Swiss Family Robinson: Movies that are Better Than the Book
The Walt Disney version of Swiss Family Robinson (1960) is a light-hearted adventure romp through a crazy island with a wild variety of animals. There is plenty of fun to be had as Disney stalwarts Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran play their characters with relish and zeal. Janet Munro does great in her role as the only single woman on the island, and James MacArthur is wonderful as the oldest son. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire round out the cast as the Robinson parents. There are wonderful inventions, fun jokes, and pirates.
The 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson is darker film, not just because it’s in black and white. There are moments when you’ll shout at the screen, and the special effects are good considering when the film was made. The 1960 film is better, but that is likely to be expected. Neither film is particularly faithful to the book, and that is for the best.
“Swiss Family Robinson,” the book, is a propaganda piece for God, especially during the first two or three chapters when the father is constantly insisting that his family give thanks for their survival, meal, whatever. More morosely, the book is about how the family kills every animal it comes in contact with. There are attempts made to moderate the killing, like when the father stops his son from killing monkeys. However, these are mitigated later in the book when the family slaughters 40 monkeys who were raiding their third house. Birds are harvested by the score. A shark is killed in self-defense. Lions, tigers, bears, a whale… The list is so long that, at least, the book makes for a good way to show off diversity in the animal kingdom.
The first whale they find is harvested; at least it was dead when they found it. Still, the description of how they chopped it up and saved the tongue to eat is unsavory. They shoot a kangaroo for no reason, other than it crossed their path. They didn’t even know what it was right away. When the oldest son shoots a capybara, he’s proud to have killed a new animal. Around two-thirds of the way through the book, the family faces a giant boa constrictor and are only able to kill it when it eats their donkey. Maybe there should be some forgiveness in digesting the horrid subject matter because the book was written in 1812. The family is on an island where they need to preserve their food for the winter months, and the variety of animals killed an eaten may have been a necessity for them.
However, the father is written as a genius. He knows all and is able to create magnificent machines, like a vaguely motorized rowboat. They build four houses, the famous tree house, the monkey ravaged farmhouse, the tent house where they first landed and a cave house. This family is industrious beyond all accounts. Idle hands are the devil’s work and would lead to depression. Fortunately, the kids are all happy to work, even Ernst, who is a bit of a slacker, wants to be a more productive member of the family. There isn’t a single flaw that the family doesn’t overcome. Mother is relegated to the house work and can use a loom, sew clothes, and make rain wear out of sap from the India rubber tree they found nearby.
Come to think of it, maybe I’m just jealous. If all people were this smart and capable in the early 1800s, humanity sure has backslid. I’m not interested in killing or dressing animals. I know people who can sew and weave, but I don’t think they would be able to make rain wear. For today’s families, the Swiss Family Robinson movies are much easier to enjoy and involve a lot less indiscriminate killing of innocents.