Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Swiss Family Robinson, when originally penned, had none of the vast sense of romantic adventure to which the Disney film attributed it with. Another version has never been made up until this point, when Hallmark, those responsible for bringing us family dramas like Follow the Stars Home and fantasy miniseries such as Alice in Wonderland and The 10th Kingdom, decided to give it a go. The result is a four-hour miniseries that seems a lot longer.
David Robinson (Liam Cunningham) has been accused as a spy of Napoleon against England and is assigned to a jail ship bound for some far away port in which he will serve his full sentence. His wife and children, by some prior arrangement, are allowed to accompany him and are his only comfort in the dark, stench-filled pit of the ship's bowls, where he is called upon to give prayer for souls in torment and occasionally whipped by by First Officer Blunt, a cruel man with a wandering eye. Tragedy strikes mid-voyage when they are blown off course by a violent storm and all forced to evacuate. David, Lara, and their two oldest children (Fritz and Ernst) are left behind on the ship in an attempt to rescue their trapped daughter Sarah. But the youngest boy, Jacob, is placed upon a lifeboat. Although having freed Sarah, they are locked into the hold by chance and forced to weather out the night. The ship strikes an underground reef and is temporarily run aground.
Ernst swims to the surface and frees his family. They have been stranded on a tropical island with no other ship or lifeboat in sight. Although praying for Jacob's safety, they must make themselves a settlement here and wait for some chance of rescue. Months pass before another human being is found... a native non-English-speaking tradesman who calls himself "Namatiti." Against his father's wishes, Fritz accompanies him on his turn of the islands, hoping to perhaps come into contact with the outside world. But apparently they are completely alone on the island. In the meantime, unknown to the Robinsons their son has been left in the charge of self-proclaimed Captain Blunt and has been taken up onto a trading ship run by a kindly merchant. What Blunt witnesses through the many ports that they visit is an ample opportunity for wealth, not by fair trade but rather slave ships and piracy. Although treating the boy with surprising compassion, he is a brutal, violent man who will in any way seize the ship for his own devices.
And ultimately with him in command, they will come into contact with the islands. Stranded boasts for itself great images of grandeur and excitement, but in reality is a very slow-moving epic with only a few scenes to keep the audience from entirely falling asleep. This is in great part to the directing, which leaves much to be desired. Often the focus is in tight close-ups that distract the mind, or visuals that bear no human interest... shell-strung curtains moving in the wind, a rustle in the leaves. The action is so close that one wants to voluntarily draw back ten feet to see what's going on. There are a few pretty uses of cinematography but overall they're lost in the wandering camera angles. Fortunately there are some good scenes to keep viewers watching, but really the only good performances are by Andrew Lee Pots, as an older Jacob, and Roger Allam as the ruthless and yet somehow likable Captain Blunt. The problem lies in the fact that the characters are under-developed and not well defined. One even vanishes completely without a word of explanation. There are no bold characteristics betwixt the lot of them. We've vaguely aware that Ernest likes to read and play his flute, and Robinson is a pastor who was reasonably good at it, but that's about it. Even some sibling rivalry would have added something.
We're given no reasoning for anything they do... whether it be David Robinson arguing with his wife over some minor detail or the girl Emily choosing between the boys in the end. This little romance is given about two minutes total screen time, not nearly enough to make an audience interested. This weakens the entire foundation of the film... because Blunt has more character development and dialogue than anyone else, the audience is more interested in the pirates than the surviving Robinson family... which is a pity, because in more capable hands I think the cast could have turned out an excellent epic. Content-wise, the only caution I would have is against some fairly non-graphic violence. There is abuse to prisoners, several deaths, two stabbings (shown in close ups) and one impalement by a spear. There's a mild sensual tension between Blunt and Lara in almost all of their scenes together; one gets the feeling that it would be unwise to leave Mrs. Robinson alone with him. Namatiti runs around in a loincloth half-naked throughout the film and the male Robinsons often go with shirts undone. (The hairy chests are enough to make a grown woman cry.)
The nice thing about Stranded is that Christianity is a
highlight of several scenes, particularly one moving sequence in
which "Pastor" Robinson pleads with an old enemy to come clean
before God as he lies upon death's door. This in of itself was
enough to knock my overall lethargic opinion of the film up a good
two notches. Although more realistic than the earlier Disney
version, Stranded isn't nearly half the fun.