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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 7/22/02



The Swiss Family Robinson
Walt Disney Treasures - 1960 (2002) - Buena Vista

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Swiss Family Robinson: Walt Disney Treasures Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
126 mins, G, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:17:38 in chapter 12), dual keep case packaging, audio commentary (by director Ken Annakin and stars Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur and Kevin Corcoran), Sea Salts animated short, animated film-themed menu screens with audio, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English and Spanish (DD 5.1), subtitles: English for the hearing impaired, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
NR, single-sided, dual layered disc (no layer switch), Adventure in the Making "making-of" feature, Conversations with James MacArthur featurette, Pirates! preview reel, Lost Treasures - Swiss Family Treehouse film reel, Production Archives (featuring photo galleries, radio spots, storyboard/scene comparison, Walt Disney Presents Escape to Paradise feature, excerpts from the original filmed version of Swiss Family Robinson, theatrical trailer, television spot), 1960 Disney Studio Album, animated film-themed menu screens with audio, language: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none


The Robinsons, that most resourceful of all families Swiss, flee their home country to avoid the approaching army of Napoleon Bonaparte. When their ship is overpowered in a brutal storm, they abandon ship and set up camp on a remote island. Lucky for the Robinsons (and for you, dear viewer), this is no ordinary island. It's got everything an enterprising family could ever hope for: an assortment of animals from every corner of the globe, fresh water and tons of available food sources. Their family fun is all but ruined when an unruly mob of pirates (led by Bridge on the River Kwai Oscar-nominee Sessue Hayakawa) threatens to destroy their desert island bliss. I don't think I'm ruining anything here when I say that the time will inevitably come when The Robinsons must decide between returning to civilization and staying on their paradise island.

The Swiss Family Robinson is an entertaining movie, but I seem to remember having more fun with it as a child. There's loads of adventure and thrills to be had, but it's served up kiddy-style and with a heaping helping of wholesome, Disney family goodness. And Francis (Kevin Corcoran), the youngest Robinson, is so gratingly obnoxious and "cute" that I actually wished death-by-shark upon the little tyke. That said, there are some things I noticed as an adult that made viewing more interesting for different reasons. It's fun to watch mother and father (John Mills and Dorothy McGuire) dance around the subject of carrying on the family way with a very shallow gene pool. My ever so sensitive inner PETA also cringed (while I gnashed on a Big Mac) a few times as the island animals were put in various stages of peril - you've got ostrich riding, elephants submerged in ocean water, two dogs battling a tiger (look ma, no CGI!) and a lassoed turtle pulling a boat ashore. Still, the film has plenty of entertainment value, and it's got that sort of Gilligan's Island appeal of wondering what the hell they're going to make next out of coconuts and bamboo shoots. The treehouse remains something to see, and even as I approach 30 years of age, I still want to live inside it.

Disney finally brings The Swiss Family Robinson to DVD, and has done so (thankfully!) in anamorphic widescreen. The 2.35:1 image looks mostly good, but suffers in some areas. The image is nearly completely clean of fuzz, scratches and any sort of age-attributed imperfections. The day shots look particularly bright and spotless without even a hint of oversaturation. Colors are bright and properly saturated, and black levels are merely adequate. The day-for-night shots present some problems in the transfer to a digital medium. The image becomes unstable at this point and produces noticeable amounts of distracting grain and haze. Grain seems only to be a major issue in these scenes, but they are a hindrance to the overall quality of the picture.

The 5.1 audio upgrade doesn't come off quite as well as the improved picture quality. It's barely distinguishable as a multi-channel mix, as the surround channels are really only employed for occasional light use, mainly for the music track. The .1 LFE channel is active, most noticeably, during the opening storm sequence, then barely made a peep after that. Dialogue level is adequate and properly maintained in the center channel, and the majority of the effects work is spread across the front portion of the sound field.

Disney's 2-disc set of Swiss Family Robinson has an abundance of extras, most of which are featured on the second disc. When you pop the first disc into the player, you're greeted almost right away (after the requisite promo reel) by some nicely animated menu screens. They're a nice complement to the main feature. Disney's put a nice touch on the disc by adding an animated short directly in front of the feature. Sea Salts is a 7-minute Donald Duck cartoon that showcases Mr. Duck in top form as he makes a go of his own at surviving life on an uncharted isle. The remaining feature on this disc is the running commentary by director Annakin and the three Robinson children: Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur and Kevin Corcoran. The track is equal parts anecdotal and technical in nature, but it's dominated by Annakin and MacArthur. The other two pop up now and again for little bits of information, although they're content to remain in the background during most of the track. In any case, the track manages to be interesting from start to finish, and they addressed even little things (the language of the pirates and the dog/tiger fight) that caught my attention.

Even if you're only a casual fan of this film, you'll no doubt be wholly satisfied with the second disc. Forgive the clumsy, almost labyrinthine layout of the features and you'll find lots of good stuff to pick through. The centerpiece is the 50-minute feature Adventure in the Making. It's a thorough, albeit longwinded look at the making of the film. Most of the primary cast is interviewed for the feature, along with the director, matte artist (Peter Ellenshaw) and others. More than anything else, you'll learn what an undertaking it was to make Swiss Family Robinson. From the transport and wrangling of animals and dealing with nature's fury, to location scouting on the remote island of Tobago and a poor soundtrack (the entire film had to be dubbed in the studio), Swiss Family Robinson was a feat for all involved in its production.

Conversations with James MacArthur runs about 10-minutes in length and manages to be mildly informative. MacArthur discusses the various (mostly) Disney films he's been in over the years and how it helped and/or hindered his future career. Pirates! is a useless little film reel that showcases Disney's use of pirates over the years, be it in film, cartoon or theme park rides. It's cute enough but is ultimately unnecessary. The last of the features is the Lost Treasures piece. Haley Mills (her father played the senior Robinson) narrates a very short piece comprised of newsreel footage of her visit to the opening of the Swiss Family Treehouse attraction at Disneyland. It's worth a look... once, but no more than that.

The Swiss Family Robinson Production Archive contains a good number of promotional extras and other rarities. There are a number of photo galleries which contain several dozen snapshots of production stills, models, storyboards, lobby cards, merchandise, posters, screenplay excerpts and more. The audio section has five radio spots for your aural pleasure, and in the trailer section you'll find what must be the world's longest theatrical trailer (clocking in at 5-minutes!) and a television spot. I wasn't too impressed with the storyboard/scene comparison, but that could be because they chose to dissect a scene from my least favorite portion of the film.

More satisfying is the 20-minute section of excerpts from the 1940 RKO Radio Pictures version of Swiss Family Robinson. It seems considerably less wholesome in nature, though is just as entertaining. The original Disney promotional piece Walt Disney Presents Escape to Paradise tops off this section. It's taken from the long-running television series, and Walt himself sells the piece with gusto, while touting the island of Tobago. It's got some kitsch value in it, and I dig the island music that played over it. The last of the features is the Disney Studio Album. If you have any burning desire to know what was going down within the Disney Studios circa 1960, this is the piece for you. The remaining 5.99 billion of us will want to skip over it.

So, there you have it. The DVD presentation of a Disney family classic. As a kid, this film never ceased to thrill and amuse me. As an adult, the mounds of cheesy, pseudo-righteousness dished up alongside the island escapades gave me a giggle and an occasional roll of the eyes. The junior set will undoubtedly get a big kick out of the all the booby traps and goofy fun the family has with their exotic surroundings. It's hard for family films to retain their entertainment value even after a few years, and the fact that this one has done so after more than 40 years speaks volumes about the dedication of those involved with it. As far as DVD is concerned, this one is an easy recommend for anyone who has fond memories of the film as a kid and wants to re-explore those recollections as an adult.

Dan Kelly
dankelly@thedigitalbits.com




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