Did you know that starting in the 1940s The Walt Disney Company made – and still makes to this day – award-winning nature documentaries? Many of these are Oscar-winning pieces of filmmaking. In the early days much of the footage – of imposing wild bears for example – was set against oddly juxtaposing music or sound effects. These nature documentaries make up an important part of Lucas Hnath’s play, especially the famous short about lemmings, in which it was discovered that the main shot of the film was faked — lemmings jumping off a cliff.
As Mark Feeney writes in The Boston Globe in the article “Back to Nature” (April 11, 2010):
“Starting in 1948, the animals became real. That’s when Disney released ‘Seal Island,’ the first of 13 True-Life Adventures. The series would win a total of eight Academy Awards. The Disney family brand was getting extended. The formula was simple. Take a specific natural location (‘The Living Desert,’ ‘The Vanishing Prairie’) or creature (‘The Olympic Elk,’ ‘Water Birds’). Film extensively. Add a strong dose of anthropomorphism, courtesy of the folksy-familiar narration of Winston Hibler (an unfamiliar name, a very familiar voice). Keep the budget to six figures. Count on ticket sales being in seven figures. “Walt Disney, having captivated the world as the Master of Fantasy, now has become, by the greatest contradiction of the age, the Master of Reality,’’ a Los Angeles Times critic wrote in 1954. There was nothing contradictory about it. True-Life Adventures was a natural extension of Disney animation: two forms of family-oriented entertainment. The nature documentaries, Disney wrote in 1953, showed animals’ “family devotion and parental care.’’ They testified to the company’s family devotion, too. That was half a century ago. By the time “Jungle Cat,’’ the last True-Life Adventure, came out, in 1960, the Disney company had moved well along in adding additional elements in its dominance of the budding family market — a market that Disney effectively defined.”
Here are a few of those documentaries.
Lucas Hnath has also found some brilliant footage of Walt interacting with early prototype examples of animatronics. Note these last two videos where he shows a dinosaur and parrot who’s the boss!