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Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures on DVD: V1 - Wonders of the World V2 - Lands of Exploration V3 - Creatures of the Wild V4 - Nature's Mysteries

Walt Disney's Legacy Collection: True-Life Adventures,
Volume 3 - Creatures of the Wild DVD Review

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Walt Disney's Legacy Collection:
True-Life Adventures, Volume 3 - Creatures of the Wild


Click title to view that portion of the review)
Disc 1: The African Lion (1955), Jungle Cat (1960), Bear Country (1953)

Disc 2: Olympic Elk (1952), "Cameras in Africa" (1954), "The Yellowstone Story" (1957)

Bonus Material: "Tribute to the Milottes", "Backstage with Roy Disney at Disney's Animal Kingdom: Elephants", "Backstage with Roy Disney at Disney's Animal Kingdom: Cheetah Medical Exam", "Filmmakers' Journal", "Collectors' Corner", Trailers and Promos

Running Time: 240 Minutes (4 hours)
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio) / Dolby Digital Mono (English)
Rating: Not Rated / Originally Released and Broadcast between 1950 and 1961
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned / DVD Release Date: December 5, 2006
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9); Suggested Retail Price: $32.99

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Today, to observe nature, you only need to flip through channels until you find something; there's Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, digital cable's National Geographic Channel, and a fairly regular supply of nature specials on PBS. That was not the case fifty years ago, when television was in its early stages and options were limited. Then, Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures were pioneering, offering moviegoing audiences a unique opportunity to view interesting creatures from around the world not behind bars at the zoo, but out and about in the great outdoors.

The series of nature documentaries came as feature-length films and two-reel shorts, beginning with 1948's Seal Island and running through 1960's Jungle Cat. Nature films are something of a niche market in cinemas today, with most relegated to television broadcasts, some fortunate enough to play on the IMAX screen (with museums, zoos, and field trips contributing heavily to viewership),
and only the rarest (like last year's surprise hit The March of the Penguins) lucky enough to make it big in wide release. But 58 years ago, the cinematic playing field was quite different. Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures garnered critical acclaim from the start, with Seal Island winning the Academy Award for Best Short and beginning a trend that would yield seven additional Oscars for the line's output in the 1950s.

That didn't mean there was widespread acceptance; in fact, a dispute between Walt Disney's studio and regular distributor RKO Radio Pictures over the value of the True-Life Adventures led to Disney establishing his own distribution arm, called Buena Vista, in 1953. While RKO would fold just six years later, Buena Vista lives on today, as the company which distributes movies and television shows with the best of Hollywood. Buena Vista's first film was a True-Life Adventure -- 1953's The Living Desert -- which showed that the series' appeal needn't be questioned by earning $5 million (chump change today, but no small figure back then) on a budget of just $500,000.

Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures make clear their documentary nature. Nature's most perfect hunter -- the cheetah -- is seen in action in "The African Lion."

That the True-Life Adventure banner was dropped after just twelve years may lead you to think that the line was a bust, but in fact, Walt continued to bring captivating and well-compiled footage of the Earth's wonders in their natural environment. Instead of theaters, though, they reached the general public via his weekly anthology series that was initially called "Disneyland" and subsequently known under a variety of titles. Realistic portrayal of animals remained a staple of live action dramas and (as time progressed) comedies, some -- like 1967's Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar -- very much in the True-Life mold. The spirit of the series can even be traced to some of the Walt Disney Company's modern-day films, like 1989's Cheetah or this year's unexpected hit Eight Below.

Of course, the True-Life Adventures can't be deemed the crowning achievement of Walt's fifty-year career in show business. While families and children of today still are gaga for even Walt's earliest animated features and regularly flock to the theme parks he conceived, the True-Life Adventures have faded a bit from the public's consciousness. The same can be said for scripted live action films from Walt's time, but there are still enough of them (like Old Yeller, The Parent Trap, and Mary Poppins) that remain rites of passage several generations since they were first made. Ask a kid today what they think of Seal Island, Bear Country, Jungle Cat, or Olympic Elk and they might think you are asking about a video game, a vacation spot, or an actual animal before hazarding a guess that you are in fact referring to one of Walt's True-Life Adventures.

Don't be discouraged. The thirteen films officially designated True-Life Adventures and their closely-related brethren are ripe today for being rediscovered thanks to the launch of a brand new Disney fan-friendly DVD line called Walt Disney's Legacy Collection. That they are old-fashioned is undisputable; these documentaries are old. But they are anything but outdated, as their impressive images and informative narration are as relevant, compelling, and fascinating today as they ever were.

Marmot see, marmot do. These little furry guys are supposedly imitating an elk duel. This elephant is old. Hence, the one tusk.

The True-Life Adventures adhere to a formula, but it is a winning one that is repeatedly employed. Each starts with an animated opening, in which a paint brush appears to produce a landscape in a particular corner of the globe. The movie then proceeds to the location in question for a close look at the animals and environment there. Making sense of the largely silent film is narration by longtime Disney writer Winston Hibler.
Hibler's narration doesn't assume any prior knowledge from the viewer, which even today is appreciated; with all the information available to us, how much of it sticks, especially that which isn't initially presented in a memorable way? His words describe the ways of nature captured on film and not in a way that is educational, preachy, or boring. Instead, he makes the foreign visuals accessible, even occasionally injecting gentle wry humor which is supported in the entertaining presentation.

Sounds appear to be largely synthesized, the result of there being insufficient technology (or perhaps funding) to clearly capture audio from the various global settings. Still, the action is constantly complemented by the sound... of music. Instrumental scores play a key role in the True-Life Adventures, frequently punctuating actions both big and small. Some may argue this presence is overbearing or that its effect is manipulative. While that's not untrue, manipulation is common in cinema and the music here seems to serve the visuals, rather than vice-versa. Of course, nature itself is like a 24-hour grocery store; it's always there for you and most of the time, there's nothing out of the ordinary. That's where editing comes in, another area in which the True-Life Adventures excel. Though these movies do not provide traditional narrative filmmaking, they're still telling stories -- ones that may have existed for several hundreds of years and which will continue to do so. But these are stories not everyone knows. Even with all the nature documentaries that have aired on TV or been shown in cinemas, I came away from these films learning plenty and not in a "Will this be on the midterm?" way.

Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures may have some shortcomings and not all of the facts may remain unquestionable these 50-60 years later, but the fact of the matter is that they are highly entertaining and make it so easy to appreciate animal life that the benefits clearly outweigh any negatives. The filmmaking methods and narration may be dated, but as conveyed in a bonus feature, the films aspire to timelessness and more than half a century after many of them debuted, they seem to have achieved it.

Volume 3: Creatures of the Wild is bound to excite fans of some of the better-known wild animals. This two-disc set serves up a pair of films -- 1955's The African Lion and 1960's Jungle Cat -- that while deemed feature-length, barely exceed the hour mark and certainly don't wear out their welcome. They are the definite highlight of the set. It also contains a pair of two-reel shorts -- the Oscar-winning Bear Country (1953) and less inspired Olympic Elk (1952) that accompanied Disney animated classics in theaters. Though deemed extras, two halves of "Disneyland" anthology episodes round out what most will consider the "featured" content, one providing a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of African Lion (which took three years) and the other offering a True-Life-type profile of Yellowstone National Park. Supplements new and old complement the rest in a package that is sure to please anyone with fond memories of this nature documentary series and bound to make an introduction as painless as possible for the unacquainted.

"The African Lion" is a lazy king of beasts. This South American jaguar gets right up to the camera in this memorable shot from "Jungle Cat." Baby bear climbs a tree, with Mother's approval, in "Bear Country."

Disc 1

The African Lion / Running Time: 1:12:20 / Theatrical Release: September 14, 1955

Despite the title, the lion is just one of over a dozen animal species native to the central African plains that are studied here.
"The African Lion" (1955) movie poster
As you'd expect, the lazy king of beasts does secure more screentime than any of the creatures over which it rules, but this is definitely an ensemble documentary, and a highly involving one at that. Among those given treatment here are baboons, elephants (whose long life expectancy is exaggeratedly stated, but illustrated by a single-tusked old-timer), giraffes (engaging in sparring practice), temperamental rhinos, hippopotamuses (and the "beautician" birds that perch on and preen them), ostriches, a cunning leopard, slow-witted and often-targeted wildebeest, and nature's premier hunter, the cheetah. Three types of scavengers -- vultures, hyenas, and jackals -- are shown mooching off a lionesses' kill. Even those more briefly glimpsed at, like a retreating family of warthogs, make a memorable impression. One emerges with knowledge of and appreciation for the diverse species which share the heart of Africa. What will stick with you as much as the amusing moments (like playful lion cubs and elephant dust baths) are the harsh elements of nature unflinchingly depicted: dust storms, the erratic levels of essential water and food supplies, a plague of locusts, and a no-holds-barred group lion feast.

Jungle Cat / Running Time: 1:10:00 / Theatrical Release: August 10, 1960

This final True-Life Adventure would also appear to be one of the best, as we go into the South American jungle to observe the jaguar.
"Jungle Cat" (1960) movie poster
Jungle Cat is more intimate than its kin, allowing individual animal characters to be developed. Central to the cast is a pair of jaguars (one ebony), whose fighting leads to love and, not long after, two babies (one resembling each parent). As in Lion, other creatures in the area also get sufficiently documented. Among these are curious otters, strange-looking anteaters, crocodiles, flamingoes, lizards, and a number of tropical birds. Naturally, some time is spent with the jaguar family, as the cubs are introduced to bathing and hunting while their elders battle with a pirarucu (a 7-foot "burping" fish) and an equally formidable boa. The secondary personalities are equally compelling: the antics of bratty, mischievous monkeys amuse, as do the appearances of tamarins and one "idiot cousin" whose insatiable appetite for snake-tormenting leads to his demise. Then there are the sloths, who participate in a climactic sequence as suspenseful as anything scripted, sluggishly trying to escape from both an uncharacteristic fall into water and a hungry jaguar. Segments like these certainly justify the "adventure" part of the series' title.

Bear Country / Running Time: 32:50 / Theatrical Release: February 5, 1953

This Oscar-winning two-reel short charts the life of black bears from one winter to another. It explores parenting in the family dynamic: how a mother bear turns to trees for her cubs' safety, but disciplines against leisurely climbs. Also covered are hibernation, the bears' diverse human-like diet, and the mating battles that occur among adult males. The best footage indulges in the bears' recreational activities; we see them playing their version of "tag", wrestling, and (via a musical montage) scratching themselves a lot. Other inhabitants of Bear Country observed include marmots, coyotes, squirrels, and porcupines. Two of the more memorable scenes find a baby moose learning to walk and a gopher fighting off a preying bird.

The brutish "Olympic Elk" like to butt horns. The journeys of Al and Elma Milotte are the focus of "Cameras in Africa." Could you say no to feeding a tiny hungry bear like this in Yellowstone?

Disc 2

The Olympic Elk / Running Time: 26:36 / Theatrical Release: February 13, 1952

The subject of this two-reel are the elk of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. We see these deer learning to walk, climbing downhill in a herd, and braving local bears. Those, plus some colorful arctic flowers, are the nice bits. We also see the elk engaging in duels (something amusingly observed and "imitated" by marmots), athletic fights with deadlocks said to often end in death by starvation to both participants.
If that brutish behavior isn't enough to turn you off, then wait until you see how the polygamous bull males gather up wives and do battle with another (with wives as a wager) before unmelodically announcing the end of their bachelorhood.

"Cameras in Africa" / Running Time: 19:37 / Original Air Date: December 29, 1954

In this first of two "Disneyland" anthology episode excerpts, True-Life Adventures photographer Al Milotte recounts his adventures in filming The African Lion with his wife Elma. A fair amount of this merely recaps things depicted in the movie; though, then upon its initial airing, it was an extended far-in-advance preview, as Lion wouldn't open in theaters for another nine months. More interesting is the footage of Al and Elma settling into an African "rest game", showing off their stock of canned foods, and eating on the job, as this material effectively puts human faces behind the cameras. Al also reveals what happened to the trapped rhino seen in the movie. Beaver Valley, which shared the hour-long slot with this, is dropped; it appears on the True-Life Adventures, Volume 1 DVD.

"The Yellowstone Story" / Running Time: 17:20 / Original Air Date: May 1, 1957

Yellowstone, America's largest and oldest national park, gets profiled in this episode. Regular True-Life director James Algar narrates, covering the park's origins and its natural wonders. Among the latter, geysers are admired (particularly Old Faithful), while canyons and springs are also briefly seen. Eventually, we come to a bit of wildlife (buffalo, elk) and arrive at the climax/highlight: tourists being entertained in the streets by the up close and personal antics of bears who approach cars and (against park rules) get fed. This represents a bit less than half an episode, as it was paired up with Bear Country, which is mentioned but wisely not duplicated here.

Scavengers of the world, unite! A vulture, a hyena, and a jackal line up for a taste of some lion kill. The "Jungle Cat" climbs up a tree after a sloth, with speed on his side.

VIDEO and AUDIO

The introduction to this DVD mentions digital restoration work, but even if you somehow missed that, one look at these films and you would surely know that extensive efforts have been taken here. They paid off, as the prints are astonishingly clean and the two features and two theatrical shorts look brand new as presented here. The only shortcomings one can find appear to be inherent to the filming; a few shots aren't sufficiently focused, aren't perfectly steady, or look a bit grainy. Such issues are few and extremely far between.
That's pretty amazing, considering the demands of a True-Life Adventures filmmaker spending years trying to get footage in the face of challenging conditions and a necessary need to not intrude on the natural order. The work done here illustrates just how excellent DVD can allow films that are half a century old to look, with some time, money, technology, and talent. Of course, that doesn't reflect too well on the dozens of more popular live action Disney works that have come to disc via cheap and rubbish-looking transfers.

Reduced to bonus feature status, the two black and white anthology episodes -- "Cameras in Africa" and even more so "Yellowstone Story" -- are plagued by a lot of distracting print intrusions, though some of these let up as the shows progress. Interestingly, though they have common roots (as mid-'50s Disney television) and problems (dirty prints), their woes are different: "Cameras" showcases white speckles, while "Yellowstone" is marred by black marks.

Unsurprisingly, the audio comes by way of plain two-channel Mono tracks. That's faithful to the original presentations and the soundtracks remain almost completely untroubled. I did notice one tiny stretch in which Winston Hibler's narration sounded a little muffled and muddled, but this was not a huge drawback and not an incident I found repeated. The fact that the technology of the time didn't often enable usable recordings of the animals filmed definitely is disappointing, but this complaint is one that would have been voiced over 50 years ago. As such, it's nice that Roy Disney and company haven't pulled a George Lucas and decided to make these movies "better" in a revisionist way.

From Animal Kingdom in Florida, Roy Disney introduces you to Volume 3 of Walt Disney's Legacy Collection. Elma Milotte recalls her True-Life Adventure filmmaking days in a 1985 episode of the Disney Channel's "Disney Family Album." A cheetah check-up is performed in front of two Roy Disneys in one of two featurettes set at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

BONUS FEATURES

The first things which narrowly qualify as bonuses are two brief videos that automatically play at the start of Disc 1. First is a preview of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection line, which excited many a Disney fan when it turned up online a few weeks ago.
Though the "Coming Soon" disclaimer at the end seems odd since one of the DVDs foreshadowed is already in your player, the preview does also mention two upcoming volumes: The Adventures of Oswald (which will preserve the few existing shorts of Walt's lucky Rabbit whose stardom preceded Mickey Mouse's) and Destino (the Walt Disney/Salvador Dali collaboration finally completed in 2003). This promo is not accessible from the menu, but the second one is. It's a 2-minute, volume-specific introduction to the set given by Roy Disney from Disney's Animal Kingdom. He provides background information on some of the featured movies and an overview of the included bonus features.

The rest of the bonus features appear on Disc 2, which also classifies the already-reviewed TV episodes as supplemental.

"Tribute to the Milottes" (16:55) is a terrifically insightful 1985 episode of the Disney Channel series "Disney Family Album" on Al and Elma Milotte, the husband-wife documentarian team that filmed most of the True-Life Adventure movies. In then-new interview clips with Elma, she shares behind-the-scenes information on making Seal Island, In Beaver Valley, Bear Country, Prowlers of the Everglades, Nature's Strangest Creatures, and The African Lion. It reveals how Bambi inspired Walt to pursue a nature line, explains his interesting relationship with the Milottes, and serves up the happiest of three retellings of the trapped rhino story. In short, this 21-year-episode (which is narrated by Buddy Ebsen) is an excellent inclusion on two of the most integral people behind the True-Life Adventures, who both passed away four years later.

Like the other volumes, this one takes us "Backstage with Roy Disney at Disney's Animal Kingdom" and it does so in two separate pieces. "Elephants" (3:05) is the lesser one, essentially just a brief ramble amidst the elephants seen on the Kilimanjaro Safaris. "Cheetah Medical Exam" (11:35) is better. Here, a tranquilized cheetah gets his annual check-up at Conservation Station, enabling us to see some of the state-of-the-art equipment to monitor the fast cat's vitals and hear of the regimen employed to keep the cheetah healthy. The True-Life Adventures are casually referenced and excerpted in both. You'd think this would have been the perfect opportunity to mention Cheetah, the 1989 movie that Roy produced, but alas that excellent film remains eternally underexposed.

Yet another newly-filmed Roy Disney appearance comes in the patchwork half-hour featurette "Filmmakers' Journal." This True-Life Adventures album is one piece of merchandise seen in "Collectors' Corner." Oh my lucky stars - a True-Life trailer!

"Filmmakers' Journal" (29:45) provides a solid overview of the True-Life Adventures series, with a focus on this volume's films. While it sounds like there's at least some overlap with the featurettes bearing the same name on the other three True-Life Adventures compilations, on its own merits, this is a standout documentary. It is composed primarily from a mix of new and archival interview clips, with vintage photos and behind-the-scenes footage also featured. Appearing at some length are Elma Milotte (in the 1985 sit-down, though without repetition, leading me to think that "Tribute" may be a trimmed "Family Album" episode), Jungle Cat photographer Lloyd Beebe (via another 1985 interview) and, in newly filmed-retrospection, Roy Disney and Norman "Stormy" Palmer. All subjects discuss the significance of the True-Life Adventures films and the nature of their productions. Needless to say, inside information and some particularly salient memories emerge.

"Collectors' Corner" (3:05) finds Disney artist/historian Stacia Martin (also known as "that Pollyanna collector lady") displaying merchandise and discussing Disneyland attractions which were spawned by the True-Life Adventures. A simple photo gallery would have nearly been just as effective, sparing us from hearing the rhino anecdote once again and sparing Ms. Martin of having to talk so fast. But it's a nice little piece and the vintage park footage is a plus.

Finally, "Trailers and Promos" provides vintage previews for four of the six featured titles. Even in the beat-up form in which these appear, it's great to see how African Lion, Jungle Cat, and Bear Country were promoted in theaters and how "The Yellowstone Story" was showcased the week before it aired in tandem with Bear Country. With the "Play All" feature, these four previews run just shy of 10 minutes.

Disc 1's Animated Menu gets you in the mood for wild creatures in Disney True-Life Adventures. Walt Disney appears briefly amidst Disneyland models in the featurette "Collectors' Corner." He also shows up on Volume 3 at the beginning of the two "Disneyland" episodes.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The only listing on Disc 1's Main Menu beyond the films, aforementioned intro, and Set Up (a.k.a. "English subtitles on or off"), "Sneak Peeks" holds not the usual menu but an over-6-minute pitch for Disney's Animal Kingdom that talks up the thrill rides, shows, and other entertaining attractions at the company's youngest U.S. theme park.

The debut wave of Walt Disney's Legacy Collection boasts unique and clever packaging. Housed in half a black tin lined in green felt, the two discs themselves are held in a colorful circle-shaped tin of its own, which clearly resembles an old-school film reel tin (relevant for the content). Some may lament the lack of an identifying spine, the effort needed to access the discs, or the potential problems that the clear plastic top might encounter. I think the neat, collectibility-enhancing factor behind the set design trumps those concerns, although I think the cardboard overview on the back of the set ought to have been attached in a way more powerful than two insufficiently adhesive tiny globs.

Though the Legacy Collection line seems unquestionably inspired by the successful Walt Disney Treasures series and would appear to be limited in one way or another, one thing you won't find in the set is a designated number of your copy or a print run. But like the Treasures, you will find an "exclusive collectible" underneath the felt. This fold-open "Passport" provides a world map which points out the native homes to the species observed in Volume 3. There are also a couple of inserts which provide an overview of the set, preview more Legacy Collection sets to come (including the exciting, long-delayed Disneyland: Secrets, Stores & Magic), and talk up one of Animal Kingdom's new rides. The movies themselves are split into chapters but are not given chapter menus, leaving you to rely purely on the "Skip" buttons.

Everyone loves a baby jaguar. This monkey licks what he sees.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It certainly feels like a fair tradeoff that after taking nearly a decade to come to DVD, Walt's True-Life Adventures get digital treatment above and beyond what most of the studio's live action films have received. While there's some irony in the fact that the films which are today some of Disney's lesser-known works have been granted such a satisfying package, it's a good thing. As an important milestone for filmmaking and Walt Disney, as a trip down memory line, or as some of the better and more gripping nature documentaries that have been made, the True-Life Adventures are easy to appreciate on their own and all the easier to enjoy with the dazzling presentations and value-adding bonuses found here. Seeing animals in their natural environments was not a common thing fifty years ago and though it is today, that doesn't mean this footage isn't still highly compelling. Wild creatures seem more human here than any anthropomorphic animation could ever render them.

Even if you decide these films and shorts are not your cup of tea (and I expect that some will come to this conclusion), they mark an exciting launch of a new line which promises to serve folks like you and I, who care a great deal about Disney creations and all aspects of their DVD releases. Hopefully, it can house some of the many gems in the company's catalogue that have yet to surface on DVD.

Having only witnessed this one, I can't compare Volume 3: Creatures of the Wild to the sets which arrive alongside it. But on its own merits, it appears to be as worthy of a collection as any of the others. Though it might not boast as many Oscar winners, this one delivers the greatest amount of "featured presentation" content and its subjects should especially appeal to those fascinated by animals like lions, jaguars, bears, deer, elephants, monkeys, and snakes, which, for some reason, seem more popular and interesting than many other species.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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Related Reviews:
True-Life Adventures: Volume 1: Wonders of the World Volume 2: Lands of Exploration Volume 4: Nature's Mysteries

The True-Life Adventures' Theatrical Accompaniment:
Bear Country: Peter Pan (1953) | Olympic Elk: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (reissue)

The Lion King (1994) The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (1998) The Lion King 1 (2004) Brother Bear (2003)
Cheetah (1989) A Far Off Place (1993) Napoleon and Samantha (1972) The World's Greatest Athlete (1973)
Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Spin and Marty (1955-56) Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar (1967) The Wild (2006)
Bambi (1942) The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005) Dumbo (1941)

Related Products:
Walt Disney's Bear Country (Tell-a-tale book)

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Reviewed December 5, 2006.