Disney’s family adventure classic, loosely based on the 1812 novel by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss, is chock-full of exotic locations and animals, desert-island DIY ingenuity, and high-spirited excitement, with a poignant subplot involving the rivalry of the two elder sons for the affections of a young lady who arrives among the castaways.
The film simplifies the original story in many ways, reducing the book’s four sons to three and the half-dozen or so homesteads and plantations the Robinsons build to the one famous treehouse. Wyss’s fantastical menagerie, which included penguins, kangaroos, flamingos, lions, and boa constrictors living side by side, is only slightly restrained by a century and a half of scientific advancement, and the book’s strong element of religious devotion and moral discipline is largely reduced in the film to a moment of silent prayer on the beach.
On the other hand, the threat of pirates, often discussed but never realized in the book, is a major element in the film, and the finale is an action-packed siege sequence in which the Robinsons employ makeshift defenses against a large-scale pirate attack.
Star Wars fans will note that some of the Robinsons’ devices clearly influenced the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi; quite possibly the Robinson treehouse was the inspiration, not for the rather generic Ewok tree village, but for the more imaginative treehouse habitations of the Wookiees, originally planned as the heroes of the forest battle in Jedi until George Lucas changed his mind and invented the Ewoks instead. (While the Wookiee treehouses never made it to the big screen until Revenge of the Sith, they were first glimpsed in 1978, in the deservedly little-seen made-for-TV "Star Wars Holiday Special." One other bit of Robinson-related Star Wars trivia: Lucas named Anakin Skywalker after this film’s director, Ken Annakin!)
Swiss Family Robinson reunites three of the four family members from 1957’s Old Yeller: matriarch Dorothy McGuire and her sons Tommy Kirk and little Kevin Corcoran.
McGuire, alas, isn’t allowed to be as capable a castaway as she was a frontier mama in Old Yeller, and does a lot of worrying and scolding. (Her character worries too much in the book too, but she accomplishes more there, and has some of the family’s best ideas — including the treehouse, which in the film she’s against.)
Corcoran reprises his spoiled-kid-brother "He’s my dog!" routine from Old Yeller (here extended to a whole menagerie, e.g., "He’s my elephant!"), and is the focus of some child-empowering conceits (such as coming up with an idea for a tiger pit that comes in handy fighting the pirates).
Kirk again takes the dramatic center in the role of the young adolescent learning a hard life lesson, though not nearly as centrally or wrenchingly as in Old Yeller. Here the source of his grief is not a dog, but his strong, silent older brother (James MacArthur), from whose shadow he struggles to emerge in the eyes of young Roberta (Janet Munro), whom they rescue from pirates. Though the finale is pure escapist entertainment, this subplot of romantic sibling rivalry isn’t neatly wrapped up in typical Hollywood fashion, but is allowed a more indeterminate, bittersweet conclusion.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.