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Ken Annakin
John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, Sessue Hayakawa, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Cecil Parker
Lowell S. Hawley, based on the novel by Johann David Wyss

They turned a lost island into an exotic paradise!
Rated G.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 126 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 5/7/2002

• Audio Commentary from Director Ken Annakin and Actors James MacArthur, Tom Kirk and Kevin Corcoran
• “Sea Salts” Animated Short
• “Adventure In the Making” Documentary
• “Conversations With James MacArthur”
• Excerpts From 1940 Swiss Family Robinson
• “Walt Disney Presents ‘Escape to Paradise’”
• “Pirates!”
• “Lost Treasures”
• Storyboard to Scene Comparison
• Production Gallery
• Disney Studio Album
• Trailers and TV Spots
• Galleries
• Audio Archives
• Sneak Peeks
• THX Optimizer


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Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

In an odd way, the Disney theme parks help keep alive the memories of otherwise long-forgotten projects. For years, I never knew who “Mike Fink” was when I saw his keelboats at Walt Disney World; when I watched Davy Crockett, however, I finally learned of the character’s identity.

My knowledge of Swiss Family Robinson was definitely greater than that. I never saw the film, but at least I knew one existed when I visited the Swiss Family Tree House at WDW! Nonetheless, my understanding went little beyond that before I got this DVD. I felt aware of the basic plot but not much else.

Ironically, the tree house actually displays the best part of the movie, as I’ll soon discuss. While Robinson seemed moderately enjoyable overall, it rarely went beyond that level, as the film appeared fairly blah as a whole.

The film depicts the adventures of the titular clan: Father (John Mills), Mother (Dorothy McGuire), and sons Fritz (James MacArthur), Ernst (Tommy Kirk), and Francis (Kevin Corcoran). On the way from Switzerland to New Guinea - where they plan to start a new life - they become shipwrecked on a deserted tropical land. They can’t leave on the boat because it’s damaged beyond repair, and they also can’t send up many signs to alert others of their presence; the pirates who attacked their ship remain in the area, and the Robinsons want to avoid them.

Stuck there indefinitely, the Robinsons make the best of their surroundings. They build an elaborate tree house in which they live, and all seems well. Nonetheless, the desire to get off the island persists, so the two older boys - Fritz and Ernst - take a raft to sail around the perimeter of the place; they assume it’s an island but won’t know until they’ve gotten the total lay of the land.

While the boys journey, they run into the pirates again. Those baddies took some prisoners, and the boys try to free them. Unfortunately, they only have time to let loose a cabin boy named Bertie. Unfortunately also, this action alerts the pirates to the Robinson family’s continued presence on the island, and it means the trio can’t return to their raft; they have to hoof it over land.

During that trek, the guys make a “surprise” discovery: Bertie the boy is actually Roberta the girl (Janet Munro). From there a love triangle develops, and it intensifies when the three reach the family homestead. There Mother gussies up Roberta, so both Fritz and Ernst fall for her.

Much of the remaining film deals with their escapades, and we also see the family as they prepare to hold off the pirates when they arrive, something they regard as inevitable. The movie’s climax features a massive battle between the pirates and the Robinsons before we learn the family’s ultimate fate.

Those stupid pirates were probably my least favorite aspect of Robinson. Frankly, I thought they were largely unnecessary, as the movie might have been more interesting as a Cast Away style examination of island life. The best parts of the movie featured the family as they coped with their elements. As I noted earlier, that tree house was extremely cool, and further explorations of this kind of survival would have been quite entertaining.

The continued presence of the pirates really made no sense, either. Why did they seek the Robinsons so persistently? They possessed no treasure, and it’s not like they were any threat to the pirates. Granted, the pirates were necessary as a plot device to bring Roberta into the fold, but I’m sure another manner to introduce her could have occurred.

Frankly, I believe the movie kept the pirates involved for one reason alone: to allow the big fight scene at the end. Clearly the filmmakers felt the story needed a modicum of action, and without the pirates, that commodity would have been in very short supply. Personally, that would be fine with me, but I understand that for the target audience of kids, the perceived need for some fights and violence was probably strong.

At least the climactic battle offered some fun. I liked it because it allowed for more ingenuity along the lines of the tree house. The family needed to use scraps and ideas to fight the pirates, and it all took on a Home Alone style melee. It’s surprisingly violent for this kind of film, but it worked pretty well.

Unfortunately, to get to the good parts, we had to muddle through a fair number of dull pieces. Perhaps I shouldn’t wish that Robinson focused solely on island life, for a lot of those scenes were quite dull. I blame that on the execution, not the concept, especially after we meet Roberta. The love triangle tone felt forced; like much of the action, it seemed as though the romantic bits were slapped onto the film to satisfy some marketing scheme rather than fit into the story.

Erratic though it may be, I thought Swiss Family Robinson held up pretty well. The movie definitely showed its age - its patronizing view of women seemed especially dated - but it offered enough cleverness and intrigue to merit a screening. They needed to show more of that tree house, though!

(By the way, I believe the Swiss Family Tree House still exists at Walt Disney World. I haven’t been to the park for a few years, though, so I can’t vouch for its current status. I do know that they replaced the SWT at Disneyland, however; you’ll now find a similar exhibit based on Tarzan.)

Interesting casting footnote: three of the family also appeared in 1957’s Old Yeller. Dorothy McGuire played the mother to Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran there as well. However, they had a different father - what a slut! Actually, Robinson’s Francis seemed an awful lot like Yeller’s Arliss; Corcoran seems a little less hyper in the later film, but essentially he played the same character. Interestingly, he didn’t seem to age much between films, whereas Kirk grew up tremendously during that three-year period; he’s substantially more mature in Robinson.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio B / Bonus A

Swiss Family Robinson appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite the semi-advanced age of the film itself, the DVD offered a pretty fine picture.

Sharpness usually appeared positive. During a few of the film’s wider shots, I detected a modicum of softness, but those instances seemed fairly rare. For the most part, the movie seemed nicely crisp and well defined. Jagged edges and moiré effects presented no concerns, and I also failed to detect signs of edge enhancement. As for print flaws, some light grain cropped up periodically, and I also saw occasional examples of grit and speckles. However, these appeared quite minor given the vintage of the flick. As a whole, I found the picture to seem rather clean.

Colors offered a high point, as they consistently looked quite bright and vibrant. The tropical setting allowed for a mix of vivid tones, and the DVD replicated them nicely. The hues appeared accurate and well saturated, with no signs of bleeding, noise or other issues. Black levels seemed good but unexceptional, as they presented reasonable depth. Shadow detail occasionally appeared slightly dodgy, mainly due to some “day for night” photography; that technique often resulted in low-light situations that seemed too dense. In any case, those problems only occurred a few times, and the film usually presented the appropriate balance. Ultimately, I found myself very impressed with the picture quality of Swiss Family Robinson, and it narrowly missed the receipt of an “A”-level grade.

Also good was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Swiss Family Robinson. Though not as strong as the image, the audio seemed solid for its age. As with virtually all of the “Vault Disney” films, the soundfield really appeared to be broad mono. Music and effects occasionally showed modest spread to the sides, but for the most part, they remained pretty well anchored to the center channel. The effects came to life reasonably well during some of the ocean-related scenes; waves broke moderately well across the front. However, these segments provided only moderate extension of the standard single-channel imaging, and the same went for the score. I found the music to blend mildly across the front, but I didn’t hear much distinction or delineation. Really, this was nothing more than a slightly widened mono track.

That meant the surround speakers had little to do throughout the film. I heard some very light and vague reinforcement of the music and effects; again, the water segments showed the greatest signs of life. Nonetheless, the focus stayed firmly within the front spectrum.

Audio quality appeared fine for a movie of this era. Dialogue seemed a little thin, but the lines remained acceptably natural and crisp throughout the movie. Actually, the speech was fairly impressive given the fact that much of it needed to be looped; the results came across as better integrated than I might expect. Music displayed fairly restricted range, but the score seemed pretty clear and bright nonetheless. Effects also showed somewhat lackluster qualities, but they always remained clean and moderately accurate, as they suffered from no signs of distortion. Some elements packed a pretty solid bass punch; breaking waves, cannon fire and explosions all brought my subwoofer to life. In the end, the soundtrack of Robinson won’t dazzle anyone, but it seemed pretty positive given the age of the film.

All four of the initial “Vault Disney” releases come as two-DVD sets, and the majority of the extras reside on the second platters. However, each of the first discs includes some good pieces. For Robinson, we start with an audio commentary from director Ken Annakin plus actors James MacArthur, Tom Kirk and Kevin Corcoran. The first three were recorded together, while Corcoran sat alone. It’s too bad he couldn’t be with the others, for they provided a wonderfully warm tone and interaction that made it obvious they all still have a lot of affection for each other. Largely because of that attitude, I found this to be a thoroughly terrific commentary.

But it wasn’t just the mutual fondness that led me to enjoy the track. In addition, it included an enormous wealth of compelling information. Virtually all facets of the production received attention. We heard about the locations, the various performers, the animals, the sets, the script, working with Walt, and a lot of other issues. Annakin dominated and proved to be quite engaging, but all four men offered a good mix of notes. Since he spent so much time with them, Corcoran mainly discussed the animals, while the other two actors concentrated mostly on their personal experiences. Kirk even revealed the fact that his homesickness almost led him to quit, something he apparently never told the others. Although I wasn’t wild about the film itself, I genuinely enjoyed this audio commentary; it gave us a fascinating look at a particular period in Disney’s history.

In addition to the audio commentary, DVD One provides a classic Disney short. In this case, we find a 1949 Donald Duck offering called Sea Salts. This seven-minute and 33-second piece pairs Donald with an insect named Bootle Beetle; despite the variation in species, he reminds me an awful lot of Jiminy Cricket. The two get shipwrecked and compete with each other for survival supplies. Somehow they manage to remain friends even as Donald tries to use Bootle as bait. Salts offers a mediocre short that seems decent but unspectacular. Note that this short can be viewed on its own or at the start of the film; to replicate the manned in which Disney flicks used to be shown, the cartoon appears as a “preview” feature before the movie itself begins.

When you start the DVD, you’ll find the usual complement of advertisements. Here we get a preview of the theatrical release Lilo and Stitch as well as commercials for Max Keeble’s Big Move and Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch. From the main menu, you’ll discover a Sneak Peeks area that includes all of these promos plus trailers for the upcoming DVD releases of Monsters, Inc., Return to Neverland, and Beauty and the Beast.

Lastly, DVD One features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.

That concludes the first disc, and we can now move to DVD Two, where we locate an abundance of additional extras. First we locate an excellent new documentary called Adventure in the Making. Narrated by actor James MacArthur, this 48-minute and 56-second program consists of the usual mix of movie clips, shots from the set and archival materials, and new interviews with principals. In the latter category, we hear from director Ken Annakin, matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, special effects creator Danny Lee, and actors MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and Sir John Mills.

”Adventure” repeats a moderate amount of info heard during the documentary, but it shows a surprising ability to provide new details, and it remains consistently vibrant and entertaining. We get a good recap of the movie’s origins and then careen through its production. We hear about the stunts, the sets, the animals, the effects, the experiences of the actors, and many other elements of the shoot. We get a little of the usual “everyone was great” fluff, but “Adventure” shows less of this than the other “Vault Disney” documentaries; very little fluff appears during this terrific program.

More interview material shows up during Conversations With James MacArthur. Not surprisingly, this 11-minute and 59-second program provides a solo chat with the actor. The usual talking head shots of MacArthur mix with movie snippets from his various flicks as well as archival photos. He traces his roots as an actor and his start at Disney, and he then winds his way through his different projects and co-stars. MacArthur offers some fun stories and useful notes during this entertaining piece.

Pirates! is pretty much a throwaway piece. The 142-second montage mostly shows clips from Disney movies that include pirates. We see bits from Robinson, Peter Pan and others, all set to the theme from the Disney parks’ “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Actually, we watch some parts of that ride as well, which makes “Pirates!” a little more interesting.

More interesting is Swiss Family Tree House Opens at Disneyland, found in the “Lost Treasures” area. This three-minute and 40-second program shows Walt as he tours the then-new attraction with Sir John Mills and family, a group that includes his actress daughter Hayley. She narrates the piece and offers a few reflections. In addition, we see some other parts of the opening ceremony. It’s an interesting piece of historical footage.

The Disney Studio Album gives us a montage. It runs for four minutes and 32 seconds and provides a snapshot of the studio circa 1960. We find out what they did during that year, and the information covers a wide range of topics; in addition to movies, we look at TV, the theme parks, and even projects then in developments. It’s a cool little bit. Note that this piece duplicates the same one seen on Pollyanna

When we move to the Production Gallery, we get a 135 second running program that shows a mix of photos. This section is solely for the lazy, as the material it contains appears elsewhere in stillframe form. Watch this one only if you don’t like to bother with frame-by-frame access.

Next we find a section with a theatrical trailer and one TV spot. The trailer runs a stunning five minutes and eight seconds! Note that the TV spot appears to advertise a reissue of the movie. After this we move to a Storyboard to Scene Comparison. This 134-second piece uses a split-screen format. The movie resides on the bottom while the storyboards appear on top. It covers the scene in which the Robinson boys rescue Roberta from the pirates. It’s a good clip for fans of storyboards.

Walt Disney Presents “Escape to Paradise” runs 23 minutes and 18 seconds. Part of the old Disneyland TV show, we start with an intro from Walt and then get a look at the making of Robinson. Actually, that’s not really true. We do watch a lot of archival footage from the set, but don’t expect any form of real documentary examination. The “Swiss Family Calypso” plays on top of the first few minutes of footage, and then we hear some fairly obnoxious narration from an “island” dude. Mostly this seems to consist of “ooo-wee!” The “Calypso” eventually returns, as does Walt himself. From there, most of the rest of the piece just shows movie clips and promotes the flick. Time cures a lot of ills, admittedly, so while this show appears fluffy and without much substance, it still includes some good behind the scenes footage.

After this we get excerpts from a 1940 Version of Swiss Family Robinson. This piece lasts 18 minutes and 59 seconds. Narrated by Orson Welles, this version starts much earlier than the Disney version does; we see shots of the family before their departure from Switzerland, and it also concludes in a moderately different manner. We can see what a difference the island location made for the Disney version; clearly they shot this one on a soundstage, and it really shows. Note that this edition stars Thomas Mitchell as the father; he’s probably best known as Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Next we locate scads of stillframe materials. In the Galleries area, we find a whopping 220 “Production Stills”. There’s some good stuff here, and most - if not all - of it gives us a clearer version of the footage in the “Production Gallery” montage. “Production Art” splits into two areas: “Concept Art” (22 frames) and “Storyboards” (44 stills). The latter goes over the scene in which the family escapes from the ship. “Biographies” provides listings for actors Sir John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, and Sessue Hayakawa plus director Annakin. Basically, these offer annotated filmographies; they lack much depth.

Within the Advertising domain, we locate eight “Lobby Cards”, 14 “Posters”, and 18 shots of Robinson “Merchandise”; that domain mixes images of related records and a comic strip adaptation. Nicely, some frames in the “Posters” area isolate the many drawings that make up some of them. In Documents, we see 21 frames of ads and various press materials. Lastly, the Screenplay Excerpt offers the scene in which Bertie becomes Roberta. The text runs 20 screens, and the scene itself can be viewed from here, which I thought was a nice touch.

Within the Audio Archives we get some cool material. First up we get six radio spots that appeared for a reissue of the film. More fun is the “Sound Studio” demonstration. This let us hear two scenes from the film in different ways. You can watch “Pirate Attack” and “Animal Race” in their final form or with just dialogue or music/effects. This kind of feature isn’t unique, but it’s unusual to find it with such an old movie, and it’s a lot of fun here.

One song appears. We can listen to “My Heart Was An Island” accompanied by location photos. In addition, we find a replication of the movie’s “Story Album”. Story albums from other “Vault Disney” releases consisted mainly of audio straight from their films, but that didn’t happen here. Narrated by Kevin Corcoran, the 23-minute recording appeared to feature alternate voice actors for all the roles other than Corcoran’s Francis. Perversely, the absence of original voice talent made this more interesting than the other story albums. Why would I bother with the movie audio when I can watch the whole thing? However, the unusual presentation made it more interesting.

Though dated and silly at times, 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson remains reasonably charming and entertaining. The movie benefits from excellent production values and the coolest tree house ever depicted. The DVD presents very good picture quality along with solid audio and some simply outstanding extras. Of the four initial “Vault Disney” releases, Swiss Family Robinson wins the prize as the best of the bunch.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.2641 Stars Number of Votes: 53
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