Walt Disney's classic nature documentary series is as big as all outdoors. So is Judge Bryan Pope's review.
Come with us now to watch with all the grandeur of her seasons' change. And marvel at the wondrous ways in which she has arranged a time for everything.
Ever the visionary, Walt Disney redefined "family entertainment" with this thrilling, wondrously informative series of Academy Award-winning nature documentaries that carried audiences to all parts of the globe. Now they've arrived on DVD in four gorgeous two-disc sets that easily stand among the best in 2006's home entertainment offerings.
Facts of the Case
It's hard to believe now, but in 1948 the idea was groundbreaking. Walt Disney devised the very first True-Life Adventure, Seal Island, after viewing footage shot by husband-and-wife filmmakers Elma and Al Milotte in the Alaskan wilderness, and his concept became the blueprint for all films in the series: gather footage from the world's best cinematographers, build a storyline around the footage, and add music.
To help realize his vision, Disney borrowed many filmmakers from his animation unit. In addition to his nephew, Roy Disney, Walt recruited director/writer James Algar, producer Ben Sharpsteen, composer Paul J. Smith, writer/narrator Winston Hibler, editor Norman "Stormy" Palmer, and sound man Jim MacDonald.
When Seal Island was completed, RKO, Disney's distributor at the time, refused to book the film. Disney rented a small theater in Los Angeles and showed his film in time to qualify for an Academy Award nomination. The little documentary went on to win the Oscar for best live-action short. RKO hesitated again when Disney prepared to release its first feature-length True-Life Adventure. This time, though, Walt and Roy were prepared, and responded by founding their own distribution company. Buena Vista's first release, the $500,000 The Living Desert (1953), brought in $5 million at the box office and won Disney its first Oscar for best documentary.
Finally, Walt Disney had succeeded in blending his unique sense of innovation with creativity and cutting-edge technology to produce films that put the fascinating world of animals center stage and brought attention to the importance of conservation.
Eleven more True-Life Adventures soon followed, six of which were awarded Oscars: Beaver Valley (1950), Nature's Half Acre (1951), Water Birds (1952), Prowlers of the Everglades (1953), Bear Country (1953), The Vanishing Prairie (1954), African Lion (1955), Olympic Elk (1955), Secrets of Life (1956), White Wilderness (1958) and Jungle Cat (1960).
All are included in their entirety on these four volumes, along with other lesser-known Disney nature films that were not released under the True-Life Adventures banner but were made by many of the same filmmakers in much the same style. True-Life Adventures is the first release in Walt Disney's new "Legacy Collection."
Say what you will about what passes for entertainment at Disney these days, but in the early-to-mid twentieth century, the mastermind behind it all had a keen sense for how to capture the world's imagination. Present-day documentarians may scoff at Disney's series of True-Life Adventures being labeled "documentaries," but nevermind. The nature films predate Animal Planet, David Attenborough, Steve Irwin, and March of the Penguins by several decades, and they are still just as enchanting as ever.
Whether the True-Life Adventures hold water as legitimate documentaries is beside the point. Disney sought to inform and enlighten, sure, but he was an entertainer before anything else, and the spectacle of entertainment he has achieved here is beyond compare. No doubt the films benefit from creative editing. It goes without saying that they rely on cute baby animals to tug at our hearts. And, yes, Disney has a shrewd way of manipulating our emotions through music. But underneath it all is, I think, a genuine concern for the environment and an element of truth about how the natural world works. The series softens but never averts its eyes from the brutal realities of the animal kingdom.
True-Life Adventures employs every tool at Walt Disney's disposal: bold colors, dramatic score, Winston Hibler's clever narration—narration, please note, that comments on without ever intruding upon the action. This may well be Disney's true masterpiece. For a man whose body of work includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, and extravagant theme parks that are worlds unto themselves, a man whose name has become synonymous with family entertainment, that's saying something.
Now let's begin.
Volume 1: Wonders of the World
• White Wilderness (72:21): Herb and Alice Crisler spent six years in Alberta, Canada, capturing the footage for this Oscar-winning film, and the results are astounding. Majestic shots of melting glaciers herald the arrival of the brief summer season as walruses, polar bears, wolverines, musk oxen, lemmings, and even beluga whales set out on the task of surviving some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Footage alternates between joyous (young polar bears at play) and tragic (a wolverine invades an osprey nest while the mother hovers helplessly nearby).
• Water Birds (30:39): This ornithologically-inclined Oscar winner island-hops around the world casting the spotlight on a wide array of water birds, including the pelican, crane, egret, and fairy tern. But the showstoppers are the gannets, which dive in search of herring, and the ouzel, which walks along the river bottom completely submerged.
• Beaver Valley (31:55): Easily one of the most light-hearted outings in the series, thanks in no small part to the engaging score, this is one Oscar-winning collection of beaver shots that's suitable for all ages. For variety, the program also peeks in on squirrels and coyotes before swimming upstream to observe salmon spawning. But it's the otters' snowy playtime that you'll remember most.
• Prowlers of the Everglades (31:56): Through crystal-clear underwater and surface-level photography, Prowlers captures the distinctive beauty of the Florida Everglades, in the process documenting the behaviors of its inhabitants. Of particular interest, of course, are the prowlers themselves: alligators stalking prey while avoiding pesky otters who only wish to play with the scaly predators.
• Mysteries of the Deep (23:55): Far too brief for such a vast subject, Mysteries benefits enormously from more pristine underwater photography. This short film is not part of the True-Life Adventures canon, but it might as well be. It centers largely around coral reef areas, with the highlight being a large octopus' thrilling pursuit of a sea snail.
• Wonders of the Water Worlds (49:32): Once you get past the misleading title, you find not another program about underwater life, but only a moderately entertaining glimpse at landlubbers that stick close to bodies of water, whether it's the ocean, a lake, or a stream. Others in the series have already covered this territory, making this the volume's least interesting program.
• "The Crisler Story" (18:49): This vintage black-and-white short examines the work of photographers Herb and Alice Crisler, whose work was so brilliantly displayed in White Wilderness. They clearly love their work, and the hardship they endure for their art is remarkable. An absolutely necessary inclusion.
• "Tribute to James Algar" (2:57): A brief but, again, very necessary tribute to the Oscar-winning producer and director who began his Disney career as an animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs before becoming a force behind the True-Life Adventures series.
Volume 2: Lands of Exploration
• The Living Desert (69:18): Disney's film about creatures that thrive in the North American desert wasteland missed being the series' finest achievement, but only by a hare…er, hair. It's easily the most entertaining of the bunch, and it was also Disney's big breakthrough, winning the studio its first Oscar for a feature-length documentary. Too many standout moments to count, but let's try: wild boars chasing a bobcat from the top of one giant cactus to the top of another; square-dancing scorpions; a ruthless battle between two turtles; a rattlesnake pitted against its natural predator, a hawk; and, of course, the tarantula and the Pepsis wasp in a deadly confrontation that has all the epic grandeur of two titans locked in battle.
• The Vanishing Prairie (70:46): Here's the best. Walt's sprawling mix of sweeping North American vistas and stories about their four-legged inhabitants showed the man at his most environmentally passionate. This urgent cry for us to stop and take a look at what we're doing to our world earned the studio yet another Oscar, and rightly so. The film is simply breathtaking. The filmmakers catch never-before-seen footage of prairie dogs building their underground homes and Bighorn Sheep engaged in fierce combat high in the mountains. They also confront death head-on with their stories of mountain lions and coyotes pursuing prey. Unbelievable, and not to be missed.
• Seal Island (26:46): Disney hit the ground running with this, the series' first film. It's the most focused of the bunch, almost stubbornly so. The story tracks mating and other social habits of seals on the Pribilof Islands, and the camera never lets other creatures pull its attention. Older male seals (bulls) are shown protecting their female harems, while younger male seals are trained to fight for superiority over other bulls. Another Oscar winner.
• Islands of the Sea (28:20): Another "in-spirit-only" member of the True-Life Adventures series, Islands of the Sea introduces us to fauna found on some of the lesser-known islands of the world. We watch an albatross learn to land and the dangerous Man-of-War attempt to mate. We also meet the jackass penguin and find the red rock crab going a round against an oyster catcher.
• Nature's Strangest Creatures (15:46): Australia is home to some of the world's most peculiar creatures, and this, the shortest entry in the series, visits many of them, including a little joey safe in mother's pouch, giant bats taking flight, and the duck-billed platypus caring for its young. Filmed by Al and Elma Milotte.
• Prairie (22:50): Hosted by James Algar, this behind-the-scenes program shows the process involved in capturing much of the incredible footage used in the True-Life Adventure series. As the title suggests, the lion's share of the footage is lifted from The Vanishing Prairie. Originally broadcast as part of Disney's long-running television series, The Wonderful World of Color.
• Behind the True-Life Cameras (24:24): Disney's black-and-white television special again takes us behind the scenes of the True-Life Adventure series. The program includes a boat ride through the Everglades followed by a trip to Africa to witness the filming of African Lion.
Volume 3: Creatures of the Wild
• African Lion (72:21): Another excellent entry in the series, but don't let the title fool you. Dozens of the African Serengeti's denizens are on display here. Obviously, the King of Beasts gets the most screen time (as do his mates, which, incidentally, rank among the world's best mothers), but he shares it with his cousins the leopard and cheetah. And no documentary about the Serengeti would be worth its salt without elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippopotamuses, ostriches, and—the whipping boy of the African plains—the wildebeest. The Milottes spent three years capturing footage for this winner, which would later serve as reference footage for Disney's animated The Lion King.
• Jungle Cat (70:01): Like African Lion, this film isn't so much about a specific animal as it is about an entire ecosystem, in this case the South American rainforest. Jungle Cat is the most plotted of the series. Two jaguars meet in combat before becoming mates. Their relationship is observed by crocodiles, otters, anteaters, and a passel of playful monkeys (including one tamarind foolish enough to tangle with a boa). A highlight is the jaguars' pursuit of a seven-foot pirarucu ("burping fish"). The film finishes with a tense encounter between a hungry jaguar and the slow-moving sloth. The last of the 13 original True-Life Adventures.
• Bear Country (32:47): This Oscar-winning short takes us to our own Yellowstone Park to study the habits of the black bear. Like the lioness, female bears are among the planet's fiercest, most devoted mothers, a trait perfectly captured here. The Milottes also document the bear's diet, mating customs, and recreational activities (wrestling is a major component). Less focused than the Milottes' Seal Island, Bear Country takes time to also observe marmots, porcupines, gophers, and moose.
• Olympic Elk (26:33): The elk of Washington's Olympic Peninsula learn to walk, climb, and basically survive in a land ruled by bears. They duel with each other, often to the death, fueled by a desire to control the females of the herd. A brutal, savage existence for one of America's most beautiful creatures.
• Cameras in Africa (19:36): The Milottes spent three years in Africa filming The African Lion. This fascinating featurette tells their story.
• The Yellowstone Story (17:20): James Algar narrates this feature on America's largest, oldest national park. The park's natural wonders (Old Faithful) and abundant wildlife (elk, bear, and buffalo) are highlighted. Short, but a visit to Yellowstone is always worth your time.
• "Tribute to the Milottes" (17:34): Narrated by Buddy Ebsen, this 21-year-old tribute to two of the key filmmakers behind the True-Life Adventures series features the married Milottes sharing behind-the-scenes stories on the making of The African Lion, Seal Island, Beaver Valley, Prowlers of the Everglades, Bear Country, and Nature's Strangest Creatures. Sadly, both of the Milottes passed away four years after this tribute was filmed.
Volume 4: Nature's Mysteries
• Secrets of Life (69:59): Forget that this film doesn't turn up until Vol. 4. Watch it first, because it's an appropriate introduction to the series. The least focused entry in the entire True-Life Adventures series, Secrets of Life neatly segues from one natural wonder to the next. Cute animals are nowhere to be seen. Rather, we learn about pollination, life in a beehive, and the pecking order in an ant colony. The ants' encounter with an invading blind snake is especially harrowing. The innovative photography, which captures plant growth, flowers blossoming, and insect life, is not to be missed.
• Perri (74:29): Disney's planned series of "true-life fantasies" began and ended with this tale, though I don't know why. The story, which follows a year in the life of a pine squirrel in "Wildwood Heart," is very charming and beautifully filmed. It's also a reminder that movies need not anthropomorphize animals to give them personality. Perri is as fully realized a character as Bambi (the story is based on a 1938 book by Bambi author Felix Salten). Interestingly, the film was shot to fit a pre-written script. A lush score and beautiful snowy dream sequence are highlights, but the little community of animals (martens, raccoons, skunks, and squirrels) steal the show.
• Nature's Half Acre (32:36): Listed as a bonus feature even though it's part of the True-Life Adventure series, this Oscar-winning short explores the natural wonders that exist practically in our own backyard. The caterpillar, chameleon, and mud wasp are just a few of the fascinating creatures we meet during this half hour doc.
• Searching for Nature's Mysteries (48:29): An effective marketing tool for Secrets of Life, this program recycles footage from the film. It was originally broadcast on network television, with Hibler discussing the then-new technology used to create the True-Life Adventures films.
• Adventure in Wildwood Heart (49:25): After a spooky walk through the Disney "morgue," this black-and-white episode of Disneyland follows the creation of Perri. Not just a rehash of scenes from that film, Adventure in Wildwood Heart focuses on the filmmakers' attempts to match their footage with Perri's script, a slightly different challenge than that faced by filmmakers who worked on the True-Life Adventures titles.
• "Tribute to Winston Hibler" (15:29): A fitting tribute to the man who lent his voice to True-Life Adventures. So memorable is his warm, engaging commentary that it's easy to forget he also penned a number of the documentaries. He wrote the screenplays for several of Disney's animated films, including Peter Pan and Cinderella, but his work was never as nimble and subtle as his work on the nature docs. The program is hosted by Hibler's family, many of whom have their own professional ties to the Disney studio. Fun fact: Hibler never accepted pay for his narration work on the True-Life Adventure series.
In addition, each volume includes a brief introduction by Roy Disney and a segment of "Filmmakers' Journal," "Backstage with Roy Disney at Disney's Animal Kingdom," and "Collectors' Corner," as well as promotional trailers.
The "Filmmakers' Journal" is a revealing, sometimes surprising look at the men and women who went to extraordinary lengths to capture True-Life Adventures on film. The programs run between 22 and almost 40 minutes, and they incorporate rare production photos, some behind-the-scenes footage, and new and vintage interviews with filmmakers Roy Disney, Elma Milotte, Lloyd Beebe, Norman Palmer, Julio Vera, Paul Kenworthy, and Jim MacDonald, as well as composer John Debney and Disney historian Stacia Martin. There is remarkably little overlap among these handsomely produced programs and, added together, they provide more than two hours of compelling and informative material. Nicely done.
A particularly fun feature for these sets, "Backstage with Roy Disney at Disney's Animal Kingdom" is appropriate for two reasons: Roy Disney was one of the original creative minds behind True-Life Adventures, and the 500-acre theme park has long been considered a direct offshoot of the nature docs. Disney visits the park's wildlife specialists to learn about birds (Vol. 1, 8:50), desert insects (Vol. 2, 3:32), snakes (Vol. 2, 5:12), elephants (Vol. 3, 3:09), and butterflies (Vol. 4, 7:21). He even helps out during a cheetah's medical exam (Vol. 3, 11:37).
"Collectors' Corner" takes an interesting approach to showcasing vintage collectible merchandise and ancillary material. Rather than employing the standard stills gallery, Disney historian Stacia Martin is again on hand to personally takes us on a tour of True-Life Adventures-related memorabilia, discussing items as diverse as press materials, comic books, figurines, music LPs, and sheet music. Each segment lasts only a few minutes, so Martin talks fast, but she is a lively and engaging guide. The segments are not commercials for Disney merchandise, and Disney enthusiasts in particular will find them fascinating.
Vol. 1 contains trailers for White Wilderness, Water Birds, and Beaver Valley. Vol. 2 contains almost 15 minutes of promotional material, including trailers for The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie, a trailer announcing the double-feature re-release of the two films, and two television promos. Trailers for African Lion, Jungle Cat, Bear Country, and The Yellowstone Story are provided on Vol. 3, while trailers for Secrets of Life and Perri are provided on Vol. 4. The trailers are unrestored and look quite rough, but they're a welcome inclusion.
True-Life Adventures is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (exception: several of the newly-produced supplements are provided in non-anamorphic widescreen). Disney has painstakingly restored the films, and their efforts show. The colors, once faded by time and wear, are now so alive it will take your breath away. The spots on the South American Jaguar have never stood out so vividly, and the silky black coat of its mate has never looked so rich and solid, and, during one intoxicating sequence in which flower after flower unfurls right before your eyes, the vibrant colors explode on the screen.
The footage occasionally shows some grain, but that's forgivable from nature documentaries that were shot using a 16mm camera a half century ago. Apart from that, I dare you to find a speck of debris anywhere. The docs have been scrubbed so thoroughly that they look like they could have been filmed within the last ten years. I have never seen anything like this.
Disney saw fit to provide the film's original mono soundtrack, and I'm not inclined to argue. It is clean and crisp, perfectly balancing Paul Smith's and Oliver Wallace's delightful scores with James McDonald's rich sound design. English subtitles are provided, but only on the first disc of each set, strangely enough. The stories are so well told that they hardly need Hibler's narration, as unobtrusive as it is. So this is the rare instance where I would not have taken a studio to task over the lack of subtitles.
I cannot stress this enough: The programs contained on each of these discs look and sound spectacular. Well done, Disney.
Two minor quibbles: The packaging—a sturdy cardboard case lined with green faux velvet and cradling an ornate tin—is lovely, but it doesn't lend itself well to storage. The sides lack labeling, so the case looks nondescript when stored front to back with other volumes in the series.
Also, the packaging does not clearly state which segments are among the original thirteen in the True-Life Adventure series. One could reasonably assume that several of the programs—Mysteries of the Deep and Wonders of the Water World, for example—are part of the series, but they're not. They're included as extras on Disc 2 of Vol. 1. Perri also is not part of the series, yet it gets showcased on Disc 1 of Vol. 4. Perhaps my obsessive-compulsive roots are showing, but, from a historical perspective, this is important information.
The True-Life Adventures series will be treasured not only by those who are curious about the world in which they live, but also by those who cherish seeing nature's stories treated with respect, honesty, and gentle humor. The Disney studio could not possibly have put together more exciting packages than this. They are nearly perfect, buoyed by marvelous transfers and a bounty of enthralling extras that will enrich your viewing experience. These discs deserve to be in every movie lover's collection, and you can find each volume for around $25. I highly, highly recommend all four.
The court thanks Walt Disney and company for their insurmountable contributions to nature conservation and family entertainment. Case dismissed.
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