Making a film version of a classic children's novel is a perilous undertaking that tends to yield two different approaches. The less typical approach is to adapt the book faithfully; the more typical approach is for the filmmakers to take a liberal hand with changing the story to suit the film medium. Disney's 1960 family film Swiss Family Robinson is an example of the latter method, taken to its extremes; as the writers and artists openly confess in the making-of documentary, they essentially took the title and general premise ("family shipwrecked on an island") from the book and never looked back.
Adapting the book, then, became a non-issue; Swiss Family Robinson is simply Walt Disney's personal vision of an entertaining "cast away" story. As with any approach, this has its good and bad points. On the positive side, Swiss Family Robinson has a cheerful energy and gee-whiz-this-is-fun atmosphere that evidently made ardent fans of at least one generation of children seeing the movie in the theaters. With the youngest member of the Robinson family playfully filling the role of stand-in for the young viewers of the movie, we get all the wish-fulfillment any child could ask for: a private island paradise, one's own personal elephant (child-sized, of course), a family pool with rock slides and vine swings (complete with chattering monkeys), and a dash of exciting but not too scary adventure with pirates, just enough to make everybody into a hero.
In contrast, the novel is more subdued; the only conflict in the story is that of their survival (no, there are no pirates). While the resourcefulness of the family is equally extraordinary in the book as it is in the film, their accomplishments are somehow more realistic in the book, probably because the book focuses on how they did it. As a child reading Swiss Family Robinson, I was amazed by way the characters would find useful resources around them to build and make whatever they needed. That was an essential part of the charm of the story; the other part was the progress of the family over time. In Wyss' novel, there's a profound sense of the fact that these people are truly cast away, for an indefinite period of time. In the film, it seems as though they've been there for a few weeks' holiday, with the result that the conclusion, which does share some elements from the book's conclusion, lacks the satisfying feeling of the book's ending.
All in all, though, I think that I would have been able to enjoy the film version of Swiss Family Robinson for what it is, if it weren't for its thoroughgoing mentality of imperialism. Here we see "man the exploiter": every creature on the island, every aspect of the island, is presented solely in the light of how it can be made to serve the human refugees. Not once does anyone remark on the outstanding physical beauty of the island: it's only nice insofar as it's made to look like the work of human hands, as with the treehouse that the family creates.
The wildlife on the island is just one more resource to be exploited. The little boy sees a baby elephant, lures it to come close, then traps the terrified creature. Next scene: we see the formerly free wild animal hauling lumber for the family. Could there be a clearer depiction of basic slavery? In another scene the family's two pet dogs attack a tiger, who had been minding its own business and not threatening anybody; the tiger clearly gets genuinely harassed and is very upset. Later on, we see ostriches being manhandled to be ridden around for fun and a monkey forcibly captured to be a pet. I imagine that by 1960 basic animal-care laws were in place, and the animal "cast" was adequately cared for, but the way that the animals are presented on film shows an attitude of unthinking exploitation that made me feel quite uncomfortable.
To my adult eyes, as the story winds to a close, the theme of the film is not just "man the exploiter" but "man the destroyer." To this virgin island, peaceful, full of animals living out their natural lives, come the Robinsons; far from living in peace and harmony with nature, they end up bringing outright warfare to the place. Sure, it's cartoony violence, but the theme is there.
The essential problem isn't in the attitude of the Robinsons as characters: the story is set in the 19th century, at the height of colonialism, and a real-life Robinson family at the time would have viewed the island exactly as they do in the film. The problem is the lack of any sense of perspective: the film is utterly unselfconscious, so it doesn't just present colonialist attitudes, it espouses them. In contrast, we can look at the recent version of Robinson Crusoe starring Pierce Brosnan. That film presents Crusoe with beliefs characteristic of his time, such as his conviction that Europeans were superior to the natives of the island. However, the film gives us a perspective on him that lets the viewer be aware that these beliefs are subjective. This sense of perspective, however slight, is what's missing from Swiss Family Robinson, and it's what in my mind keeps it from being a true family classic.
Disney should get kudos for its DVD presentation of Swiss Family Robinson. The film is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1; kids as well as adults deserve to see a film as it was shown in the theaters. The transfer is anamorphically enhanced as well, making for an increased clarity of the image.
Swiss Family Robinson has benefited from a nice restoration job. The image is clean and clear, with minimal noise and no print flaws in sight. On the whole, the film is very brightly lit, with scenes mainly taking place in full sunlight; contrast is good throughout. Colors have a very slight "dated" look to them, which I suspect is probably an element of the original film stock that was used. In the DVD transfer, they're generally clean and bright.
The film's Dolby 5.1 sound provides a satisfying overall listening experience. There isn't much use of the soundtrack's surround capacity, mainly because there aren't many environmental effects at all, apart from the initial storm. The sound is fairly rich; the music track well-balanced with the dialogue, which in turn is clear and crisp throughout.
The special features for Swiss Family Robinson are outstanding. The two-disc set is packaged in a double-wide case. On the first disc, in addition to the main feature, the DVD includes the original short cartoon "Sea Salts" at the beginning of the film, just as it would have played in movie theaters at the time of the film's original release. This disc also includes a full-length audio commentary track featuring Ken Annakin, Tommy Kirk, James MacArthur, and Kevin Corcoran.
Several documentary features are included on the second disc. The highlight is the 48-minute "Adventure in the Making," which follows the making of the film with behind-the-scenes footage and reminiscences from many of the actors and production crew. "Conversations with James MacArthur" is also quite interesting, providing a personal look into the career and recollections of one of the main actors in Swiss Family Robinson. The other features are "Pirates!," which is a montage of pirate-themed clips from other Disney films, a bit of behind-the-scenes footage of the "Swiss Family Treehouse," production archives, and the 1960 Disney studio album.
It's a bit of a tough call summing up Swiss Family Robinson. If you've never seen the film and you're looking for a faithful adaptation of the original book, I'd recommend that you rent the DVD before buying, as it's a horse of quite a different color than the classic novel.
On the other hand, if you already know that you love the film, then the Vault Disney DVD transfer is absolutely the way to go. Disney has produced a DVD of a "family film" the way it should be produced: in its original theatrical aspect ratio so both adults and children can appreciate the scope of the whole movie, with excellent image quality, and an outstanding package of special features.