Let’s face it: We all like to get away once in a while. But the Robinsons? They take it to a whole new level.
Father, Mother and their three boys, Fritz, Ernst and Francis, were already on a pretty ambitious relocation project, traveling from Bern, Switzerland, to a new colony called New Guinea—a trip of about 8,500 miles if taken by a particularly adventurous crow, and a lot, lot longer by boat.
They would’ve made it, too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky pirates. Eager for booty, the pirates forced the Robinsons’ ship to turn into a colossal storm, where they promptly wrecked off the coast of a heretofore unknown island.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The animals sure knew about the island. A truly wild assortment of critters calls the place home—from Asian elephants to Bengal tigers to African zebras and ostriches, which gives the island the flavor of a mismanaged, enclosure-free zoo. As bookish Ernst speculates that the island may be the last remnant of a land bridge to Asia, youngster Francis begins to collect a motley menagerie of mammals, turning them into Robinsons, too.
Turns out the pirates know about the island as well. Oh, sure, the place may get lost in the shuffle amongst all the countless keys and atolls that are scattered about the sea like maritime dust bunnies. But the island’s beaches do make convenient stops for pirate get-togethers—and, of course, to decide what to do with unfortunate prisoners.
But for the most part, European ship captains seem to have little knowledge of the island, much less the interest to sail there. The Robinsons might have to wait a long time for rescue. A really long time.
At least enough time for the Robinsons to build a treehouse.
While the 1960 Disney movie doesn’t deal much with the Robinsons’ back story, Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss initially wrote the book in 1812 to teach his four sons about some good-ol’ family values. And a lot of those values are still on fine display here.
First, the Robinsons truly are a family—and a very, very traditional one at that. Parents are wise, firm and loving. Kids are obedient (mostly) and resourceful. They show a great deal of creativity in coping with the world around them (as exemplified by their enviable treehouse).
And if you watch the 1940 version of the Swiss Family Robinson (also on Disney+, if you’re curious), you’ll find a bit more backstory and discover that they leave the comfortable confines of Bern for many of the same reasons that parents homeschool or safeguard kids from entertainment: Father wants to raise his boys to be men he can be proud of, and he feels the corrupt age in which they live is making that increasingly difficult.
Through necessity, they all learn a great deal about not just self-reliance, but how to rely on each other. And when circumstances bring a new person into the fold—one sought by that band of bloodthirsty pirates mentioned earlier—they vow to protect her, even if it costs them their lives.
When the Robinsons finally manage to get off their wrecked craft and onto the beach, Father immediately begins to think about all the “first things” they have to do to weather what could be a stormy night.
“Not the first thing,” Mother says. She bends her knees and bows in prayer, and the rest of the family follows suit.
Mother mentions praying a time or two elsewhere as well. The family celebrates Christmas.
When Fritz and Ernst take a months-long trip to sail around the island (to see if it actually is an island), they encounter those nettlesome pirates, who’ve taken a ship captain and his apparent cabin boy captive. They rescue the boy, but the captain refuses their help.
Fritz and Ernst soon notice something different about the “boy.” She refuses to sleep between the two Robinson brothers. She won’t take off her clothes to wade through a high river. They make fun of “him,” comparing their rescued acquaintance to a “sissy” they knew back in Switzerland; they also compare their new cohort to a girl.
Turns out, they’re more right than they know: When they discover she’s a girl (her name’s Roberta), Fritz and Ernst attitudes immediately change. Both fall for her (the first girl they’ve seen in a long time) and try to woo her in their own ways. Roberta, for her part, has eyes for Fritz, and eventually we see the two of them kiss and hold each other a few times.
But the pirates are still after the person they still think is a cabin boy. And the Robinsons know that, if they discover Roberta’s true gender, she’ll be in a whole new level of peril. “You know what they’ll do to you,” Fritz darkly warns her, but his grim suggestion goes no further
Before Roberta’s arrival, Mother frets over the lack of girls on the island, saying that her boys may never know the joy of having a family. Fritz and Ernst talk with each other about the girls back home—and fantasize about meeting more someday.
All of the Robinson men and boys go shirtless for a good chunk of the movie, and the neckline of a dress that Roberta wears dips just a bit.
Those pirates: Man, are they persistent.
The movie concludes with an all-out battle between them and the Robinsons. Pirates must deal with an assortment of boobie traps that’d make Kevin from Home Alone salivate: exploding coconuts, rolling logs, careening boulders, tigers lurking in pits … they’re all part of the battle, and we haven’t even gotten to the guns and swords.
This being a Disney movie (and an old, G-rated one at that), blood in the battle is pretty much nonexistent (except for a wound on Father’s arm). But people do die, and some fall from some serious heights. Indeed, we see one man actually land on the rocks below like a ragdoll (which, in truth, it probably was).
We see plenty of mayhem elsewhere, too. Pirates fight each other, and one captain stabs another offscreen before a general melee ensues. Fritz and Ernst push each other around a bit, and in one instance get into a full-blown fistfight. The Robinsons’ adopted dogs, Frank and Turk, fight with a tiger. A tiger also stalks a baby elephant, while hyenas harass an imperiled zebra. A huge boa constrictor tries to lethally hug a couple of Robinson boys. Francis falls from a tree (but thankfully, was tethered by a vine) and is dragged across the ground by an ostrich he’s trying to capture.
Animals get a bit roughed up, too. And a sea turtle that tows the family to shore may get a terrible reward for his service: Shortly thereafter, Mother marvels at the tortoiseshell sink in the kitchen.
We see Father drink and serve small glasses of alcohol (perhaps brandy or port) to Fritz and Ernst, and he allows a very young Francis a small sip as well.
Once Roberta enters the picture, Fritz and Ernst go from being loving brothers to rivals. We hear them snipe, play pranks and generally annoy the living daylights out of each another—minor stuff compared to what goes on in many a family, but worth mentioning.
Also worth mentioning: Some elements of this 1960 movie don’t necessarily translate that well 60 years later.
First, the deferential treatment of women here—and the sometimes helplessness of said women in the face of physical challenge—feels a bit out of step with our times. Mother is never seen without a full-length dress, for instance, even in this harsh and demanding jungle climate; and for a while Roberta protests that she simply can’t go on walking through the jungle.
The movie’s plethora of animals gives Swiss Family Robinson much of its charm, but it can be uncomfortable to watch a teen ride an ostrich (that surely wouldn’t be sanctioned by the American Humane society these days), or see two dogs attack a peeved tiger. And while we don’t get to know the pirates much here, their look could be accused of being somewhat racially stereotyped.
The year 1960 was a pretty great one for movies, cinema buffs would say. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho came out that year. Stanley Kubrick brought his epic Spartacus to the screen. Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen led The Magnificent Seven into town.
At the box office, though, Swiss Family Robinson beat ’em all.
The Disney flick, based on Johann David Wyss’ 1812 novel, earned $40 million in 1960—or about $350 million today—making it the year’s highest-grossing film. It was, as most movies were back then, rated G, meaning it was theoretically suitable to be seen by folks of all ages. And given its box-office performance, all ages did see it.
It’s also pretty great evidence of the other side of ratings creep.
Sometimes, you’ll hear us at Plugged In talk about ratings creep—how a bloody PG-13 movie today would’ve been rated R two decades earlier. Well, it works the other way, too. G-rated films today have to be seriously innocuous to earn that rating. Swiss Family Robinson wouldn’t make the cut. It’d be in line for at the very least a PG rating. And given that we see underage drinking, hear veiled references to potential sex trafficking and watch a pirate bounce off a bunch of rocks after falling to his doom, even that might be a bit generous.
But for all those issues that might surprise the modern American family, Swiss Family Robinson still feels like true family entertainment—a movie that, even if it’s a bit weathered around the edges, still retains its essential charms, delights and thrills. To see the treehouse with all its handmade wonders; to watch Francis live out many a child’s dream and gather a zoo’s worth of animals; to watch those pirates charge up the hill and be thrown down again and again by this resourceful family … it’s still pretty fun, even 60 years after it was first made.
For those who’ve seen the Robinson’s treehouse at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, or for those who simply would love to live on an exciting tropical island all by themselves, Swiss Family Robinson is live-action Disney fare at its classical best. It might even make you wish you could be shipwrecked, too.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.