Lions and tiger and bears…oh my!
Life is filled with indelible memories that will stay with you forever. The smell of baking oatmeal cookies may bring back memories of your grandparents' house. The sight of an old board game may remind you of your childhood and the innocence that accompanied it. For me, a wave of nostalgia came sweeping back when I sat down to watch one of Disney's fondest remembered live action hits, Swiss Family Robinson. Based on an old 1800s novel by Johann David Wyss, Swiss Family Robinson starred (among others) John Mills (father of Disney ingénue Hayley Mills) and Disney regular Tommy Kirk (Old Yeller) in a timeless story about a family shipwrecked on an island with nothing but their supplies and wits to survive. Part of Disney's new "Vault Disney" collection, Swiss Family Robinson arrives on DVD in a two disc Special Edition care of the mighty Mouse House.
Facts of the Case
Disney's Swiss Family Robinson is the rollicking tale of the Robinson family's courageous adventures on a deserted island. After being shipwrecked and stranded in the middle of nowhere in the 1800s, the Robinson's learn to adapt to their surroundings by building themselves an enormous tree house (complete with running water and all kinds of hip gizmos) and settling in for what seems to be a cozy life…well, as cozy as you can get when you're surrounded by monkeys and tigers. The family is made up of father (John Mills), mother (Dorothy Maguire), the hardheaded Fritz (James MacArthur), the intelligent Ernst (Tommy Kirk), and the young but spirited Francis (Kevin Corcoran). As the weeks go by the Robinson's find themselves facing new challenges, including a beautiful stranded girl (the late Janet Munro) and a boatload of vicious pirates who mean to do the family harm! Only with their spirited ingenuity and optimism can the Robinson clan defeat the pirates and head toward the possibility of rescue!
What would you do if you were stuck on a desert island? Would you be able to survive? Or would you succumb to the ravages of time and the elements? Well, if you're lucky enough to be stranded on a Disney island, you'll do just fine. Swiss Family Robinson is a movie that stretches the limits of believability, but it does so in such a fun and entertaining way that half way through the film you don't really care that none of the Robinsons' inventions are very practical. Maybe my personal feelings get in the way, but I really have a fondness for this movie. When I was eight years old, this was the coolest flick around. I mean, let's face it—what little boy doesn't dream of owning his own island filled with tigers, booby traps, and a tree house that puts most suburban houses to shame?
Kids will literally eat this movie up. While there are a few scenes of tension and thrills, there's nothing in the movie that will offend most parents (or tykes). Sure, the cast sometimes acts a bit too hammy (I don't know about you, but if I were stranded on an island, I'd be a bit more pessimistic than this group), and a few shots of the animals are obviously just sped up photography for a more dangerous effects (cheesiness at its finest). All of these goofs can be overlooked due to the sheer likeability of the script and actors. The action is plentiful while never too violent. When pirates attack the Robinsons' island, you never believe anyone's really in grave danger; it's all just a fun show with the Robinson's prevailing and the pirates going home with a few bruises on their foreheads. John Mills as the family patriarch is fittingly stern while the two older brothers (Tommy Kirk and James MacArthur) are very funny as complete opposites; Fritz (MacArthur) is the brawny, practical brother, while Ernst (Kirk) is the wimpy thinker. The only actor in the batch that goes WAY over the top is Kevin Corcoran as the small but feisty Francis (his voice was dubbed after the film was shot, in turn making him sound like a little girl).
After all is said and done, I think that Swiss Family Robinson is one of my favorite movies Disney ever produced. Even 18 years later, I still watch the film with an innocent eye and an open heart. While I sometimes mock the Disney company for its sappy sweetness, I dare any viewer to watch this family action movie and not feel just a little bit younger than their actual age.
Swiss Family Robinson is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. When I was a kid, I used to watch Swiss Family Robinson on an old VHS tape playing on an even older video cassette recorder. Now that I'm a grown up I want a more grown up version of the film…and Disney has obliged. This newly restored print of the film looks much better than I expected; with vivid colors and black levels, this is probably the best Swiss Family Robinson is ever going to look. While some of the colors tend to appear washed out due to the film's age and a few specks of dirt/grain pop up once in a while (along with a clinging hair in the very beginning!), overall this is a great looking print from the folks over at Disney!
The audio is presented in a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and is, alas, sub-par. While the dialogue, music, and effects all come in with ringing clarity, overall this mix is a disappointment. The surround feature isn't really engaged except in a few key scenes (and even then it's not very strong) while the bulk of this track is situated in the only the center and front side speakers. Disney certainly did a nice job on the video presentation—it's too bad the same can't be said for the soundtrack. Also included on this disc are English captions and a Dolby soundtrack in Spanish.
Disney has done a fine job with their "Vault Disney" two-disc sets, and Swiss Family Robinson is no exception. Starting off disc one is a commentary track by actors Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur, and Kevin Corcoran, plus director Ken Annakin (with Corcoran recorded separately). This is a very chatty track with all participants yammering up a storm. I especially liked listening to James MacArthur (who was also my favorite character in the film). This is a very nice listen for fans looking to find out more about Swiss Family Robinson's production history. The other extra feature available on this first disc is a short animated cartoon called "Sea Salts" that originally ran with the film in 1960. It's a slight feature, but a lot of fun to have on this set.
Disc two contains some fun supplements, starting with "Adventure in the Making," a nearly hour-long documentary that features newly filmed interviews with Sir John Mills, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, James MacArthur, director Ken Annakin, matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, and effects man Danny Lee. This is one of the best features I've seen, as it encompasses everything from the conception to the production to the film's release. Along the way the cast and crew divvies out their thoughts on the film, what it was like to be on the set, and other fun tales from the Island of Disney misfits. A worthwhile documentary for fans of all ages.
Under the section "Lost Treasures," you'll fine a short feature on the Swiss Family Treehouse that features Hayley Mills commentating on the flick (her father is featured in the short film). This is a cute little piece that is interesting, but only for nostalgia's sake (Hayley Mills seems to be having a better time watching it than we do). Under the "Swiss Family Production Archive" are a batch of promo materials, including a production gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and posters, a few goofy trailers and TV spots, and some screen-to-storyboard comparisons. The Disney Studio Album is a fast montage of different Disney movies from the year 1960 (Kidnapped, Pollyanna, etcetera) and isn't all that exciting.
Finally there is a short twelve-minute feature called "Conversations with James MacArthur," which covers much of what's already on the disc, and a brief montage called "Pirates!" which is about…duh…pirates and their history at the Disney studios.
All in all this is a presentable package from Disney, and a fun movie for all ages. It's hokey and gleeful, but I'll be a monkey's uncle if it ain't a big ol' hoot. With a nice array of extra features, a first ever widescreen transfer and a new 5.1 audio track, this edition of Swiss Family Robinson is well worth the trip!
Swiss Family Robinson is free to go…if it doesn't get lost first! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director Ken Annakin and Actors Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur, and Kevin Corcoran
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