How to Tell a Story: Get Corny!

When I recently saw that the antique Disney film Swiss Family Robinson was on the old movie channel I favor, I had to take a peek—after all, at 6 years old, I’d thrilled to its elemental (and elementary) charms at its theatrical release nearly 50 years ago. Thinking I’d only watch for a few minutes, I wanted to see if any of its hoary elements might still provoke a gasp̵—or, more likely, an unintended laugh.

Indeed, though the film is filled with Disney cheese, I gobbled the whole damn thing up, watching entranced from one cornball scene to the next. It struck me that a good story is a good story, even adorned with some fairy-tale frippery. In a nutshell, Swiss Family Robinson is the tale of a family shipwrecked on a small island, having to make a life for themselves amidst deprivation, harsh elements and direct threats.

You just have to go with the fanciful unfolding that the family (still-vibrant parents and three boys of variable ages and temperaments) is able to build a multi-level home in the jungle that would put many avant-garde designers to shame, and are able to fend off a band of murderous pirates with bombs made of coconuts, gravity-tripped logs and pit-trapped tigers—oh my!

Take Characters. Put in Situations. Add Emotions. Stir.
But the tale has what it takes. There is:

Danger and Loss – their boat and their dreams to move to a new country are dashed in a violent shipwreck scene, which they survive, only to wash up on an island populated with all kind of menacing beasts.

Discovery and Development – They work as a team to build their house, learn to scavenge for food, and explore the wilderness.

Desire and Romance – A pirate captive is freed, and he turns out to be a she, longed-for by both the oldest and middle boys, who get into a jealous (and amusing) rivalry.

Threat and Triumph – they are attacked by the pirates, and improbably vanquish them. Rescuers come, and mom and dad and most of the family decide to stay, because the life they’ve created is too good to leave.

All of this is mightily sprinkled with sentiment of the cloyingly Disneyish kind: a frightening depth of blondness in all the characters (well, they are Swiss), syrupy innocence, and some absolute absurdities: the island has pretty much every beast known to man on it, from tigers to elephants to ostriches to monkeys.

Even Cynical Bentleys Filmgoers Still Crave a Good Story
But yet, a 50-year-old movie still worked in my snide head, because the storytelling was still vivid, and it employed those paragons of story architecture: colorful (albeit one-dimensional) characters, conflict and partial resolution, add in colorful subplotting, tension, conflict and partial resolution, tension, all building to a satisfying, if sappy, denouement.

Writers, take notes (and pass the popcorn).

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