Nature Films


How Walt Disney (1901–1966) got into nature filmmaking is the stuff of Disney legends. Disney's inspiration for the True-Life Adventures may have been wildlife footage that Disney animators sketched from while

Arne Sucksdorff in 2001 with the Oscar ® he won in 1949 for Rhythms of a City.

developing Bambi (1942). Maybe Disney was inspired by nature itself, while on vacation in Alaska. Or perhaps the move was more calculated: nature filmmaking provided an affordable means (compared to labor-intensive animated films) through which Disney could continue to produce new titles during a general downturn in the film industry. In any case, Disney hired the amateur filmmakers Alfred and Elma Milotte to gather the footage that would become Seal Island (1948). In 1949, this short bacame the first of many in the True-Life Adventure series to win an Academy Award ® (in a documentary category) and to enjoy a surprisingly lucrative theatrical release. To capitalize on its success, Disney expanded the series to include the shorts Beaver Valley (1950), Nature's Half-Acre (1951), The Olympic Elk (1952), Water Birds (1952), Bear Country (1953), Prowlers of the Everglades (1953), and Islands of the Seas (1960), as well as the features The Living Desert (1953), The Vanishing Prairie (1954), The African Lion (1955), Secrets of Life (1956), White Wilderness (1958), and Jungle Cat (1960).

The series repopularized the nature film in a form that was new in a number of ways. First, the True-Life Adventures melded close observations of animal behavior that was already endemic to scientific nature films, footage gathered through both patient fieldwork and frequently imperceptible stagings, and dramatic storylines derived from already classic Disney formulae. While the series employed scores of scientific advisors and nature filmmakers, it was overseen by directors and writers such as James Algar (1912–1998), who had worked on Disney classics such as Fantasia (1940) and Bambi . Under Disney control, the classic form of the nature film shifted from expedition travelogues based on human activities to the struggle for survival or the coming of age of anthropomorphized animal protagonists.

Most of the True-Life Adventures featured North American wildlife and landscapes, whereas pre–World War II expedition films had emphasized more exotic locations. The True-Life Adventures hinted far more often than their expedition predecessors that wild species were not endlessly plentiful and expendable but instead threatened by shrinking habitats and other factors as well as inherently valuable. They also infused explicit conservationist values into the genre. Despite these innovations, which influenced later generations of nature filmmakers, Disney jettisoned the constraints of nonfiction and launched a short-lived True-Life Fantasy series with the squirrel story Perri (1957). In the long term, the Disney studio favored fictional stories employing trained animals—mostly cats and dogs—interacting with humans.

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