Long before Disney started making movies based on theme-park rides, Swiss Family Robinson felt like one. Based on the 1812 Johan David Wyss novel, this is a crudely calibrated series of “thrills,” each timed for maximum sustained interest.
This means that within only a few days of being shipwrecked on a tropical island, Mother Robinson (Dorothy McGuire), Father Robinson (John Mills) and their three sons have dangerous encounters with a tiger, a komodo dragon and a pair of sharks. (The menagerie on this isle goes on to include zebras, hyenas, tortoises, ostriches, parrots, monkeys and anacondas.) Add in a rolling raft ride through the island’s reef, and you’ve gotten your ticket’s worth in the first half hour.
Still, you shouldn’t be under the impression that this is exciting. Directed by Ken Annakin, Swiss Family Robinson is painfully elongated. Nearly every scene lasts a good 45 seconds longer than it should; the story’s beats aren’t hit – they’re pounded.
The story’s beats aren’t hit – they’re pounded.
The movie is partly a chore because of its cast, which ranges from the bland (James MacArthur and Tommy Kirk as the two older brothers) to the infuriating. As Francis, the youngest Robinson boy, Kevin Corcoran turns in one of the all-time horrible child performances. The family may hail from Bern, but Francis is the quintessential ugly American, arriving in a new place stomping and screaming and demanding that everything cater to him. The first thing he does is jump on the back of a tortoise; from there on out, there’s hardly a poor creature he doesn’t try to ride.
Swiss Family Robinson’s sole saving grace is the tree house the family builds, an inventive piece of production design that manages to capture the sort of imaginative delight the rest of the movie is striving for. Hey, at least Disney made a decent theme-park attraction out of that.