Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nature's Innocence: A Look at Disney's True-Life Adventures

Sometimes, if I close my eyes I can still hear those familiar mechanical sounds. The hums, whirs and clicks of celluloid driven by a motor through sprockets and spindles, the friction of film rubbing against metal reels. In a darkened classroom I sat, watching lighted images of nature projected on a white screen. Sometimes they were of industrious beavers building dams, other times of barking fur seals frolicking on rocks. The voice of the films' narrator--straightforward and slightly amused--is as indelible in my head now as the noise of the projector. Suddenly, I'm 11-years-old again.

This is my memory of Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures.

In 1943, Walt said of his films, "It is not visionary or presumptuous for us to anticipate the use of our own medium in the curriculum of every schoolroom in the world." To say these words were prophetic, particularly in the U.S., is a gross understatement. If you were a kid in the 1960s or '70s, there's a pretty good chance more than one Disney picture in 16mm was shown in your classroom, either to educate or to entertain, usually both. It was in elementary school that I first saw the Disney chestnuts Johnny Tremain and So Dear to My Heart, not to mention countless installments of the I'm No Fool cartoon series starring Jiminy Cricket.

But, it was the True-Life Adventures that stuck with me the most over the years. Full of both grandeur and intimacy, fact and fun, they presented an accessible and palatable look at nature. For a child of the suburbs, they made the great outdoors kinda cool.

As early as 1944, Walt Disney had been approached by the likes of Encyclopedia Britannica and the New York Zoological Society to produce educational films of some sort. Walt was intrigued by the idea, but balked at taking an academic approach to the subject matter. "We can't be boring," he would often say. "We've got to be entertaining." Following World War II, Ben Sharpsteen, one of Disney's key directors and production supervisors, approached Walt about doing a film on veterans homesteading in the Alaskan wilderness. Sharpsteen got Walt's OK, and the studio contacted Alfred and Elma Milotte, husband-and-wife film makers in Alaska, to shoot raw footage of area industry, nature and culture. As thousands of feet of film came back to the studio, Walt realized that there wasn't much entertainment value in mining, logging and building railroads, so he urged the Milottes to continue filming more animals and native Eskimos. It was Alfred Milotte who eventually suggested to Walt that they go to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, the home of thousands of fur seals. There, the couple shot for a year, capturing the migrations, mating habits and savage power struggles within this community of sea mammals. The footage was compelling and Walt was hooked. He tossed out the notion of using the Eskimo footage and focused solely on the seals. By the end of 1948, Seal Island, the first of Disney's True-Life Adventures, was ready for theatrical release--but, not without resistance.

Disney's distributor at the time, RKO, wanted nothing to do with a 28-minute nature documentary. To them, the film had no commercial appeal--audiences would be bored. Undeterred, Walt trusted his instincts and circumvented his detractors, arranging for Seal Island to be shown at the Crown Theater in Pasadena during the last week of December. The response by audiences and critics was enthusiastic. Here was a nature film that was dramatic, informative and, most of all, entertaining. Less than three months later, it would win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Two-Reel). Disney had a hit.

Seal Island established a formula that Disney would utilize in 12 more films (six shorts and six features) over the next 12 years. Each True-Life Adventure would begin with a golden spinning globe shot against a multi-colored background. The title credits would run, followed by an animated opening sequence of a paintbrush painting the area of the world we were about to visit. It could be America's heartland for The Vanishing Prairie or the dark continent of Africa (literally painted black) for The African Lion. Splashes and dots of detail would be added by the brush, creating lakes, streams and mountains on the continental landscape before dissolving into the real-life nature footage. The whole proceeding would be narrated by the friendly voice of Winston Hibler, who along with director James Algar, would write most of the True-Life Adventure scripts.

As a whole, the True-Life Adventure series was well received by critics, although Disney did draw fire from nature purists for taking a cutesy approach to some material and for setting up scenes on soundstages for dramatic effect. This was most apparent in the cutaway view of prairie dog tunnels seen in The Vanishing Prairie...

...and in the brutally fascinating fight-to-the-death battle between a wasp and a tarantula in The Living Desert.

Disney didn't shy away from the seemingly random cruelty of nature. When it was captured in the wild, as in this scene from The African Lion, it was the True-Life Adventures at their most dramatic:

This merger of serious and whimsical, of sound stage and natural splendor, are what ultimately made the True-Life Adventures so watchable. They consistently met Walt's objective to be entertaining first. That they could also be educational and awe-inspiring was a bonus. Liberties were certainly taken in the editing room, but the end results were appreciated by audiences worldwide and definitely made a lasting impression on a certain kid as he sat transfixed in that darkened classroom.

Disney's True-Life Adventures won eight Academy Awards and set the standard for all future nature documentaries. Even today, with Disney resurrecting the genre in its Disneynature series of films, you can see the influence of its 1950s-era predecessors.

African Cats, a look at the private lives of lions and cheetahs in the Masai Mara region of Kenya, is Disneynature's fourth film and the third released in theaters. Like the previous Disneynature films, it emphasizes the epic grandeur of nature--maybe even more so than the True-Life Adventures--in widescreen, high-definition. There is a bigness that defines all the Disneynature films, which is both their blessing and their curse. The films are amazing to look at, make no mistake, but, for all the spectacle Earth, Oceans and African Cats bring to the screen, they lack the intimacy and accessibility that was the hallmark of the True-Life Adventures. Even their narrators shriek of aloof importance: James Earl Jones, Pierce Brosnan, Samuel L. Jackson. Compare them to the amiable nerdiness of Winston Hibler. I think I prefer my nature docs with a bit more geekery.

Each Disneynature theatrical release has come out on Earth Day, which lends an automatic gravitas to each film. It's a sad reminder of our modern age of climate change and human sprawl. The True-Life Adventures didn't have those storm clouds hanging over them (The Vanishing Prairie being the rare example of a True-Life film that alluded to man's encroachment on the wild). They were documentaries from a more innocent time. Today, we can no longer just celebrate our natural world on film, we're tasked with saving it too...or losing it forever. In that respect, the Disneynature films may be filling a more important role than the True-Life Adventures. What's sad is they're not allowed to just be entertaining anymore.

So, see African Cats this week (Disney is donating a portion of the proceeds to the African Wildlife Foundation). I'll be revisiting my True-Life Adventures DVDs (released in 2006 and packaged appropriately in film cans) and enjoying nature for its own sake. I'll turn the lights down and relish the view on my big screen TV, trying to conjure up nostalgic memories of my youth. Beaver Valley and Nature's Half Acre should do the trick.

I sure will miss the clatter of that film projector, though.


  1. Great post, brings back some happy memories. Thanks for sharing:)


  2. You're very welcome, Deb! I'm glad you enjoyed it.