Papa Robinson's plans of providing a new home for his family in the burgeoning colony of New Guinea go awry when the ship carrying them from Switzerland to the new land gets shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean after a fierce storm. Robinson ( John Mills ), his wife ( Dorothy McGuire ), and their three sons Fritz ( James MacArthur ), Ernest ( Tommy Kirk ), and Francis ( Kevin Corcoran ) find themselves abandoned by the ship's crew and left to survive on their own. They construct a raft and make their way to a nearby island where they build a home and make a new life for themselves, all the while awaiting to be rescued.
Swiss Family Robinson is loosely based on Johann Wyss' classic novel of the same name published in 1812. Wyss' story had potential but it lacked the action that Disney was seeking for this family adventure film.
As director Ken Annakin recalled...
"While we were in the mountains near Zermatt shooting Third Man on the Mountain, I remember Bill Anderson saying to me that The Swiss Family Robinson was the subject Walt was toying with as a next picture. I read the book. It was very old-fashioned, and I wondered what Walt's approach was going to be. Bill Anderson and I returned to Burbank and we sat down with Walt. He said, 'Well now, let's throw the whole book out the window. Let's just keep the idea of a Swiss family emigrating, trying to emigrate to America. They get shipwrecked, but they are able to save all the things in the ship. They then make a life on an idyllic island, I think you ought to think of all the things you might like to do, all the animals you could use in an entertaining way. Let's make it a wonderful show for the whole family, with all ideas possible.'"
Walt Disney assigned sketch artist John Jensen to work with director Ken Annakin in creating a storyboard for Swiss Family Robinson. Every scene and every camera angle was plotted in detail. Disney then took the storyboard to screenwriter Lowell S. Hawley and told him to write a story based on what was drawn. It was a novel way to pen a script and turned out to be an excellent way!
Swiss Family Robinson became Walt Disney's grandest live-action film to date. The entire film took 22 weeks to shot at a cost of approximately $4,000,000. It was also one of the few Disney pictures to be filmed in widescreen. No Hollywood studio sets were used in the making of the movie. It was shot entirely on the Caribbean island of Tobago, providing an authentic tropical backdrop for the intrepid family's escapades. A menagerie of animals were assembled - exotic birds, snakes, tigers, zebras, elephants, lizards and monkeys - and flown to the island to give the appearance that the Robinsons got stranded on a South Pacific island filled with wild creatures.
The elaborate jungle sets, designed by John Howell, John Hoestli, and Peter Murton, took 5 months to build. The most impressive was, undoubtedly, the tri-level family treehouse which included a stove, hot running water, a skylight roof, and a pirate-proof living room....all the comforts of home. The treehouse became such a beloved edifice that it was given a permanent home at Disneyland, where it was re-constructed in 1962.
"The world is full of nice ordinary people living in nice ordinary little houses on the ground. But didn't you ever dream of a house up on a tree top?"
A previous film version of Swiss Family Robinson was released by RKO in 1940 starring Thomas Mitchell, Edna Best, Tim Holt, Freddie Bartholomew and Terry Kilburn. This adaptation focused on the father's desire to stay on the island and have his sons grow into capable men through the survival skills they were learning on the island, while his wife pined to go home to London to resume her social life.
Walt Disney's version had a much happier tone and the Robinson family displayed the proper attitude that one should have when getting stranded ( in any situation ) : to make the best of it.
As with most Disney films, casting was paramount and Swiss Family Robinson was filled with seasoned and attractive players. John Mills is ideal as the patriarch of the family striking just the right note of commanding know-how, tempered with humor. Clearly he was a man not disappointed with the situation but thoroughly enjoying the whole escapade.
Unlike Edna Best's portrayal of Mother, McGuire has her become a woman who supports her husband in his decisions and keeps quiet about the trials of the island...unless worry prompts her to cry out.
The lovely Janet Munro joins the cast as Roberta, the young woman whom Fritz and Ernst rescue from pirates when they take their kayak journey around the island. MacArthur and Kirk were certainly a drawing feature for the young female audience who no doubt would have loved to have been stranded on an island with the boys. Moochie is the only performer who gets out of hand in the film, and seems to be bent on getting himself, and the family, into danger. Rounding out the cast is the legendary Japanese actor Sessue Kayakawa as the leader of the pirates, and Cecil Parker as Roberta's grandfather.
Swiss Family Robinson was released just before Christmas, on December 21, 1960. Critic reviews for the film were mixed, with the New York Times calling it a "grand adventure yarn" while other reviewers found it overlong and the final pirate attack a slapstick travesty. Those critics had their blinders on and failed to realize that the film was made in the spirit of fun and reckless abandon. Nevertheless audiences realized this and they came in droves to see it. The film became the No.1 grossing picture of 1960, earning over 20 million dollars at the box office, nearly twice the return of the second top-grossing film of the year, Psycho.