REVIEWS: Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2006:

Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures
Buena Vista Productions & R.K.O.Productions, 2006.
Four volumes; $32.95 each.

True Life Adventures, the first release
in the new Walt Disney Legacy DVD collection,
features 13 wildlife documentaries which among
them won eight Academy Awards and created a whole
new genre of cinema. Originally filmed fifty
years ago in 16 millimetre format, the films
have been digitally restored, are presented in
four 2-disc volumes with collectible packaging,
and include commentary by Roy E. Disney, nephew
of Walt Disney and son of Walt Disney Studios
founding partner Roy Oliver.

Walt Disney developed the wildlife
documentary genre out of his efforts to film how
wild animals move in order to create more
convincing animated cartoon animals. When, as
children, we saw movies like The Living Desert,
three years in the making, we were aware even
then that we were witnessing something profoundly
important, and deeply moving.
But do these old classics have any
relevance in the age of Animal Planet and
National Geographic, David Attenborough and
Journey of Life, Equator and Big Cat Diaries?
The legacy of Walt Disney is indelible;
the appeal of his work is timeless. His purpose
was entertainment, and he scrupulously avoided
controversy and overt social criticism, yet
Disney did more for animal welfare–and animal
rights too–than anyone. Probably to animal
welfare what Charles Darwin was to science, Walt
Disney captured the hearts of millions, and
thereby laid the foundation for popularizing an
ethic of compassion for animals, both wild and
For those who are not old enough to
remember the Disney classics, the features
The Living Desert, about the wildlife of
Death Valley. One of the first full-length
nature films, it included novel footage of
moving rocks, jousting tortoises, peccaries
chasing a bobcat, scorpions courting to the beat
of a barn dance, and the opening of desert
flowers after a rainstorm. For excitement,
there were memorable battles between a wasp and
tarantula, and a hawk and a rattlesnake.
The Vanishing Prairie, also full-length,
offered the mating rituals of prairie birds,
along with bison, pronghorns, prairie dogs and
mountain lions.
White Wilderness, six years in the
making, runs for 73 minutes. Breathtaking
footage of life in the Arctic includes cavorting
polar bear cubs, caribou migration, wolves,
walruses, and beluga whales. Memorable scenes
include the grisly predation of an osprey chick
by a wolverine, while the distraught osprey
mother attacks the wolverine again and again,
and a fascinating scene in which a fierce little
wolverine chased some wolves off a caribou kill.
Also explored was the alleged mass
suicide of lemmings, somewhat spoilt by the
knowledge that Disney included here some
freelance footage of what he believed were
lemmings hurling themselves into the Arctic
Ocean. The lemming scene was, in fact, false
and staged.
The African Lion’ also three years in
the making, celebrates life on the African
savannah. Lions and leopards making kills, a
rhino trapped in mud at the waterhole,
wildebeest trudging through a blizzard of
locusts– the footage is amazing when we consider
that unlike modern footage, which is easily
obtained in private nature reserves where the
target animals are habituated to humans,
Disney’s photographers had to lug clumsy
16-millimetre cameras into real wilderness, and
still get close enough to get those superb shots.
The sight of old tuskers and elephant
herds numbering more than a hundred is a
nostalgic reminder of a world that has vanished
in the last fifty years. The lack of scientific
knowledge about animal behavior at the time is
also revealed when, during underwater scenes of
hippos surrounded by schools of fish, the
narrator suggests that perhaps the fish eat
parasites off the hippos. We now know that the
fish are waiting for the hippos to poop out the
reeds and grass, which they have digested,
providing organic fish food.
Jungle Cat, 75 minutes long, focuses on
jaguars in a pageant of the Amazon rainforest. A
black jaguar kills a monster seven-foot-long
barbel, hunts a peccary, tapirs, and giant
anteaters, kills a large cayman crocodile, and
even killing a huge boa constrictor.
Secrets of Life, also 75 minutes, shows
how both flora and fauna adapt and compete for
survival. Ultra-slow motion photography was
used, so that for the first time, audiences
could see the whole life cycle of plants in a few
speeded-up minutes. Orchestral music plays while
seeds sprout, roots spread, and flowers burst
into glorious bloom in a blaze of colour, a
veritable ballet of elegant natural performers.
Archer fish shoot down insects; diving spiders
bring their air supply with them below the
surface of a pond in the form of a breathable
bubble; red and black ants make war, and
colonies of ants show that they can make and
store honey–just like bees.
Perri, yet another 75-minute feature,
was a precursor of the Disney animated fantasies.
It tells the story of a pine squirrel called
Perri. Written by the author of the Disney
animated classic Bambi, the film shows how
perilous is the life of a little pine squirrel,
contending for survival against an army– and air
force–of predators including weasels, martens,
goshawks, foxes, and bobcats, as well as
natural disasters such as forest fires.
Among the shorter documentaries in True Life Adventures are:
Seal Island, 27 minutes. This depicts
the brutal lives of fur seals of the Misty Isles
in the Bering Sea off Alaska, including
ferocious clashes between beach master bulls to
establish and hold breeding territory. This was
the first Walt Disney documentary to win an Oscar.
Beaver Valley, 32 minutes, portrays
four seasons in the lives of the beavers and
other animals who inhabit a Rocky Mountain
The Prowler of the Everglades’ 32
minutes, focuses upon Florida alligators.
Nature’s Half Acre, 32 minutes, takes a
looks at insects and birds who may appear in any
small patch of land, even a back yard garden.
Bees, ants, chameleons, and spiders interact
through the seasons.
Bear Country, 32 minutes, is a
fascinating study of the North American black
bear in Rocky Mountain habitat.
Olympic Elk’ 26 minutes, features the
seasonal migration of elk and other species in
Olympic National Park.
Water Birds, 30 minutes, is rather ordinary by today’s standards.
Bonus disks contain interesting archive
material, trailers, tributes, journals, and
sneak peeks behind the cameras, including behind
the scenes at Disney World in Florida. Wildlife
photography techniques are examined.
Disney’s True Life Adventures are just as
entertaining today as they were 50 years ago.
Yet if we compare these pioneering Disney films
with an outstanding modern documentary, such as
the Equator series, differences are apparent
that reflect the intervening half century of
evolving attitudes toward nature and animals.
Equator places the subject biome into its
planetary setting, explaining the effects of
climate and ocean currents upon the natural
history of the wildlife and flora. An Equator
documentary is a geography lesson. Disney was
never concerned with geography, merely
Modern documentaries tend to be more
didactic, more serious, with the ubiquitous
David Attenborough explaining in detail the
habits and behavior of species. Disney is seldom
serious. His narration is a series of
wisecracks, while big band swing music is used
to choreograph the activity of the animals, in
cartoon fashion.
Both presentation styles have merit.
The Equator genre educates people about the
plight of wildlife and threats to our shared
environment. Disney makes us laugh with the
animals, helping to instill compassion. Equator
appeals to the head; Disney to the heart.
–Chris Mercer

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