The Robinson family have left Switzerland far behind because they wished to flee the Napoleonic Wars, so joined a ship set for New Guinea where they hoped to establish a new life free of conflict. Unfortunately, on the journey the vessel hit a fearsome storm which caused the crew to abandon the ship, leaving the Robinsons trapped below decks as they were shipwrecked on rocks. Those rocks turned out to belong to an island, or so Father (John Mills) suspects, and after breaking out of their unintentional prison he and his wife (Dorothy McGuire) and three sons negotiate the water and the shoreline to finally reach dry land. However, their problems are not over - now they must survive, and there are pirates to be dealt with.
The Walt Disney company were finding their live action movies incredibly lucrative in the nineteen-fifties, be that the prestige production 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, their wildlife documentaries or goofy comedies such as The Shaggy Dog, therefore when they decided to adapt Johann Wyss's classic adventure novel Swiss Family Robinson they pulled out all the stops, and rendered it as lavishly as possible. Yet again, the rewards were huge, and it is still one of the most successful family films ever made thanks to its dedication to spectacle and delivering precisely what they knew their audience wanted to see in a combination of those three styles of movie that were doing so well for them.
This opened the sixties on a bright note, but the company did not know then the decade would grow increasingly tumultuous, not least because Disney himself would pass away near its close; we did get Mary Poppins before he left us, a hit that was even more enduring than this one. Perhaps they should have made this a musical to ensure it would continue to be a moneyspinner, but it was accurate to say unlike that Julie Andrews-starrer, the Robinsons were rather prone to dating not quaintly and lovably, but rather poorly. It was very much a product of its time, though you could say that about most films, but the treatment of animals added for interest as per those documentaries would not go down well now.
For a start, the titular family have a curious dedication to riding said beasts, starting with a tortoise (a giant variety, not your basic pet-sized one), graduating to an ostrich, then a zebra (this was a rare sight, someone atop such a creature), and eventually there was a race with every animal they could get their hands on and sit on. Couple that with a few scenes of violence, such as two of the sons Fritz (James MacArthur of Hawaii Five-O fame) and Ernst (Tommy Kirk, the shaggy dog himself) battling an enormous snake, or a tussle between two Great Danes and an actual tiger, and you could well see why the sixties gave rise to the mondo movie pseudo-documentaries not long after. This was all in the service of giving the audiences the sort of experience no other movie ever had, and in the twenty-first century, no longer will.
That aside, adventure was the order of the day, as the Robinsons construct their own treehouse with all mod cons in record time, and those pirates make their presence felt when Fritz and Ernst go exploring, stumbling across a British Captain (Cecil Parker) and his grandson - except she's really his granddaughter in disguise to prevent unspeakable things happening to her, too awful to contemplate in a Disney movie at least. Janet Munro played Roberta, another Disney regular who in her case was yearning to be better known for grown-up roles, and she winds up at the centre of a love triangle between the two elder brothers. The youngest, Francis (Kevin Corcoran), was a shrill example of what passed for cute in those days, you may feel relieved when he is not onscreen, but the leader of the pirates was played by Sessue Hayakawa, that Japanese superstar of silent movies now in his Autumn years and enjoying a late period flush of prosperity in character parts. The film was certainly not boring, but there was a lot of it, and tastes have changed; Disney have promised to remake it one of these days. Music by William Alwyn.