Swiss Family Robinson is a 1960 American adventure film starring John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran in a tale of a shipwrecked family building an island home, loosely based on the 1812 novel Der Schweizerische Robinson (literally, The Swiss Robinson) by Johann David Wyss. The film was directed by Ken Annakin and shot in Tobago and Pinewood Studios outside London. It was the second feature film version of the story (the first film version was released by RKO in 1940) and was a commercial success.
Swiss Family Robinson was the first widescreen Disney film shot with Panavision lenses. When shooting in widescreen, Disney had almost always used a matted wide screen or filmed the movie in CinemaScope.
A family on their way to New Guinea is chased by pirates into a storm. The captain and crew abandon the ship leaving the family shipwrecked off an uninhabited island. Father (John Mills) and his two eldest sons Fritz and Ernst (James MacArthur and Tommy Kirk) salvage as much as they can from the wreck including livestock, tools, and even an organ. As they gather what can be removed from the ship, the pirates return and begin shooting at the ship. Fritz and Ernst begin readying the ship's cannon, but they only have one shot. Suddenly, the pirates turn around; Father has put up a flag indicating the ship is under quarantine and that there is Black Death aboard. The three men construct a tree house home on the island while the youngest boy Francis (Kevin Corcoran) investigates the wildlife and starts an impressive collection of animals including a young elephant, a capuchin monkey and two Great Danes rescued from the ship which they name Duke and Turk. Mother (Dorothy McGuire) prays to be rescued. The boys, particularly Ernst, also build inventions to provide modern amenities to the family such as drawing water and preserving food.
Fritz and Ernst head off to explore the island to see if anyone else lives on it, or if it is connected to any other lands. While at a distant corner of the island, they again spot the pirates who originally drove them into the storm. The pirates have captured another ship and have the ship's captain and cabin boy "Bertie" captives for ransom. Fritz and Ernst rescue Bertie but the captain, Bertie's grandfather, stays behind. The three dodge the pirates and head back to the family's tree house. En route, they discover that Bertie is really Roberta (Janet Munro) and not a boy at all. The three fend off snakes and hyenas as they head home and even rescue a zebra foal, then lead it home. They arrive back at the treehouse at Christmas.
Father realizes the pirates will try to reclaim Roberta and decides to make a stand against them. Defenses are prepared by building booby-traps and fortifying a rocky outcropping. They blow up the ship's wreckage in an attempt to make it difficult for the pirates to remember where the family went aground. While prepping for the pirate attack, Fritz and Ernst vie for the affections of Roberta. Ernst is more studious and attempts to impress her with his knowledge and intelligence while Fritz, older and more experienced, uses his charm and physical attributes to attract her. Fritz and Ernst eventually come to blows over her and are stopped only by the intervention of Father. He declares the next day the first holiday for "New Switzerland" in an attempt to divert everyone. While prepping for the race (everyone has an animal to ride: Francis has the elephant, Ernst the ostrich, Roberta the zebra, the monkey on Duke, etc.), Mother fires the gun to signal the start of the race; the pirates, who are at that time sailing the coast looking for the place they last saw the ship that brought the family to the island, hear the gun and know the family is near.
Led by their captain (Sessue Hayakawa), the pirates storm the island. The family manages a brave defense but are sorely pressed. Their defenses include pits with a tiger in one pit, rock piles, a log pile and coconut bombs (hollowed out coconuts filled with gunpowder with a fuse), all of which cause problems for the attacking pirates. When the pirate leader waves a white flag the family imagines they have routed the pirates, but the pirates instead are sneaking around the back of the fort. Francis' much-maligned "pirate alarm" is the only thing that warns them of the surprise attack. They begin defending the fortress but are soon down to only a few shots with their muskets. At this critical moment, a ship appears on the horizon captained by Roberta's grandfather (Cecil Parker) and fires its cannons while the retreating pirates are trying to make a desperate escape. The cannon fire hits the pirate ship while the family rejoices. Father, Mother and Francis choose to remain on the island with Duke, Turk, and Francis' collection of animals while the Captain notes that Father will likely be recommended as Governor of the new colony. As for the rest of the family, Ernst chooses to return to Europe with the rescuers in order to enroll in a university to continue his studies while Fritz and Roberta plan to marry (presumably by virtue of her grandfather's sea captaincy) and make New Switzerland their home.
The film is based upon Der Schweizerische Robinson (translated as The Swiss Family Robinson), a book written by Johann David Wyss. RKO Pictures had previously made an adaptation in 1940, directed by Edward Ludwig. After watching that movie, Walt Disney and Bill Anderson decided to produce their own version of the story. Anderson talked with director Ken Annakin during filming of another live-action Disney picture, Third Man on the Mountain, near Zermatt (Switzerland). Ken Annakin had also worked with Disney in the 1953 adventure film The Sword and the Rose.
During his stay in Switzerland, Annakin read the book and he wondered why Disney wanted to make a story so outdated.
There were several meetings to decide filming locations. There was talk of making the film in a studio in Burbank, California or filming on location in a natural environment. Annakin wanted to film in Ceylon, and the associate producer Basil Keys, in East Africa. Bill Anderson stressed that they should examine the Caribbean. They visited Jamaica and Trinidad, but it was not what they wanted. Somebody in Trinidad told them of a nearby island, Tobago. When they saw the island for the first time, they "fell instantly in love", and they sent a telegram to Anderson, who traveled to Tobago and found it fitted to their needs. However, one of the drawbacks of this choice was that the island had no local wildlife.
Once Walt Disney accepted, cast and crew got their shots and passports for a stay of six months in Tobago.
Richmond Bay was featured prominently as the Robinsons' beach, while Mount Irvine Bay was used for the scene where the boys rescue Bertie from the pirates. The vine-swinging/waterfall scenes were filmed at the Craig Hall Waterfalls.
The treehouse was constructed in a 200-foot tall saman in the Goldsborough Bay area. Referring to the treehouse, Annakin said that "it was really solid-capable of holding twenty crew and cast and constructed in sections so that it could be taken apart and rebuilt on film by the family". The tree was not an easy place to shoot, with only 3 hours of sunlight per day due to surrounding foliage.
Besides causing logistical problems, the weather also introduced other difficulties. The tropical storm Edith arrived at Tobago during filming. The storm flooded many sets, including the treehouse, paralyzing the shooting for weeks. Various members of the production team helped natives to rebuild their homes.
The script required animals, who arrived from all around the world. 14 trainers looked after the animals. Gene Holter was one of the providers of animals from California and his trainers Ray Chandler and Fez Reynolds. The trainers met with the director every day around 4 PM and went over attitudes or gestures that the animals should play the next day. They spent the night learning them. The animals that were brought included eight dogs, two giant tortoises, forty monkeys, two elephants, six ostriches, four zebras, one hundred flamingos, six hyenas, two anacondas, and a tiger.
After filming, the local Tobagonians convinced Disney, who had intended to remove all evidence of filmmaking, to let the treehouse remain, sans interior furnishing. In 1960, the treehouse was listed for sale for $9,000, a fraction of its original cost, and later became a popular attraction among locals and tourists, before the structure was finally destroyed by Hurricane Flora in September 1963. However, the tree still remains, and is located on the property of the Roberts Auto Service and Tyre Shop, located in Goodwood, just off of Windward Road. Tobago resident Lennox Straker says, "The tree has fallen into obscurity; only a few of the older people knew of its significance. As a matter of fact, not many people know of the film Swiss Family Robinson much less that it was filmed here in Tobago."
The film premiered in New York City on December 10, 1960 and was released for the general U.S. audience on December 21, 1960. It received generally positive reviews by critics and gained large revenue at the box office and is one of the most iconic live-action Disney films. All together, the film grossed roughly $40 million, making it the highest-grossing film of 1960 and beating other hits of that year such as Psycho, Spartacus, and Exodus at the box office. Adjusted for ticket-price inflation, the box office revenue is $331 million, making it one of the biggest hits of all time.
Upon the film's initial release, New York Times film critic Howard Thompson lauded the film by writing, "it's hard to imagine how the picture could be better as a rousing, humorous and gentle-hearted tale of family love amid primitive isolation and dangers." In his Family Guide to Movies on Video, Henry Herx wrote: "[N]icely directed by Ken Annakin, much of the fun for children will come from the delightful and inventive conveniences the family builds and their relationships with the island's wildlife".
The film makes many substantial changes to the plot of the original book, among them:
On December 12, 2004, Variety announced that a remake of Swiss Family Robinson was in development at Walt Disney Pictures with Mandeville Films co-producing the film. In June 2005, Variety confirmed that director Jonathan Mostow would helm the director's chair for the film. It was to be produced by David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman. In July of that year, it was reported that studio veteran Lindsay Lohan was considered for the film. "Lindsay's just talk at the moment...but that's someone they want. It might depend on whether she's happy to be part of an ensemble, and not the headliner."
Production on the film never began and the film was believed to be shelved until in early 2009 when it was announced by /Film that the remake was still in the works. By this time, the film was renamed The Robinsons and "designed to star Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and all three of the Smith kids - Trey, Jaden and Willow."
In 2011, Bill Paxton expressed serious interest in producing and starring in a remake of the original film. "I talked to a very prominent producer/filmmaker about the idea of teaming up to do this. I just think it would be great to make a little bit more of a butch, PG-13 version of that story -- and I know it's something that would appeal to an international audience." In 2014, it was announced that Steve Carell would possibly headline Brooklyn Family Robinson, a modern update of the film.
As of 2016, there have been no official announcements, casting or setting of production dates.