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Arts & Culture

Discovery Theater

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©Disney. All rights reserved.
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Long before Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, or even PBS' "Nature" graced American television screens, the Walt Disney studio popularized the nature film as something not just for biologists to study, but for the average moviegoer to enjoy in the theater.  Through their series of "True Life Adventures," the average American was able to travel to far-flung corners of the world, from Africa, Asia, and South America, to remote areas of North America.  Beginning with "Seal Island" in 1948, and for the next twelve years, the public embraced these charming documentaries, and so did Oscar.  Eight of the thirteen True-Life Adventure films won Academy Awards, and all are now available on four two-DVD sets, part of the inaugural run of the Walt Disney Legacy collection.

A canny businessman as well as an artistic innovator, Walt Disney sensed an untapped market in the 1940s, and with his brother Roy O. Disney, he hired talented camera operators and sent them off without a script to film animals in their natural habitat.  Nature would write the story, they said.  Yeah, nature and some clever editing and narration.  For each of the True-Life Adventures most definitely does tell a story, usually based on the life-cycle of an animal or the seasons of the year.  Winston Hibler wrote the scripts for many of these films (and several other Disney productions), but he will always be chiefly remembered as the narrator of these films, something that always irked him a little, according to his sons.

Of the True-Life Adventure series, nearly all the films are still entertaining today, but a few of them were truly groundbreaking or controversial in their time.  "Secrets of Life" (1956) contained some of the first widely seen high-quality time lapse photography of plants growing, and one of the earliest examples of 16mm Cinemascope photography, a terrific sequence of an erupting volcano.  "The African Lion" (1955) took the husband-and-wife team of Alfred and Elma Milotte years to film; Elma shares some fascinating stories of shooting on location in one of the extra features included on the disc.  "The Vanishing Prairie" was banned in several communities because it dared to show a buffalo giving birth on screen.  And there's the tawdry tale of "White Wildreness," (1958) notably not addressed on any of these DVDs, when several lemmings were encouraged to leap off a cliff to serve the filmmakers' purpose.  Wait-- I thought I said something about nature writing the story earlier?!?

Yes, even though these are called True-Life Adventures, the sharp-eyed viewer can spot a few staged sequences every now and then in these films.  But for the most part, the True-Life Adventure films are not only entertaining, but educational, and for many folks of a certain age, these films were not seen during their theatrical runs, but in a classroom.  I know I was one of many kids in the 1970s that enjoyed some of these features in abbreviated form as they illuminated the wall of our classroom from an 8mm projector.  And the educational aspect of these films continues through some of the bonus material on the discs.  On each volume, Roy E. Disney (who worked camera or helped edit some of these films) takes viewers to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida to visit with some of the trainers that work at the park.

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Credit © Disney. All rights reserved.
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These True-Life Adventures sets are divided up into four volumes, each consisting of two DVDs.  Vol. 1, "Wonders of the World," includes one of the more charming films, "Beaver Valley," as well as the infamous "White Wilderness."  Vol. 2, "Lands of Exploration," features some of the series' best work, including "The Living Desert," "The Vanishing Prairie," and "Seal Island."  It's worth noting that even from the very first True-Life Adventure, "Seal Island," the filmmakers did not shy away from the chaotic and violent side of nature.  Those seals can be pretty rough.  Vol. 3, "Creatures of the Wild," includes "The African Lion," "Jungle Cat," and "Bear Country," easily one of the funniest of the True-Life Adventures thanks to its long sequence of various black bears scratching their itches on tree trunks.  The final volume, "Nature's Mysteries," is the most curious of the lot, and the hardest to recommend.  The aforementioned "Secrets of Life" is included, as well as the one and only True-Life Fantasy (is that an oxymoron?) about a squirrel named Perri.

All of these films were shot with 16mm cameras; on DVD they look about as good as they can, I suppose, though there are some color deficiencies in some of the features.  The DVD sets are chock full of bonus features, from documentaries about the making of the films to episodes of the classic "Disneyland" television program that include nature footage.  One particularly good episode is "The Yellowstone Story," with more black bears shown ambling up to vacationing families in their cars.

If there's one major quibble I have with these sets, it's the packaging.  The discs are loosely stored in a tin can that is embedded in a faux-suede bedding.  The accompanying booklets are hidden under all of this in a large plastic casing. It's all very flimsy.

Overall, these True-Life Adventure sets are easy to recommend for families.  Adults may get a nostalgia kick out of seeing these old films again, and kids will likely enjoy seeing a wide variety of animals up close.