Revisiting 'Swiss Family Robinson,' Disney's Problematic Box Office Smash From 1960

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)As they're sometimes wont to do, Disney made news a couple weeks ago. For once during the pandemic, the news was unrelated to the theme parks, their continued closure in California, or their stripped-down operation in Florida. Instead, the news focused on where Disney began: its earlier animated and live-action features. More specifically, the news focused on the dark side of where and how Disney began, acknowledging its racially and sexually insensitive material in films like The Aristocats, Dumbo, and The Jungle BookIf you're a Disney+ subscriber and play those titles now, you'll see a generic message letting you know that the film you're about to see has something offensive that was treated as unproblematic upon release but is now correctly seen as Not Great, Bob! The message also encourages the viewer to visit a website that's intended to explain how stories matter – stories of all kinds and shapes, highlighting the diversity that Disney is trying to achieve now while also describing and calling out the films they released that failed to represent diverse cultures effectively.Most of the titles receiving this treatment are old-school animated classics. (Even though I strongly dislike The Aristocats, I feel slightly bad for the 1970 animated feature because no one at Disney realizes they have excluded the word "The" from the title.) But another film getting this title card is our column's subject: the 1960 adventure adaptation Swiss Family Robinson.

The Pitch

Even if you haven't seen Swiss Family Robinson, directed by Ken Annakin and starring John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, and more, you probably know the basic idea of the story. Adapted from the 1812 novel of the same name, Swiss Family Robinson has the perfect kind of high-concept hook that's inspired everything from multiple direct adaptations to the 1960s TV series Lost in Space: a family is stranded at sea after an attack by pirates, and must fend for itself on a deserted-island paradise. Though other adaptations may complicate the matter somewhat – Lost in Space obviously sets its action far away from a tropical island, and also features the nefarious Dr. Smith – the Disney version of Swiss Family Robinson is exceedingly uncomplicated.

The Movie

That sense of simplicity works both for and against the 1960 film. It's not just that there's no Dr. Smith – the antagonistic force in Annakin's adaptation is as much the various natural elements working against the Robinson family as they build a massive treehouse and begin exploring the island on which they live, as it is the pirates who attacked their ship and are coming back to get their just desserts. The 126-minute film is somewhat episodic in this way, as we gradually see how the Robinson family becomes more and more comfortable with island living. One of the more mature struggles in the film is between the parents: William (Mills) is quick to adopt a can-do attitude about living on the unknown island, whereas his wife Elizabeth (McGuire) initially wants the family to figure out a way to head to New Guinea, their original destination.The other major struggle throughout the film – with more teeth in it than the vaguely defined threat of pirates, about whom more soon – is between the two older Robinson boys, Fritz and Ernst. (Sadly, there is no Will Robinson of whom to speak.) Ernst (played by 60s-era Disney stalwart Tommy Kirk) is a bookish sort, but both he and Fritz end up having...uh...let's call them teenage yearnings for Roberta (Janet Munro), a young woman they rescue from the pirates and invite into their family. Roberta will, of course, fall for one of the young Robinson men – that largely is what her character exists for, or so it feels.Then, of course, there are the pirates and that's where the title card about stories mattering comes in. Disney is no stranger to the concept of pirate characters in its films and its theme parks, but the pirates depicted in Swiss Family Robinson might as well be faceless stereotypes. They're bloodthirsty and cruel, and they are also pointedly played by actors of color (or by actors who are made to look like people of color). There's no point excusing any of these choices, and you can contextualize it all you like. True as it may be that Disney wasn't the only studio stereotyping people of color in the late 1950s or early 1960s, it doesn't make this aspect of the film any more palatable. Again, the word for this movie, in good and bad ways, is "simple." Ken Annakin made a handful of films for Walt Disney Pictures, and they were rarely challenging. If anything was challenging about Swiss Family Robinson, it would have to be on the technical side. The film, Disney's first shot in Panavision, is a widescreen marvel in no small part because it was actually shot on a tropical island: Tobago. It's easy to imagine why a studio might want to remake Swiss Family Robinson now, and the film has been through various development stages with actors as wide-ranging as Steve Carell, Will Smith, and the late Bill Paxton. But the biggest draw this adaptation has is, like the film itself, simple: it's a movie about people on a tropical island that was shot on a tropical island. Swiss Family Robinson looks great. It's got a decent enough cast among the family. It's a handsomely mounted production. 

The Legacy

And yet, of course, it is problematic. The ways in which Swiss Family Robinson are problematic are not unique to this one film. But it's impossible to ignore, and correct to acknowledge. An uncomplicated film leaves behind a complicated legacy, and one you can still feel both at the Disney theme parks and in films themselves. The first piece of the puzzle that is this film's legacy is its box-office success. Sixty years on, we may not think much about Swiss Family Robinson, and when you think of Disney live-action fare, this is likely not a title that leaps to your mind. But if you adjust for inflation, Swiss Family Robinson grossed over $500 million domestically, which means it outgrossed films like Frozen II and Avengers: Age of Ultron. It's one of the 100 highest-grossing films ever released in the United States.So, you can understand why the film has persisted over time, if gradually less so in the last few decades. At Disneyland, back when it was open, you may well have trodden on the old Swiss Family Treehouse...or Tarzan's Treehouse as it's now named. At Walt Disney World's iteration of Adventureland, which is still open, the treehouse retains the Swiss heritage and the polka song that the family dances to in the midst of the film. (I'm an avowed fan of the background music of the Disney theme parks, yet I did a double-take when the mother Robinson started playing the "Swisskapolka" on the organ during that dance scene.)As I watched Swiss Family Robinson, I kept thinking about that title card placed in front of the film. The message imparted there isn't wrong – the representation of people of color in the adventure is grossly stereotypical, insulting, and unnecessary. (In that way, you could argue that it's a perfect template for some of the attractions of Adventureland, which even now traffics in stereotyping, as when showcasing a group of ravaging natives in the Jungle Cruise.) But the title card doesn't do the work for you. The message imparted there is broad and non-specific. If you don't visit the Stories Matter website (and I wonder how many of you reading this are visiting that site now for the first time), you won't even know what it is about Swiss Family Robinson that Disney is implying is offensive.That's especially true because there's a very obvious element of racist representation that's not accounted for in the more detailed description on the website. This is a story about a lily-white family arriving on a tropical island and colonizing it for themselves. By the story's end, it's implied that William may become the island's governor, with no consideration for whether or not anyone lived there before he and his family arrived. The Robinson family isn't meant to be antiheroic; their intentions are intended to be seen as good and pure, to the point where they bend their knees and pray upon arriving safely from the shipwreck. But good intentions or not, the Robinsons are colonizing a strange land for themselves with no regard for its original denizens. The larger point is one I've repeated before, both on Twitter and on this very website: Disney+ needs a host. In truth, what Disney+ really needs is context. On one hand, we can acknowledge that what Disney is doing by inserting a title card nodding towards the reality of the studio's earlier, more problematic films is vastly more than they ever did prior to the advent of the streaming service. They could say nothing at all, or refuse to make these films viewable. A title card is better than those options, and it's better than nothing. But it's not enough. Placing a title card in front of this film – or, more realistically, in front of a well-known family favorite like The Jungle Book – isn't enough. (There are no doubt some viewers who may genuinely wonder, for good or ill, why there's a warning in front of The Jungle Book at all, in spite of its own colonizer background.)Swiss Family Robinson is by no means the only troublesome film the Walt Disney Company ever released. And it's kind of remarkable that Disney wouldn't make nearly so many expansive, epic adventures moving forward considering the vast success this title found at the box office. This is a quintessential Disney adventure, the kind of film that absolutely feels right at home in the theme parks. But being a quintessential Disney adventure means you have to take the good with the bad. Nodding towards the existence of the bad isn't quite enough. Not yet.