Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me…
Except for maybe the 1940 version, it’s odd that Swiss Family Robinson has several adaptations beside the 1960 Disney classic. Why mess with a good thing, right? On the other hand, it’s an easily tweakable formula. Find a family who are at odds with each other, or not, maroon them somewhere, and watch the fascinating show of self-reliance and family unity. If there’s a super-fancy treehouse, all the better. However, not one of the newer Robinson films can hold a candle to the 1997 TV movie, Beverly Hills Family Robinson. This movie has a lot going for it. It was written by Lowell S. Hawley, who also penned the script for the 1960 Disney film and features a passel of recogonizable stars. The rest? Well, we’ll get to that. Oh, golly.
Marsha Robinson (Dyan Cannon) is a TV chef on the line of Martha Stewart and her life looks absolutely perfect. Her husband, Doug (Martin Mull) is a prominent orthodontist and their two kids, Jane (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Roger (Ryan O’Donahue) are living the good life in Beverly Hills with all the trimmings.
The glitz comes at a price. The whole family helps out on Marsha’s show, and that means being pretty fake all the time. While it looks impressive, the family’s not as close as they used to be and the kids are growing up spoiled. There are no signs of things slowing down, either–their next outing is a working vacay on a yacht in the South Seas. Marsha promises Doug they’ll have a night all to themselves before setting sail. Unfortunately Jane and Roger bicker the whole time, and after a dinner of overcooked grouper the family can’t get to their separate cabins fast enough.
As life would have it, though, the yacht gets hijacked by three pirates whose racket is stealing yachts and then selling them. They’re kind of a motley bunch, but one of them happens to be a big fan of Marsha’s. Long story short, the Robinsons get the leader, Brinx’s (Kevin Weisman) gun and set the pirates adrift on a life raft. With some mineral water and a light meal, of course. Nothing fancy, just ham and cheese croissants, Scandanavian potato salad, garlic pickle spears, apples, and wedges of low-fat cheddar.
The Robinsons try to sail back to Hawaii, but they get shipwrecked on a deserted island. Miraculously, though, their video camera still works and it doesn’t even need to be charged. Marsha uses it to vent her frustrations about being shipwrecked. Her schedule is completely messed up and her day planner is in a shambles. She was supposed to go on Letterman. Regis and Kathie Lee had her booked too. All the talk show people wanted her to stop by, and now she’s stuck on a deserted island with snakes and iguanas and a very snap-happy crab. To add insult to injury, Marsha’s chocolates keep mysteriously disappearing.
There’s a treehouse to be built, though, and the Robinsons go to town, constructing a mansion with three bedrooms, one and a half baths, a living room, a kitchen with a breakfast nook, and nifty handmade lanterns everywhere. They even have a sub-zero fridge. Once they rig up hydroelectric power, they also have a dishwasher and laundry with endless amounts of detergent, which, amazingly enough, isn’t caked after being stuck on a half-submerged yacht for a month or so.
Helping out with all this work is Marsha’s chocolate thief, Digger (Josh Picker), an Australian windsurfer who got blown way off course while training for a competition. He just so happens to be a carpenter, so the Robinsons promise to pay him in food in return for his services. Digger is pretty easy on the eyes, too, and he and Jane are drawn to each other like magnets.
Meanwhile, back on the raft, the pirates are bored and Brinx is smouldering. He’s determined to take revenge. When a seagull poops on him, the pirates realize they must be near land, so they grab the oars and start rowing. Hmmm, wonder where the current takes them?
Anyone who’s seen Swiss Family Robinson knows what happens next. It’s a no-brainer. However, I’ll say this: The Beverly Hills Robinsons are full of surprises. I’ll bet the Swiss Robinsons never thought of a rooftop sprinkler system and shooting novocain-spiked darts at the bad guys, but they would if they could have. It all adds up to a denouement that’s sort of a cross between classic Robinson and Home Alone.
This movie is the furthest thing from good or realistic. The writing is cute though limp, with most of the characters thinly drawn. Marsha is the only one who seems more three-dimensional. Kind of. While she starts out as a diva, Marsha gets a clue pretty quickly, and I wish they had done more with her character that way. It would have been fun, for instance, to see Marsha throw the video camera and her day planner in the ocean, but no dice. However, we do see her go all Clint Eastwood on that pesky crab, so there’s that.
We don’t really have time for such dramatics anyway. Doug, who is clearly a closeted He-Man with a mustache, has got to haul a subzero fridge out of the partially submerged yacht. How the thing still works after being underwater is a mystery.
Speaking of mysteries, where are the Robinsons getting their endless supply of food? In one scene Marsha presents Digger with a perfectly iced coconut cake topped with swirls of buttercream and maraschino cherries. Granted, the yacht would have been fully stocked because Marsha is a chef who needs absolutely everything at her fingertips, but it’s not as if the yacht can hold an entire Whole Foods or something. And at least some of whatever was on there would have been ruined or damaged by seawater anyway. Plus there’s the little question of storing large amounts of food on a tropical island where bugs and other crawly creatures abound. I highly doubt the family had a lot of Tupperware on board the yacht.
Not only that, but the Robinsons are remarkably well-supplied in all areas. I don’t know why Marsha would take what appears to be her entire shoe collection on a short vacation because it’s a little too Imelda Marcos. In her defense they do come in handy in the Robinsons’ new hydroelectric plant. The family also seems to have taken their entire wardrobes with them and an ample collection of linens and knick knacks. OK, yes, they don’t travel light, but do they really need a selection of curios? And does Doug really need to take novocain and laughing gas on a yacht where, presumably, he won’t be treating any patients?
Yes. Yes, he does, but don’t ask me why.
And then there are the pirates. They’re not overly menacing. They have a few redeeming qualities. And just in case we don’t know they’re Disney pirates, they sing the “Yo ho” song from Pirates of the Caribbean. Brinx is the only one of the three who’s a jerk, but in a frustrated cab driver kind of way. He’s also annoying and slightly gross.
I think the best thing about this movie is the nostalgia. I saw Beverly Hills Family Robinson when it was on TV in 1997 and enjoyed it for what it was. Someone who was born later, though, might find it a little boring, especially when the characters mention Green Day and the artist formerly known as Prince.
Beverly Hills Family Robinson is not so much about suspending one’s disbelief as it is about setting disbelief up on a nice couch with chocolate cake and a glass of milk. The movie is supremely dumb, but it’s a fun kind of dumb, and that’s OK. Just don’t overthink it.
For more pirates, please visit Rachel at Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Thanks for hosting, Rachel–this was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you on Friday for the first day of the Third So Bad It’s Good Blogathon…
Beverly Hills Family Robinson is available to stream on Internet Archive.