Swiss Family Robinson

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: Commentary Track, Animated Short Feature, Documentary, Featurettes, Trailers and much more

Not content to merely rule the world of animated feature films, Walt Disney set out early on to corner the market for live-action family fare as well. The late-1950s through the mid-1960s saw the appearance of many great Disney films such as "20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Old Yeller," and "Treasure Island." Recognizing that the market for these classics is not the same as that for their more recent family movies, Disney has begun releasing some of these films as part of their new "Vault Disney" line of two-disc special edition DVDs. Featuring brand-new video transfers and a whole host of immersive bonus features, the "Vault Disney" titles present fans of these live-action films with everything they could have hoped for in a DVD release.

Part of the first batch of four "Vault Disney" titles, 1960’s "Swiss Family Robinson" is an entertaining adaptation of Johann Wyss’s novel about a family on their way to build a new life in New Guinea who instead wind up building their very own paradise on an uninhabited South Pacific island. Even if you’ve never seen the film you’re sure to recognize the elaborate multi-level treehouse from the replica attraction that used to grace Disneyland and the one that still resides at Walt Disney World.

Sir John Mills stars as the patriarch of the Robinson clan who — along with wife (Dorothy McGuire) and sons Fritz (James MacArthur), Ernst (Tommy Kirk, and Francis (Kevin Corcoran) — survives a terrible storm at sea only to find his family washed up on a reef not far from the shore of a seemingly deserted isle.

Nonplussed by their misfortune, the industrious Robinsons set about turning the island into their own little Garden of Eden. Using the supplies and livestock still on the ship and making good use of the exotic local wildlife, the family soon has a right fancy little villa constructed where they can wait for a rescue in fine style.
But the two older boys, Fritz and Ernst, are a bit antsy to go adventuring so they set out to circumnavigate the island in a dugout canoe. Soon they stumble upon a pirate fleet sitting at anchor and rescue a cabin boy who was being held captive along with his grandfather — the captain of a merchant vessel recently captured.
Making their way overland back towards home the boys come upon all manner of trouble from roving pirates to giant anacondas. The Robinson boys are a bit miffed at the effeminate nature of young Bertie until they discover that the "boy" is actually a girl named Roberta (Janet Munro) who was disguised by her grandfather so the pirates wouldn’t take any, ahem, liberties with her.

Well, two teenage boys and but one teenage girl trapped on an island is a sure recipe for conflict and soon Fritz and Ernst are vying for Roberta while at the same time the entire family is preparing an elaborate defense against the pirates who are most surely on the way.

"Swiss Family Robinson" is a fun family movie of the type that they just don’t make anymore. There’s adventure, romance, humor, and beautiful locations but not a lick of CGI, biting sarcasm, or jokes revolving around bodily functions. I know which style I prefer.

Filmed on location on the island of Tobago just off the northeast coast of South America, "Swiss Family Robinson" looks amazing and the use of actual physical locations rather than soundstage sets lends the movie a real air of authenticity. I’m not sure how one tiny island supports elephants, tigers, hyenas, and zebras but I’m willing to let that little detail slide as the wild animals are an integral part of the show and the story does at least offer up the somewhat feeble hypothesis that an ancient land bridge must have once connected the island to the mainland.

Performances are the standard fare for a live-action Disney film of this era meaning that the adults are quite solid while the child actors are way too over-the-top in their delivery and physical actions. In addition, all dialogue was re-recorded in post production leading to some lip-syncing issues as well as an artificial sound to some of the speech. Kevin Corcoran’s Francis sounds especially tinny and shrill leading one to believe that he must have re-recorded his lines in a tin can.
Still, director Ken Annakin keeps a fairly tight reign on the nonsense and there are very few cringe-inducing moments of the sort that cause modern-day audiences to avoid these vintage family films like the plague.

Presented in 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, "Swiss Family Robinson" has received a new <$THX,THX>-approved transfer for this DVD release. While the film certainly won’t be mistaken for a newer feature, this transfer still looks marvelous. The picture is a bit soft and lacking in fine detail but I haven’t seen many films from 1960 and before that weren’t. Colors are fairly accurate with the flesh tones being much more realistic than in many other live-action Technicolor films of that era. Black levels are adequate and the handful of nighttime scenes look decent enough. Considering the fact that the much easier day-for-night photography wasn’t used and the film was shot almost entirely on location under very difficult circumstances, the contrast and brightness are much better than I was expecting. The image also is free from all but a handful of minor blemishes. Compression artifacts and artificial edge enhancement are mercifully absent as well. Additionally, the layer change has been placed right at a scene’s fade-to-black. Why more discs don’t do this is beyond me. To sum it all up, this new DVD offers a splendid video presentation.

Audio comes in a new English <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> that adds some oomph to the soundtrack without getting too gimmicky. Dynamic range is a bit challenged with shrill highs (especially in some of the dialogue as previously noted) but there is some decent LFE present with rumbling thunder and roaring cannons. Most of the audio is anchored front and center with the surrounds getting an almost unnoticeable amount of use. Dialogue is for the most part clearly understood and the sound effects and musical score are well-balanced. This is a <$5.1,5.1 mix> in name only and is actually closer to being 1.1 — mono with an LFE channel. The audio certainly isn’t top-notch but it never detracts from the enjoyment of the on-screen action.

As part of the new "Vault Disney" line, "Swiss Family Robinson" boasts a whole boatload of informative and entertaining bonus features. Disc one contains a running commentary with director Ken Annakin and actors James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin Corcoran with Corcoran being the odd man out who was recorded separately. This is a superb commentary and the memories from forty years ago are still vivid for all concerned. You can certainly detect a note of wistful sadness as the actors look back on what had to have been one of the greatest adventures of their young lives.

Disc one also features an animated Donald Duck short, "Sea Salts," that plays right before the main feature as a tip of the hat to the long-ago days of the Saturday matinee. This cartoon can also be selected from the "Bonus Material" menu as well as skipped altogether. Rounding out the disc one extras are the THX-Optimizer calibration tools and trailers for "Max Keeble’s Big Move," "Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch," "Return to Never Land," "Monsters, Inc.," "Beauty & the Beast," and "Lilo & Stitch."

But the bulk of the extras reside on disc two. Like the first disc, this one also features animated menus that, while never too annoying, are still likely to get on the nerves of those who prefer a fast-loading menu system.

First up is the new 48-minute documentary, "Adventure in the Making." Hosted by James MacArthur and featuring interview snippets with most of the surviving cast and crew, this piece sheds much light on the enormous challenge of filming on the island of Tobago. Everything from the sets to housing and machine shops had to be built from scratch and the all-British crew were soon grumbling about going home. Contrast this with the child actors who were havingthe time of their lives in a tropical paradise. Packed with relevant information and many behind-the-scenes stills, this is a making-of documentary done right.

Next up is an 11-minute interview entitled "Conversations with James MacArthur." This piece offers some background on the actor and explores the other films he made while a part of the Disney stable as well as mentioning his best-known role as Lt. Danny "Danno" Williams on the long-running TV series "Hawaii Five-0." Mr. MacArthur is extremely personable and has nothing but nice things to say about those he has worked with over the years.

"Pirates!" is a 2-minute piece that features scenes and stills from pirate-themed Disney films, TV shows, animated shorts, and amusement park attractions all set to the music from the classic "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride. What fun!

"Lost Treasures — Swiss Family Treehouse Opens at Disneyland" is a 4-minute bit showing the grand opening of the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction. The piece features new narration by Hayley Mills — daughter of John Mills and Disney star in her own right — who offers up her fond memories of Uncle Walt.

The "Disney Studio Album" is a 4-minute montage of clips from all the films and shorts produced by the Walt Disney Studio in 1960.

The "Swiss Family Robinson Production Archive" is loaded with numerous sub-sections. The "Production Gallery" is 2-minutes worth of production stills set to music from the film while "Trailers & TV Spots" offers up 6-minutes of back-to-back promotional pieces for the film. The "Storyboard to Screen Comparison" runs for 2-minutes as well and features a split screen showing the original storyboard art at the top and the finished film at the bottom for the rescuing of the captive scene.

"Walt Disney Presents ’Escape to Paradise’" is a 23-minute piece from the classic "Disneyland" TV show hosted by Uncle Walt himself. Serving as a shameless plug for the upcoming movie, the bit provides some background footage set to a very snappy steel-drum song celebrating the movie and the island of Tobago and entitled "The Swiss Family Robinson Calypso." Fire up those Tiki torches and have a ball.

"Excerpts: 1940 Swiss Family Robinson" offers up 19-minutes worth of footage from the first film adaptation of the story and is narrated by none other than Orson Welles.

The "Galleries" section features the sub-categories of "Production Stills," "Production Art," "Biographies," "Advertising," "Documents," and a "Screenplay Excerpt" that allows the viewer to read the script then jump right to that particular scene in the movie.

"Audio Archives" features "Radio Spots;" two "Sound Studio" features that let the user choose between listening to the final composition, dialogue, and music and effects audio tracks for the "Pirate Attack" and "Animal Race" scenes; the song "My Heart Was an Island" played over more behind-the-scenes stills; and finally, the "Story Album" which features the complete 23-minute audio adaptation of the story that I imagine appeared on LP at the time of the film’s initial release. This piece also plays with production stills serving as visuals.

If all that doesn’t satisfy even the most rabid fan’s appetite for extras then nothing will. The bonus features are informative, well-produced, and, most important of all, entertaining. Nobody else in the business takes care of their old films and related promotional materials like Disney and it’s the fans who benefit the most from this forward-thinking philosophy when a jam-packed special edition of a classic movie comes out on DVD. It puts to shame other studios that can barely manage to muster even a dusty old trailer for their vintage films.

"Swiss Family Robinson" is a wonderful adventure tale that may seem a bit dated and stilted to modern-day audiences but those who grew up watching the classic live-action Disney films or those who just enjoy quality family entertainment are in for a real treat with this new "Vault Disney" DVD. Featuring a stellar video transfer, adequate audio, and an amazing amount of bonus features, this two-disc set serves as a shining example of DVD done right. Created with the real film buff in mind, these "Vault Disney" treasures are a sight to behold and I can’t wait for the next batch to be released.