It’s easy to forget just how many different roads the Disney company took under Walt’s leadership. We focus on the animated classics and Disneyland, plus live action films like Mary Poppins. Lost in the shuffle is the series of award-winning documentaries produced between 1948 and 1960. Disney’s True-Life Adventure films connect directly to Adventureland attractions, particularly the Jungle Cruise. They also helped set the mold for what would eventually become Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Their legacy is strong today, yet many of us know very little about them. The new book from Christian Moran is here to change that trend.
True-Life Adventures: A History of Walt Disney’s Nature Documentaries is an informative look back at the production of seven shorts and seven features that still make an impact. I’ve yet to see many of them, and I suspect that’s true for plenty of Disney fans. This book is also an engaging primer that should inspire you to seek out more of these films. Beginning with Seal Island in December 1948, Disney enjoyed a remarkable string of successful projects. Moran does more than just describe the films and introduces us to the key players behind them. He also pulls from interviews with the crew about their experiences with each project.
Moran begins with a convincing reminder that Walt was an environmentalist. Bambi is a fitting early look at his feelings about nature, which only became clearer with the True-Life Adventures. Walt gave filmmakers a wide berth to shoot wildlife footage that would eventually become the award-winning documentaries. A good example is the work of Alfred and Elma Milotte, photographers living in Alaska. Moran reveals how hours of footage from the Milottes was put together in films like Seal Island. That 1948 short created the mold that others would expand upon in the next 12 years.
A surprising part of Moran’s research uncovers the clever ways that photographers set up footage or prepared situations. The first example was for Beaver Valley, where a glass wall separated a beaver and coyote but wasn’t visible to viewers. I have mixed feelings about these choices. They make sense to avoid an actual hunt, but it also misleads viewers into believing it’s all real. This trend went further in The Living Desert, where Paul Kenworthy built an indoor studio inside a home to document certain insects. It’s not a shock to learn this information and I admire the ingenuity, yet it still loses some luster. That said, Moran does an excellent job chronicling the decisions.
An Ongoing Legacy
This book isn’t just a historical look at a documentary series that ended a long time ago. In the part entitled “The True-Life Legacy”, Moran describes the ways that the spirit of those films continued long afterward. One intriguing section looks at the planned Equatorial Africa pavilion for World Showcase at Epcot. The films and other attractions designed for that area would have been something to see. It’s sad that we don’t have easy access to films like The Heartbeat of Africa that were produced for this project. Moran also connects the True-Life Adventures to the Animal Kingdom, which has a similar outlook on preserving our natural world.
An even more direct link comes through the Disneynature films, which have been popular during the past decade. Hits like Earth, Oceans, and the recent Born in China have wowed audiences in a similar way as the True-Life Adventures. Moran does a good job showing how the goals of Disney’s nature films and other projects are important for any generation. Conservation has never been more important, and the early films remain relevant. Moran’s book is an excellent primer for exploring both Walt’s and the Disney company’s work on so many essential films.
My review of Moran’s book Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow: Walt Disney and Technology
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