G. For mild peril. I mean, it's about getting stranded on a deserted island. But I really stress the "mild" aspect of the whole thing because no one seems all that bothered by the idea of survival. It makes CastAway look like an 127 Hours. There are some things that would be concerning for the 2020 audience. It's mildly racist. The pirates play huge stereotypes. They should have been killed a billion times. Also, this movie had to be somewhat cruel to animals. If you are a Tiger King fan out there, you know that these animals weren't taught through treats. There had to be some animal abuse on the set of Swiss Family Robinson. But again, I just poo-pooed a Disney classic, so take from that what you will.
DIRECTOR: Ken Annakin
I don't know if there's ever been a movie that I watched so intently and felt like I cheated. I'm a big fan of throwing my phone out of reach for movies because I like watching things with a critical eye. I did that for Swiss Family Robinson. This was a movie that my wife liked as a kid and that I don't remember watching. I may have. There's a seedling in my memory that is tied to this film. But it wasn't something that clearly resonated with me. Perhaps it was our trip to Disney World a while ago (Christmas break? You know, before the world ended?) where we walked through the Swiss Family Robinson tree that probably sparked my wife's interest in this movie. But I watched this movie from what seemed like for the first time and I barely remember watching it. It wasn't that long ago. Maybe a week ago? That kind of says something.
What kind of breaks this movie is that it is a movie that refuses to really have stakes for the characters. Narratively, there are a ton of perils on this island. The youngest kid almost gets eaten by a tiger fairly early on. He is being considered prey while --wait for it --trapping an elephant for fun. This is immediately after getting shipwrecked. Yet, there's no scolding. The entire movie is blanketed in this wash of optimism. I get it. It's Disney. It's supposed to be this fun adventure, not a scary breakdown of society. But Disney's actually pretty impressive when it comes to appropriate scares. Heck, sometimes those scares get to be a bit too scary. Swiss Family Robinson has the vehicle and the formula to deliver on some truly scary stuff. But the movie is almost exclusively a series of setups for terror, but never creates the atmosphere for it.
The movie never really lets us think that there's any consequences for anything, with the exception of the two brothers having a falling out. By the way, thank goodness for that toxic storyline because it is the only thing that really generates any character arcs. The Robinsons are too perfect. It's not fair that I'm using Lost in Space as a point of reference, but I'm going to do it anyway. There is some genuine peril in Lost in Space, especially the Netflix version. Yes, the children get into trouble equally between its original version and its sci-fi remake. But even though the Robinsons are tight in Lost in Space, there's actual genuine terror going on. Will gets a stern talking to on Lost in Space. Francis can just do whatever he wants and it's considered adorable. It instantly means that the majority of the movie won't matter. Imagine, though, if it did. Like, the entire movie just chuckles at Francis's dangerous ideas and then he just dies a horrible death? Oh my goodness, you couldn't get me to stop talking about Swiss Family Robinson at that point and it's really dark morality.
When the danger is actually removed from the island, there's something actually really quite gross going on in the majority of the story. Mother and Father don't really want to leave. Whatever problems they had in civilization are done away with in the awesome impossible treehouse they made. Danger doesn't really exist. The arrival of the pirates seems to be the main plot, but there's no danger because they just have a grand old time for the majority of the film. It really comes down to forcing this one stranded girl to be a sexual object for procreation. Love triangles are tough. Lots of stories come down to love triangles because someone instantly has to become the villain. But Roberta, played by Janet Munro, is super uncomfortable because she instantly steps into that role. Instead of being about finding a human being and saving her, the boys instantly start sparring about who gets to marry her. Part of it is for pacing reasons. This is a movie and the central conflict of the movie, despite the fact that it should be about survival, is who is going to marry Roberta and what is this going to do to the family?
It's just that it is so sexually charged that it is uncomfortable to think that this is a G-rated movie. They never call it sex, but that's what it is for. It's about companionship. This could be all colored by the idea that I watched 28 Days Later last night and that's the central problem in that movie. But the villains in that movie know that there are no more women left, so they treat the two surviving females as objects of reproduction and companionship. In that one, it's very rapey. It's only because Roberta simply slides into her role as a companion that it kind of becomes okay. There's a weirdly fine line between "romantic" and "gross". Casually watching Swiss Family Robinson makes it seem really romantic, but it just comes to two brothers fighting over the claim to a single woman. It's really uncomfortable. In fact, THAT is why it is on an island full of danger. It covers up the really uncomfortable elements of that relationship.
Then the whole movie just wraps itself up. There's no killing. I swear, every single one of those pirates should be dead. And because they are able to repel the pirates, the story just resolves itself. The movie, through the whole Roberta sequence, builds Fritz to be the villain. (If I have the wrong brother, I apologize.) He actually gets pretty gross. The boys end up fighting and hating each other. It gets to an oddly dark place. But even the more heroic of the two brothers, (the one that Roberta likes because the story made it convenient for her to like him), get pretty gross in the process. But the movie completely just releases the tension of this moment by having animal races and pirate attacks. There's something very off-putting about the whole thing. When you offer hypothetical worst-case situations, you stick characters on a deserted island. Lord of the Flies works because the rules of civilization are out the window on an uninhabited island. Every story that involves isolation on a deserted island leads to man dealing with his inner demons. You have these two boys who both savagely have laid claim on the last woman (I've already discussed the problematic storytelling element here) and the story is just defused because pirates showed up. Swiss Family Robinson is escapist fantasy. It's playing up on that imperialist attitude of white society, taking over the uncivilized domain. But like how we have whitewashed our history of imperialism, we have refused to acknowledge what is really going on there. The pirate attack makes a traditional good versus evil / us versus them situation that is super uncomfortable the more you think about it. It is wrapped up so nicely that we can't address the moral evils that are running in the background of the island.
And with the end, the Robinson patriarch proclaims himself the lord of the island. The way I understand it, there are no inhabitants of the island. But it does reflect the idea that civilization is better than primitive ways. The Robinsons are traditional colonizers. Because the Robinsons are so care free and unchallenged by the ravages of nature, there's a message behind the movie that man is meant to bring civilization to the unconquered areas of the world. I know. I'm ignoring the purpose of the film: to have fun and adventure. But there's a lot of weird subtext happening and I really can't ignore it. Again, I tried engaging with the movie on the level it recommended and I just wasn't having it. It's kind of a boring movie that, if you stop having fun with it, brings up questions it doesn't want answered.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.