and the pipe organ salvaged from the ship. As weeks turn into months, Fritz and Ernest become restless. They suggest an excursion around the island in search of food stuffs, but more importantly, adventure. Mother is reticent about the idea. But Father agrees to their plan. And so Fritz and Ernest are off. At first, staying close to the perimeter of the island, the boys make their way successfully to its more uncharted regions. However, on their second day out their raft is dashed to pieces against the rocks. Fritz and Ernest come across a cutthroat band of pirates whose leader, Kuala (Sessue Hayakawa) is holding Captain Moreland (Cecil Parker) and his first mate, ‘Bertie’ (Janet Munro) at knife point on the beach. While the pirates have their backs turned Fritz makes a daring attempt to free Moreland and Bertie. He is only successful at freeing Bertie before Kuala and his ruthless rabble discover what is going on.
Bertie escapes with Fritz and Ernest into the jungle; through murky python-infested swamp lands, and then to the upper plateau. But Bertie is prone to self-pity and moments of what appear to be unmanly stubbornness. When Bertie steals Fritz’s gun – and narrowly misses hitting Ernest with one of its bullets – Fritz sneaks up from behind, only to discover Bertie is actually Roberta; the captain’s granddaughter: not his first mate. After some initial apprehensions, Roberta becomes enamored with Fritz. But she has also captivated Ernest’s heart, leading to a temporary jealous rivalry between the brothers.
As the remaining Robinson clan prepare to celebrate Christmas, Mother begins to fear the worst – that her two eldest have perished somewhere on the island. Her mood shifts to elation upon their return, and Roberta explains that if her grandfather has survived he will surely send help to them as soon as he is able. Life returns to normal for the Robinsons. Francis’ ever-cunning manages to set a successful trap for the tiger. In the meantime, Father has the boys build a new fortification against one of the rocky cliffs facing the ocean where they can be on the lookout for ships – friendly or otherwise. To perk up everyone’s spirits Father plans a holiday. The family will stage a picnic and race, employing various modes of animal transportation to get them to the finish line. Roberta elects to ride a zebra; Fritz, the mule, Ernest, an ostrich, and Francis, his beloved elephant, whom he has since named Rocky.
Inadvertently, Father’s firing a single pistol shot to commence the race alerts Kuala to their presence. When Roberta’s zebra runs astray, knocking her to the ground on the beach she spies the pirates coming ashore. Hurrying back to the picnic area to alert everyone, the family and Roberta take refuge in their rocky plateau, booby-trapped with various explosive devices. As the pirates descend upon the family they set off the charges; using cocoanut bombs, a dam of logs, collapsing bridges, and even hidden underground mines. The pirates, however, are not so easily discouraged. Thankfully, Captain Moreland has returned with the British fleet – chasing away Kuala and his thieves before any harm can come to the family. In the film’s penultimate moment, Moreland offers to take everyone to New Guinea. But Mother and Father elect to remain behind on the island with Francis – who is only too happy with this arrangement. Realizing Roberta is in love with Fritz, Ernest sets aside his romantic fantasies and elects to go with the Captain to pursue his schooling abroad.
From beginning to end, Swiss Family Robinson is superb family entertainment. The various elements do more than simply come together as a cohesive whole (a characteristic Wyss’ novel wholly lacked). Walt’s rendition is imbued with that rare spirit of true adventurism. Swiss Family Robinson is a grand and glowing action/melodrama. Tobago offers its own intoxicating allure, sumptuously lensed by cinematographer, Harry Waxman. The one essential yet to be discussed is William Alwyn’s impeccable underscore. A graduate of London’s Royal Academy, who went on to write music for more than 70 movies, as well as monumental symphonic works, Alwyn’s contribution on Swiss Family Robinson cannot be overstated. The foreboding opening strains of the main title, the jaunty support he gives to the animal race, the exuberant danger in his pirate theme, and finally, the infectiously hummable refrain of the ‘Swisskapolka’ – a piece of organ music forever after heard as background at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Swiss Family Robinson tree house attraction; these are but a sampling of the rich and vibrant orchestral offerings Alwyn has committed to the film; and such a tragedy none have ever found their way to CD for our listening enjoyment. Disney Music Inc….are you boys listening?!?
The cast are more than actors thrust together on a single project. They seem very much to be a family in every sense; the relationships between John Mills and Dorothy McGuire, between James McArthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, and the burgeoning romance between Janet Munro and James MacArthur – all appear quite genuine and heartfelt. Swiss Family Robinson was a colossal success, earning $40,000,000 in its initial run; making it the most successful movie of the year – even eclipsing the box office tallies of such heavy hitters as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Spartacus, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and The Magnificent Seven! Today, the film remains wildly popular and vastly entertaining – a credit, not only to director, Annakin’s perseverance, but also Walt’s undying faith to make the most glamorous and exciting family adventure of the lot.
It seems the main branch of Walt Disney Home Video has absolutely zero interest in releasing Walt’s live action catalog to Blu-ray. Mercifully, fans are not entirely out of luck. The company has instituted the rather proprietary ‘Disney Exclusive Club’ program. Canadians are barred from participating in this venture, forcing Canucks and others who absolutely refuse to join yet another membership, simply to get their Mouse House fix, to go the third party supplier route via Amazon.com. It’s a costly endeavor, but virtually the only way to acquire these titles outside of the continental United States. Swiss Family Robinson is the latest ‘exclusive’ to debut in 1080p and while the results in hi-def easily best the notorious ‘Vault Disney’ DVD release from 2000, not all is right with this transfer.
For starters, it appears to have been artificially sharpened; thankfully, not to egregious levels. However, film grain looks very gritty. There’s also some color instability and a bit of built-in flicker that ought to have been corrected digitally before porting the image to disc. The old DVD had window-boxed main titles that now seem to have been artificially squeezed. Swiss Family Robinson was photographed in Panavision and Technicolor so the newly corrected main titles take full advantage of the breadth of the expansive anamorphic screen. While the old DVD favored a sort of purplish/blue tint during the exhilarating storm sequence beneath the credits, this new Blu-ray sports vibrantly azure hues. Alas, reds tend to adopt a sort of deep orange tint and flesh frequently looks very orange indeed.
Colors on the whole are infinitely more vibrant and much better balanced on the Blu-ray. On the DVD, the Tobago locations favored a ruddy brown hue. This has been replaced by a more indigenously vibrant array of eye-popping emerald and lime green hues. Again, my biggest beef with this transfer is that it clings to some of the imperfections of its predecessor; the built-in flicker moderately distracting at times. There are also fleeting glimpses of age-related artifacts scattered throughout. Occasionally too, the image appears softly out of focus, fine details suffering as a result. Finally, there is the issue of film grain, looking harsh and digitized. In fact, in long shots, background detail occasionally breaks apart or registers as modest video-based noise. None of these anomalies are deal breakers in my opinion. But they do exist and will be glaring noticeable on displays 65 inches or larger.
The DTS 5.1 audio is another curiosity. I would have expected William Alwyn’s score to be the beneficiary of some major clean-up with more resonance and better bass. Alas, it doesn’t sound all that much more immersive than the old DVD mix, the SFX actually coming to the forefront of this new mix instead. Dialogue still sounds flat and occasionally strident: all in all, a middling effort. Again, Disney Inc. fails to make the grade by dumping virtually all of the extra features that once accompanied their ‘Vault Disney’ DVD series from this Blu-ray. We lose everything: the comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary with recollections from James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, matte artist Peter Ellenshaw and Ken Annakin, among others. Gone too: the audio track accompanying the film; the ‘reflections’ featurette featuring James MacArthur, the ‘year in pictures’ featurette that shows all of the activity going on at the studio in 1960, the extensive stills gallery and finally, the Disney jukebox that contained excised portions of William Alwyn’s score mired by an underlay of sound effects.
Bottom line: Swiss Family Robinson is a joy to see. It endures as one of Walt’s most ambitious undertakings and arguably, the greatest family adventure yarn ever concocted for the screen. The Blu-ray is not perfect, but it will surely please those who only recall the movie from its careworn DVD incarnation. That should not be the barometer by which Blu-ray transfers are judged: not now or ever! Frankly, I expected more from Disney. I don’t know why? They’ve done everything to sour even die-hard fans on collecting their vintage library – first by releasing Bedknobs and Broomsticks to mainstream Blu-ray in its truncated form, and more recently, by preventing a vast portion of their fan base from partaking in collecting other live-action gems from the studio’s vaults by forcing everyone to join their club. Still, Swiss Family Robinson is a must have/must own experience for the young and young in heart. So, buy it today (pay through the nose), but treasure it forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)