Swiss Family Robinson ★★½

Watched as part of the August 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Christian Alec's master list
#25: Watch a film that is LIVE ACTION from Walt Disney in the 1960s

2017 movie viewings, #121. We live in a curiously interesting time in human history -- the first time in history, that is, when companies devoted to creative projects are still in business long after the cultural mores of their first projects have faded and changed, making it problematic to decide what to do with these still-valuable but now sometimes embarrassingly outdated pieces of intellectual property these corporations still own. Take Disney, for a great example, whose past is riddled with projects that rely on stereotypes we as a society no longer consider politically correct; Dumbo features minstrel blackface characters, Pinocchio is disparaging to Italians, and the less we say about Song of the South, the better.

And little did I realize it until finally watching it for the first time last week, but even a genteel live-action family film from Disney's past like 1960's Swiss Family Robinson is a virtual minefield of inappropriate messages here in the 21st century, a movie that starts great but with every subsequent scene starts making you wince more and more and say, "No, wait, hold on a minute now." Based on an 1812 novel by Swiss minister Johann David Weiss (and whose title was interestingly mistranslated when published in English -- the original Swiss title should be more accurately interpreted as, "The Swiss Family Who Had Robinson-Crusoe-Type Adventures"), the original goal of the book was similar to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women from these same general years; the good Christian Weiss was interested in teaching his children lessons on moral fortitude, family values and self-reliance, so invented this fake adventure story in which his real family supposedly becomes shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific, and end up having a grand old time because of their smarts, their courage, and their good old-fashioned European know-how and can-do spirit.

Those familiar with history can already spot the problem, of course -- that in the 1800s, a form of "genteel racism" was the norm among the vast majority of middle-class white Christian Europeans, not an active hatred for people of color but something much more condescending, a belief that such people are naturally born as subhuman animals and that it's the Christian duty of middle-class white people to civilize these beasts on their behalf, whether or not they're intelligent enough to understand what's going on or to thank you afterwards. That's essentially the main premise behind the most famous piece of literature on the subject, Rudyard Kipling's massively popular poem "The White Man's Burden;" and it's this attitude that virtually drove all efforts of colonialism from the 1600s to the end of World War One (and beyond).

It's natural not to know any of this anymore about Swiss Family Robinson -- despite being Disney's biggest-grossing live-action movie of the entire Mid-Century Modernist era, it was already obscure even by my childhood in the 1970s, remembered if at all for the lifesized replicas of the family's famously Rube-Goldbergian treehouse at Disneyland and Disney World -- and indeed, the movie itself actually starts out pretty well, a gorgeously shot big-budget thriller (I watched it in 1080p Bluray quality, which is worth tracking down) that comes off at first like a quaint but still enjoyable family dramedy with deliciously Postmodernist homoerotic overtones (or maybe that's just me).

But it's when we get to the movie's main villains, a band of pirates who were responsible for the family's shipwreck in the first place, that things start turning ugly from a 21st-century standpoint; for unlike Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, these pirates are exclusively made up of people of color, and are deliberately portrayed as sub-intelligent animals who get what they want through sheer dumb brute force. The way the Robinson family defeats them, then, is by using their good ol' white-person know-how, including -- Jesus Christ, Disney, really? -- homemade hand grenades made out of coconut shells, and with the entire third act in general being pretty much a testament to how much wiser and better and braver Europeans are than anyone who's not a European.

To tell the truth, the "rah-rah white people" jingoism starts well before this -- in the scene where the Robinson patriarch first reveals the ultra-clever treehouse to his wife, her reaction dialogue might as well be, "Oh, Father, how wonderful it is that we are clever Caucasians, and can therefore transform this hellish place into a Paradise on Earth!" -- but the White Man's Burden crap really cranks up into high gear once the family is forced to fight The Dirty Stupid Yellow Skinned Pirates, the whole thing choreographed to the whimsical string-orchestra soundtrack typical of Mid-Century-Modernist Disney. As a result, it makes Swiss Family Robinson inherently problematic to watch as a family film with your kids anymore, a movie that will immediately raise troubling questions among the young ones that enlightened modern parents will find themselves hemming and hawing their way through. Although its production values still surprisingly hold up well, like so many of Disney's earlier films, caution is advised when choosing to watch the movie at this day and age, with the ugly history of colonialism informing it much more than you might expect.

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