Friday, June 10, 2011

Wonders of the World

I am not a nature boy. I have been camping maybe once in my life and it must have been pretty horrifying because I've blocked any memories of it out completely. That fact coupled with The Blair Witch Project pretty much guarantee that my communion with nature will for the most part remain at home on my couch. Even then, they tend to be few and far between. I know people who stayed glued to NatGeo or Animal Planet. Bless their lil' hearts, but after a while all the scales and fur and greenery and ice and stuff becomes white noise to me.

That being said, I love a good documentary. I am always impressed when people can take reality and shape it into a narrative that is so good it feels like fiction. With a great film like Grey Gardens, no one would have believed it could ever possibly have happened. But it did, the Maysles filmed it, and my world was changed. Most of the time, however, nature documentaries feel slow and indulgent, lingering over every Hi Def shot until your eyes cross, or they are really cruel, both to the senses (jump cuts and jumpy camera work) and to the animals (it's just nature's way for us to watch that little baby seal get... um... sniffle... never mind). They don't seem to put as much care into the storytelling as they do into editing, which aren't the same thing.

One of the first major exceptions to that rule for me was March of the Penguins. When it came out, people talked nonstop about how amazing this thing was. And I kept thinking, "Penguins. Marching. Um. OK..." Though I often avoid the whatever-the-hot-new-thing-is out of my natural inclination to swim upstream, I succumbed and saw the movie. And I fell in love. What they did so well in the was shift the focus to telling a story. You came to know the birds and feel for them. I was emotionally attached to these little guys who struggled so hard against immense hardship just for the privilege of staying alive and ensuring that there would be another generation after them. The narration was beautifully written and masterfully spoken by Morgan Freeman. The score by Alex Wurman was so fantastic that I bought the score on CD almost immediately after. The effort they made to really take me on a journey, to make me laugh and make me cry, to bring me joy and break my heart, was what I was missing from a lot of the nature series I was seeing on TV. At the time, I thought it was a fluke. A couple of filmmakers had gotten it right, but I doubted that I could be that taken by a nature film again.

That brings us to Disney and the True-Life Adventures (plus one True-Life Fantasy) film series starting with Seal Island in 1949 and ending with Islands of the Sea in 1960. You can draw a direct line from these films to March of the Penguins. These movies, for all intents and purposes, birthed the whole genre of the nature film, picking up several Oscars along the way. They used stunning footage taken by great filmmakers, such as adorable married couple Al and Elma Milotte (Just look at Al & El over there! Aw!), set them to effective scores, and gave narration duties to Winston Hibler, whose voice has the magical quality of feeling like you've been hearing it all your life, even if you've never heard it before, though, most likely, you have- with or without knowing it.

If Disney, especially back in Walt's time, knew one thing, it was how to craft a great story. They crafted them so well in these films that there was a smidge of controversy claiming that they faked some of the scenes. They are credited with starting the whole idea of the suicidal lemmings. But without having a singular narrative, they give the films a sense of story. The animals are "he" and "she". They take on human characteristics that real animals would probably never have. Animals are just out to survive, living in every moment until their last. It's a very basic existence, to be sure, and not always the most cinematic. By giving these creatures stories to tell, they are reaching out to an audience. They are telling us that they will meet us halfway. They will wrap these phenomena in terms that we will be able to understand if we agree to take the journey with them. It's a genius idea.

I love all of the True-Lifes and there are some amazing pieces of filmmaking in the series. The booty-scratching sequence in "Bear Country" is hilarious. Being from Florida, I am partial to "Prowlers of the Everglades". The boa battling with panthers in "Jungle Cat". Each film collects stories from natures to weave a loose narrative of what it is like to live in this world, to fight for your existence every single day, and to protect the ones that you love from harm. Just this morning, I turned on one of the DVDs to have background noise as I got out of bed and got ready to begin my day. I got so engrossed in it that I was almost late for work.

They put these animals in the context of how they are relatable to us. I found myself constantly amazed at how ingenious these animals are. How a resourceful spider can pull bubbles down from the surface to create an underwater nest of air to protect her young. What parent has not gone to great lengths to ensure their children's safety? I think that anything that breeds empathy for nature is important in an age where many are convinced that the Gulf Coast oil spill is all cleaned up (it's not and probably never will be) and that the rain forests can spare some acreage (it can't and we are shooting ourselves in the foot by destroying them).

My absolute favorite scene in any True-Life is the epic battle between a tarantula and a wasp in "The Living Desert", which is probably my favorite film in the series, full of fascinating reptiles and adorable furry little things- sometimes even interacting. But if you have never seen tarantula v. wasp, seek it out. It is better than any WWF Extreme Cage Match they could ever stage. This is a battle to the death. I am still on the edge of my seat, shouting out to the TV, every time I watch it. The tension that rises as they alternately go on the attack and on the defensive. It is one of the most exhilarating few minutes I have ever seen on celluloid. Riveting does not even begin to describe it adequately.

They took the storytelling aspect one step further with Perri, the True-Life Fantasy I mentioned earlier. Inspired by Bambi author Felix Salten's book of the same name, they used real footage to tell the fictional story of a young female squirrel. Over the course of the movie, you really fall for this squirrel, watching her fight for life and fall in love. I personally vote for Perri to be added to the Disney Princess canon. Mostly because I think it would be adorable for little girls to run through the parks with big bushy tails and I'm curious to see how the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique finds a way to jazz up a squirrel outfit with glitter and blush. The movie has some lovely music, and the animators did have a hand in a bit of the movie, adding a bit of flourish to the story.

They released all of the True-Lifes in 2006 on four double disc sets. They were in really fun packaging and were remastered with scads of special features on everything from merchandise to the filmmakers. Roy E. Disney made the release of these films a priority because they were the first films he worked on at Disney. Roy did a lot to keep classic Disney alive, thankfully. The sets are now, unfortunately, out of print. Where did I get my hands on them? You guessed it. eBay. If you are patient, you can find them for a reasonable price and they are completely worth owning. I am excited to one day watch these with my kids. They are such a great way to introduce kids to nature without sugarcoating or pandering to them, but by infusing the experience with excitement and humor.

Disney's glorious preoccupation with nature stretches far beyond the True-Lifes. Back in the day, Disneyland had a Mine Train Though Nature's Wonderland highlighting a lot of the things featured in the films and using some of the first audio-animatronics in the parks. The audio of the ride is on CD and is a hoot to listen to. Bear Country (before the critters took over) took its name directly from a True-Life. The Seas in Epcot certainly owes a debt. Animal Kingdom at WDW essentially takes you and puts you right in the middle of your own true-life True-Life Adventure. The Disneynature films have, in a way, brought the legacy of the True-Lifes full circle but putting them back on the big screen.

Disney also did a series called People & Places around the same time in the 50's that did for different cultures what the True-Lifes did for nature. The only one that's been released that I know of is Disneyland U.S.A. on the Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic Walt Disney Treasures set, so that is the only one that I've seen. And, of course, it's amazeballs. It's a great time capsule of what Disneyland was like in the early days. Though it doesn't seem to be anywhere close to on the horizon, I would love to see that series available someday.

I think when all is said an done, one of the great Disney legacies will be the time and creative energy that they poured into enlightening people about nature, which fits snugly into their larger goal of transporting their audiences to fantastic times and places and letting us experience things we wouldn't be able to otherwise. The company has done it through their films and their parks, bringing us face to face with nature's mysteries far before cable TV overload and searching for new and exciting ways to keep bringing us closer. As for me, I'm content with my exposure to nature being Central Park (now), my backyard (later), Swamp People ("Choot de gatuh! He comin' twa de boat!"), and Disney.

1 comment:

  1. Wow - I'm so glad you wrote about this! I never even heard of the True-Life series. I totally want to see tarantula v. wasp.