Wednesday 10 December 2008

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

I think I read Swiss Family Robinson when I was a kid, but if I did I can't remember just how it all played out. I certainly don't remember it having exactly the same story as Old Yeller, but hey, this was Disney so naturally Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran are there to play the same kids that they always played, with more dogs to take in and more big animals to get into trouble with. The basic story is, well, pretty basic: the Robinson family get shipwrecked in a storm and have to find a way to survive on a desert island. They have the remnants of the ship, given that the crew abandoned it and them in the storm, which means lots of wood, livestock, guns and other useful stuff. They even have a working organ.

Filmed on location on the island of Tobago, it looks good and the cast aren't afraid to play things at least a little realistically which makes for a decent opening with everyone getting thoroughly soaked. I also didnt see a single rear projection shot, so all the boatwork and stunts look real. Of course nobody has anything remotely close to a Swiss accent and everything white stays remarkably white, but for a while it does look like the Robinsons are working hard to stay alive and safe on an island populated by tigers and monitor lizards and whatnot. The filmmakers are careful not to tell us how long it takes to build that legendary treehouse but it's fascinating to watch all the ingenuity at work and it's impossible not to want to live there, at least for a little while.

Naturally, this being a family friendly Disney film, we see the happy side of being shipwrecked, which truth be told can't have a heck of a lot of happy side to it. Most shipwreck victims don't have awesome treehouses, water parks complete with ropes and water slides, and even when the dangerous side of things comes along, in the form of tigers, pirates or giant snakes, the danger plays second fiddle to the sheer adventure of it. Again, the realism is there: I'm pretty sure that wasn't a hi-tech animatronic snake that Fritz wrestles with in the water, but but it didn't look fake. Could it have been real? Disney certainly had a lot of well trained animals to hand, and the fight between the tiger and two great danes is stunning.

Beyond the lack of Swiss accents, the actors know precisely what they're doing and they're all very good indeed. Nobody is coarse and generic like in Treasure Island a decade earlier. John Mills is an effective father (again: no name) and James MacArthur, the future Danno from Hawaii Five-O is an effective eldest son. Dorothy McGuire is as great a matriarch as you'd expect, given that she played no end of great matriarchs. Similarly the other kids are the kids they always played: Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran made six films together and were brothers in five of them. This was the third and they must have known precisely how to play best off each other by this time. Corcoran especially is annoying in all the best ways.

Given that the Robinsons only had sons, there had to be a girl involved at some point and it turns out to be Janet Munro, playing Roberta. She was prepared for this one too, having previously played opposite James MacArthur in another Disney film a year earlier, Third Man on the Mountain. The other name involved is a surprising but welcome one. The pirates are your standard dumb pirates there to be knocked down and blown up and wiped out in all manner of ways, yet still get back up for more. Their leader, Kuala by name, is no less an actor than Sessue Hayakawa, a silent screen star to rival Valentino and Gilbert.

I've seen some of his silents like The Cheat and The Dragon Painter and been very impressed with his work, but only one of his early sound films. He had a very thick accent and could no longer play the sort of role he was used to. Luckily by this time there were parts that fit his talents again, albeit very different ones. Three years earlier he'd even won an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai. His role here is hardly substantial enough to warrant even thinking about another one but he has some fun with Kuala. I ony wish there had been more of him.

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