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Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. DVD Review

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966) movie poster) Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.

Theatrical Release: June 29, 1966 / Running Time: 114 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Byron Paul / Writers: Walt Disney (story); Don DaGradi, Bill Walsh (screenplay); Daniel Defoe (novel Robinson Crusoe)

Cast: Dick Van Dyke (Lt. Robin Crusoe), Nancy Kwan (Wednesday), Akim Tamiroff (Tanamashu), Arthur Malet (Umbrella Man), Tyler McVey (Captain), P.L. Renoudet (Pilot), Peter Duryea (Co-pilot), John Dennis (Crew Chief), Nancy Hseuh (Native Girl), Victoria Young (Native Girl), Yvonne Ribuca (Native Girl), Bebe Louie (Native Girl), Lucia Valero (Native Girl)

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As the title character of Disney's 1966 comedy Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Dick Van Dyke is given very little to work with. The film was clearly developed as a vehicle for Van Dyke, known then as the headliner of his popular namesake sitcom ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") and the charismatic co-star of Mary Poppins. In a premise familiar to literature, television, and one of Walt's more beloved live action productions, Navy pilot Robin Crusoe finds himself stranded on a scenic, deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific.

The story credit on the film belongs to Retlaw Yensid which in reverse is Disney Walter, as in Walter Disney. Yes, Uncle Walt himself came up with the concept for this film and had it been fleshed out better and sharpened to meet the talents of its star, it easily could have become a very fun and entertaining film. As it is, that didn't happen altogether. We're left with a wholly diverting, but episodic and unfulfilling picture that lacks the magical spark of live action Disney films that have made more of their simple, bizarre setups.

Carrying the screen entirely on his own for the first thirty minutes, Van Dyke has a task even tougher than the dramatic isolation that Tom Hanks aptly pulled off in Cast Away. As Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. does not make a single effort to be psychologically profound, Van Dyke has to somehow propel the film and be funny with little more than a life raft, survival manual, and supplies kit. These early portions feel like the live action equivalent of a Goofy short, with the reliance on visual-based humor and narration reminiscent of the "How to" cartoons. The film unsurprisingly outgrows the format on account of how much time is spent getting Robin from his plane to the shore. Still, while the jokes feel forced, one is never uninterested thanks in no small part to Van Dyke's charm.

A half hour into the film, Robin finally gets some company when he discovers an Astro Chimp from the US Navy in an old submarine that comes ashore. The chimpanzee, which Robin names Floyd, provides some time-tested animal cuteness and certainly more interactivity than Wilson the volleyball. With the contents from the submarine and some help from his hairy new friend, Robin builds a serviceable Tinkertoy-like home and accepts his location by shaving and settling in.

In the face of peril, Lt. Robin Crusoe is a by-the-book kind of guy. Robin sets out a distress signal with suspect tight framing.

Shortly after Floyd's arrival, an unconvincing animatronic mynah bird joins them. The bird provides a shrill voice with which to disagree with Robin. By the film's conclusion, the bird is long forgotten, but it's one of a number of simple gags out of which the screenplay gets a lot of mileage. For instance, one night while playing cards with Floyd, Robin mistakes a bottle for a Japanese soft drink which clearly isn't cumquat cola.

It is 45 minutes before Robin comes across another human, and when he does, it's a strong, pretty, young native woman who he names Wednesday (Nancy Kwan). She doesn't speak English, or so he thinks, which leads to a prolonged charade gag that works pretty well. Quite a bit of the film's humor comes from a difficulty to communicate, and while not all of it can be considered politically correct today, some of it provides laughs.

In the face of marriage plans she doesn't like, Wednesday has ran away from her father, a chief. Robin allays her fears and introduces her to a foreign idea: women's rights. Not long after, a group of Wednesday's female friends show up at the island and Robin quickly becomes accustomed to getting taken around on a litter throne and being called "Admiral Honey." Robin also grows somewhat fond of Wednesday, at least to the point where the letters-in-bottles he writes for his fiancée begin to slow and he has trouble recalling his betrothed's name.

The unlikely pairing of Robin with a gaggle of young ladies feels both leisurely and aimless. But the film heads in a far less enjoyable direction when Wednesday's father shows up. The arrival of Chief Tanamashu (Akim Tamiroff), a mostly unintelligible overpowering loudmouth who's fond of bonking people on the head with his staff leads to what the cover refers to as "fun" but what is better classified as some obligatory climactic mayhem. The silliness that occupies the latter parts of the film doesn't push the protagonist towards resolution or fulfill any narrative arc satisfactorily.

Somebody needs a shave. Robin (Dick Van Dyke) and Wednesday (Nancy Kwan) play a good old-fashioned games of charades when they can't communicate otherwise.

Unfortunately, the very end of the film is disconcerting and unsatisfying. The fact that the opening foreshadows it also serves to remove an element of suspense there might have been. The closing scenes betray what occurred before, as Robin's adaptation to his new environment and islander friends are forgotten without hesitation.

At 114 minutes, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is about 25 minutes longer than most of the studio's live action films from the time. This shows, as the film is very slow at times, drawing out is collection of thin gags far more than it should. While the film is never bad, it's not particularly memorable or well-realized. Compare it to Swiss Family Robinson, in which one relates to the stranded family and gradually comes to appreciate the paradise to which they must adapt. Any viewer of Crusoe, particularly one discovering the film for the first time, would have a tough time putting themselves in Robin's shoes or taking interest in his development, which is minimal. That would be fine if the film worked as pure escapist comedy (as apparently the intentions are), but it does not.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. was released to theaters in the summer of 1966 as one of the last productions Walt Disney was around to see through. The premise may be Walt's, but there's little of his genius otherwise on display. One gathers the film was only slightly closer to him than many of the other films being made at a time when he was looking ahead towards the launch of Disney World and other non-film ventures. It definitely doesn't stand as one of his best or more personal pictures. Nor it is the high point for Dick Van Dyke, whose two other turns for Disney (a fun couple of roles in the 1964 milestone Mary Poppins and the lead in 1968's Never a Dull Moment) both showcased his fine comedic talents much better.

Buy Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital Mono (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: April 12, 2005
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $19.99)
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is presented in a 1.33:1 "fullscreen" transfer. The very first aerial shot of the film suggests this is an open-matte presentation, as fast-moving helicopter blades find their way into the top of the frame. If the film were matted to an aspect ratio of 1.75:1, as it almost certainly would have been in its original theatrical exhibition, the unsightly intrusion would have been avoided. At times, there appears to be excess head space at the top of the frame and extraneous visual information at the bottom. The opening credits are centered within the frame and located well above and below the top and bottom edges of the picture. And there seems to be at least one instance of seeing something we're not supposed to beneath Crusoe's boat.

But one can't say for certain that there is no cropping employed. In fact, there's some tight framing in the "HELP!" message that Crusoe spells out with rocks. Here, the sides of the distress signal will get lopped off with even the slightest bit of overscan. For the most part, I would wager that this is an open-matte transfer which like most others relies on some cropping. In any event, it's definitely not the film's original theatrical aspect ratio and it's disappointing that Disney would be relying on reformatted transfers eight years since DVD was launched and at a time when customers have clearly shown a preference for widescreen presentations, when applicable.

A fellow could get used to this...or something like that. Prior to this performance as Tanamashu, Akim Tamiroff had roles in films like "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Touch of Evil."

Aspect ratio issue aside, the picture quality falls into the middle of the road among Disney's catalogue releases. The opening sequences of the film are the most troubling, where there are very grainy shots particularly involving the sky. There's good reason to suspect that these are either heavily zoomed or matte effects shots, neither of which never hold up as well as more traditional film footage. This would explain a bit why the print looks fairly dirty here. Even in the plagued portions, colors remain vibrant. The picture clears up a lot once we're on the island and the film begins to look consistent and satisfactory, though it never approaches the brilliance of films that have been fully digitally restored for special edition DVDs like The Parent Trap or The Love Bug. Aside from some minor ringing and softness, the transfer looks solid for the remaining majority of the film, with little grain and no artifacts or flaws to distract or inhibit enjoyment.

As such, the video presentation doesn't universally please, but the lack of the theatrical ratio is the biggest problem, and even that shortcoming is worse in principle than in execution. The film undoubtedly could look better if given more time and attention, but even so, it does look as good as most of Disney's average catalogue transfers and quite a bit better than some.

There's far less to say about the audio presentation, which is a Dolby Digital mono track. The opening credits music is mixed at a significantly higher volume than the rest of the film, so once the dialogue kicks in, you'll need to adjust accordingly. There isn't an excessive amount of dynamic range after this, and the protagonist's dialogue is always intelligible. Heavily-accented speech, like lines from the phony-looking mynah bird or the dramatic chief, are tougher to make out, but this is more a shortcoming of the original recordings than the digital mix. When used, the music is full-sounding and rich, though there's never any spoken verse. Minor distortion is also hardly noticeable, and overall, you have a mono presentation of a late '60s comedy that meets typical expectations - dated but without problem.

The Main Menu for this DVD prominently features DVD. Robin pours a drink for Floyd, his intelligent chimpanzee companion.

BONUS FEATURES and DESIGN

There is a complete and disappointing lack of bonus features. One needn't expect the stellar treatment bestowed upon Van Dyke's historic first Disney film Mary Poppins, but it should have been simple to capture some of the actor's thoughts on this film while he was freely talking about the other. At the very least, one would have hoped for a theatrical trailer, as was included on Never a Dull Moment and is generally easily to locate. But, there's nothing to be found.

The disc opens with the traditional 90-second promo for classic live action Disney films on DVD, highlighting comedies like The Love Bug, The Parent Trap, and The Absent-Minded Professor. The still menus are fairly basic, but each screen is accompanied by the military-sounding selection of score used in the film's opening credits. There's a new addition to the playback procedure. After hitting "Play", you are treated to the usual easily-bypassed Disney DVD logo and then a few new unskippable FBI "Anti-Piracy" screens warning you not to dabble in copyright violations. It's a little silly to be preached to after you've bought or rented a legitimate disc (and one as unlikely to be copied as this), but it's part of wider efforts by all studios to discourage infringement and bootlegging. You'll probably want to just go directly to Chapter 1 from the Scene Selections.

Listen to the Lieutenant! While writing a letter to his fiancée, Robin admires the animatronic mynah bird.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. wears its castaway premise thin and while star Dick Van Dyke carries the film further than most would, his comedic talents are never fully realized here. In the canon of Disney's live action comedies from the 1960s, Crusoe is better than some but a far cry from the best, and it's not nearly as entertaining as Van Dyke's other two outings for the studio. Having been unavailable for many years and never before released on this format, the film makes a very basic and therefore fairly disappointing DVD debut. It's not presented in its theatrical aspect ratio, picture quality leaves a bit to be desired, and there are no extras whatsoever. That makes the disc a pretty low priority on the list of classic Disney films to get on DVD, and non-completists may well want to avoid a purchase altogether.

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Never a Dull Moment (1968)
Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition (1964)
Last Flight of Noah's Ark (1980)
Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

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Reviewed March 31, 2005.

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Reviewed March 31, 2005



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