When Walt Disney was making Bambi, he knew he had to take a different approach. The animals talked and had personalities, but weren’t traditionally “human.” Instead, he was going for a more naturalistic approach. These characters had to move and behave like actual animals. And the way he was able to accomplish this lofty goal was to bring actual animals into the studio and have the animators study their behavior up close, as well as screen footage of real-life woodland creatures. It was an inspirational moment, not just for the animators, but for Walt, too. As they watched the footage, they began putting words in the mouths of the animals. Walt realized how powerful a film made with real-life animals could. It was this experience that would end up as the inspiration for his next venture: originating the modern nature film.
In 1943 Walt Disney told a radio audience that, “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.” And while he had been bombarded with offers for educational films (as early as 1944 the people behind Encyclopedia Britannica had courted Walt with a multi-picture deal) he was adamant in one thing: that the films would be entertaining first, and if someone found the nutritional value in them, so be it. “We can’t be boring. We’ve got to be entertaining,” Walt repeatedly stated, according to biographer Neal Gabler.
Walt had loved animals since growing up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, and initially laid out a plan for several ambitious short films, which were eventually scrapped. Still, he wanted to make movies about animals, and in late 1944, set up a trip to the New York Zoological Society with Carl Nater, who was a production coordinator at the studio during the contentious days of World War II. Nater said that the purpose of the trip was to, “eventually make films on animals, bird life, fish life, and any other type of living creature around which there is a real story to tell.”
Walt soon met Alfred and Elma Milotte, a husband-and-wife photography team in Alaska. While reports differ on what actually jump-started the project, with one potential inspiration being a recently signed treaty between Russia and Japan on seal hunting, Alfred claims that Walt called him and told him to photograph “everything that moved.” “You know, mining, fishing, building roads, the development of Alaska,” Walt reportedly told the photographers. “The idea was that the film would tell a story about America’s last real frontier,” Gabler wrote. But when Walt saw the footage, he thought it was too boring. “More animals,” Walt wired. “What about seals?” Al wired back. The husband-and-wife team continued to shoot. At the studio, Roy O. Disney was getting impatient: The project was taking a long time. In 1947 Walt visited Alaska himself, taking his daughter Sharon along for the trip. A year later the footage had been edited, considerably condensed, and titled. Seal Island had finally arrived.
But RKO, who was distributing Disney’s films at the time, didn’t know what to do with the film. It was 28 minutes long (“too short for a feature and too long for a short,” as Gabler says) and they didn’t know how to program it. Walt arranged to have the film shown at the Crown Theater in Pasadena the last week of December 1948, enough for it to qualify for Academy Award consideration and to wow adventurous moviegoers who visited. “It knocks the people right in their bloody hat,” Disney artist Harper Goff said after attending the first screening. It won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, even though, at 28 minutes, it was hardly short. As Gabler said, this would “in its own way prove just as revolutionary as his first sound animation or Snow White.” Gabler goes on: “Seal Island would become the model not only for Disney documentaries but for nature documentaries generally: a strong plot, anthropomorphized animals with emotions imputed to them, and a music track that made the documentaries into real-life cartoons.”
Walt had succeeded in combining entertainment with education. His True-Life Adventure series was born.
The process was still as slow and painstaking as Roy had initially made it out to be. Disney historian Jim Korkis said that 6% of the footage the Milottes had shot, over the course of years, for The African Lion, would be used for the final film. But they were, unquestionably, a sensation.
Of the 13 films released in the True-Life Adventures series, eight of them won Academy Awards. They were shown in public schools across the country for decades, and a compilation film, made up of all of the films’ best moments, was released as a feature in 1975. Korkis dug up letters that people had written to Disney in the wake of the films release. “How did you train those animals to move in time to the music?” one of the letters asked.
It’s hard to estimate what a huge deal these nature films were. They were far from the arid, dusty educational films of old. They were exciting, dynamic, hilarious, and beautifully photographed. One of Walt’s greatest gifts was being able to identify what part of an elaborate narrative would make the best through-line, and so he and his talented team were able to comb through hours of footage and make something simple enough to easily follow, yet stirring enough to be inspirational and profound.
And while some criticized Disney for making the complexities of the wild far too simple and sweet, Walt remained steadfast. Of the films he said, “We did not succumb to the alluring temptations to make villains or saints of the creatures portrayed in our films. We have maintained a sensitive regard for the wisdom of nature’s design and have attempted to hold a mirror to the out-of-doors rather than to interpret it’s functioning by man’s standards.”
The True-Life Adventure series inspired a line of books, a comic strip printed nationwide each week, and a spin-off series paradoxically entitled True-Life Fantasies, which featured real animals corralled into a more traditional “narrative” framework (Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar and Sammy, the Way Out Seal were among these films). These endeavors were all insanely popular.
As early as 1953, a section of Disneyland was being plotted as True-Life Adventureland, which featured a prototypical Jungle Cruise-like attraction that passed by real animals and the ability to take home any of the exotic inhabitants featured in that section of the Park. (Talk about a souvenir!) This concept was reconsidered, obviously, with the more whimsical Adventureland opening with the rest of the park in 1955. Elements of the True-Life Adventures series, most notably The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie, would eventually make their way into Disneyland, as traces of the films can be found in the Frontierland section of the Park and the Grand Canyon diorama section of the Disneyland Railroad. (There are also posters for some of the films hanging today at the Smokejumpers Grill at Disney California Adventure.)
And the idea of animals in the park would stick with Walt, who wanted to incorporate actual animals into a section of his “Florida Project.” While he passed away before Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the company he left behind still wanted to carry forth the idea. Discovery Island, an island in Bay Lake, would be home to animals from 1974 until 1998, when Disney’s Animal Kingdom, thought by many to be one of the greatest zoological preserves in the world, opened its doors. In Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Walt’s idea of having guests move freely through the world of animals was finally achieved, as anyone who has visited the park knows. It’s True-Life Adventureland writ large.
But the closest living relative to the True-Life Adventures is the Disneynature line of films. Founded in 2008, Disneynature releases a big nature film almost every year, with subjects ranging from flamingos (The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos) to monkeys that live in ancient ruins in Asia (Monkey Kingdom). Each of these films carries with it the spirit of True-Life Adventure. They are all gorgeously photographed, featuring far-flung locations around the world, and carry an even more urgent environmental message. (A percentage of opening week grosses usually go to a wildlife conservation fund connected to that movie’s subject matter.) But first and foremost, they maintain the entertaining aspects of those original films. They aren’t dry or medicinal. They have a clear through-line that’s easy to follow and very emotional. As Walt later said about the True-Life Adventures, “Our films have provided thrilling entertainment of educational quality and have played a major part in the worldwide increase in appreciation and understanding of nature. These films have demonstrated that facts can be as fascinating as fiction, truth as beguiling as myth, and have opened the eyes of young and old to the beauties of the outdoor world and aroused their desire to conserve priceless natural assets.”
The newest Disneynature film, Born in China, opens on Earth Day, 2017, continuing Walt’s tradition of making stories in nature that appeal to everyone.