Writer-producer Arthur R. Dubs carved a minor niche for himself in ’70s by making a series of documentaries and fiction films celebrating the American frontier, and his most enduring creation is a three-movie series about a modern family that moves from Los Angeles to the Rocky Mountains. Harmless and well-meaning, these G-rated pictures boast spectacular location photography and terrific footage of real animals, even if the acting and storytelling leave a bit to be desired. The first and best picture in the series is The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, which does a solid job of emulating the Disney nature-flick formula, but without the sickly-sweet extremes that make some Disney pictures unpalatable.
The movie begins in smog- and traffic-shrouded L.A., where construction worker Skip Robinson (Robert Logan) realizes he’s had enough. Skip asks his wife, Pam (Susan Damante Shaw), if she’s willing to leave city life behind, and she says yes. The Robinsons pack up their two young children and their dog, and then relocate to a remote lakeside homestead. During the first movie, which takes place over a summer and early fall, the Robinsons build a cabin, survive close encounters with bears and cougars, and take in stray animals including a pair of orphaned bear cubs and a raccoon. They also forge a friendship with a mountain man named Boomer (George “Buck” Flower).
Excepting some awful songs played over montages, The Adventures of the Wilderness Family tells a simple story without distracting adornment, and the respect both the characters and the filmmakers show for the dangers of the wilderness grounds the piece in a gentle version of reality. Additionally, the film’s breathtaking Colorado locations make it easy to understand why the Robinsons decide, at the end of the picture, to stay in their new home despite the impending arrival of winter and all the challenges that implies.
Three years passed before Dubs and his crew returned to Colorado to film the lackluster sequel The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family. Although the second movie supposedly picks up just weeks after the end of the first film, the actress playing the Robinson daughter was recast, and the replacement performer is about six years older than her predecessor. Huh? Worse, the second movie includes the kinds of syrupy excesses Dubs avoided the first time around. Way too much time is spent on cutesy animal antics and sentimental Boomer scenes (his crusty old heart melts when he becomes a surrogate grandfather to the Robinson kids).
Furthermore, the crises powering the storyline are beyond contrived. The climax is especially absurd—when Skip leaves the house after a blizzard to fetch help for Pam, who is suffering from pneumonia, wolves attack the cabin and one of the Robinsons’ pets knocks over a lamp, starting a fire, so a bedridden Pam and her two children are left alone to fight flames and ravening predators. The only reason the second movie is borderline passable is the presence of still-impressive production values.
However, it all goes wrong in the third flick, Mountain Family Robinson, which is so lacking in narrative substance that Dubs pads the running time with endless montages of things like full-costume Fourth of July picnics; gardening sessions livened up with square dancing; and idyllic runs through fields of flowers. Worse, the songs—which are never good in Wilderness Family movies—become truly noxious in Mountain Family Robinson, with a cloying vocal group proclaiming again and again how wonderful it is for wonderful people to live a wonderful life in a wonderful place. Yeah, we got it, already.
The Adventures of the Wilderness Family: GROOVY
The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family: FUNKY
Mountain Family Robinson: LAME