“The world is full of nice ordinary little people who live in nice ordinary little houses on the ground. Didn’t you ever dream of a house in the trees?”
Apparently, most of America did indeed dream of a house in the trees. Disney’s version of Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson allowed audiences to live that dream vicariously, and they responded by making the 1960 film Disney’s biggest live-action hit to that date.
A spectacular shipwreck gets things started, as the Robinson family’s chartered vessel crashes on the rocks of a tropical island. The Swiss-born family-Father, Mother and sons Fritz, Ernst and Francis-were hoping to come to America to escape the advances of Napoleon’s army, but Father decides this island paradise will do. The Robinsons lug their possessions and animals from the half-sunken ship, then get to work building a dream treehouse complete with stove, running water and elevator. Father is a happy, contented man, but Mother reminds him that their boys will one day need girls.
Teens Fritz and Ernst are dispatched as explorers along the island’s coast, sailing in search for other signs of human life. When this craft wrecks as well, the brothers come across a band of pirates holding a boy and his sea captain grandfather captive. Fritz and Ernst rescue the boy and flee on foot, only to discover the “boy” is actually a pretty, spunky girl, Roberta. The brothers and their newfound friend return to their treehouse home, where Fritz and Ernst fight for Roberta’s affections. But more pressing concerns force them to work together, preparing a line of booby traps and defenses against the inevitable pirate invasion. The pirates do come, leading to the exciting, often slapstick finale.
Shot on location in lush Tobago, Swiss Family Robinson was escapist entertainment in the most spectacular sense of the word. Coconut bombs, wild animal races and waterfall slides were out of the reach of most kids, but for two hours in a darkened theater, the fantastic became real. A rousing success, the film became the basis for the Disneyland’s “Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse” attraction (since redesigned as “Tarzan’s Treehouse”).
If you have fond memories of watching this classic Disney film, we welcome your thoughts and recollections on the Swiss Family Robinson in our comments section.