Chris Clarke on how Disney's treatment of animals has altered our sense of the wild and cleared the way for environmental decline.
As the close of the twentieth century approaches and our world becomes more and more urban our knowledge of nature is increasingly second-hand. Those of us in cities, whose non-human neighbors tend toward rats, pigeons and dandelions, are dependent on the media for our understanding of the natural world – or at least that part of it not adapted to urban life. It is from movies, television and packaged tourism that we derive our sense of nature.
For the last half century, it has been Walt Disney and his corporate estate that have provided that sense. In doing ...view middle of the document...
They weren’t humans; that role was reserved for the film’s villain. They were, however, people. So that the death of Bambi’s mother at the hands of the Hunter is clearly murder.
Bambi was the prototype for Disney’s later nature work, most notably the ‘True-Life Adventures’, a series of what were loosely referred to as documentaries, set in habitats from the Sonoran Desert to the Canadian tundra.
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Animal Stars Rather than go through the arduous and costly process of filming actual wildlife, captive animals were coached to follow scripts. The results documented the intentions of the filmmakers far more than they did the behaviour of the animal stars. Yet from Disney’s first such work, 1948’s Seal Island, viewers readily accepted the films as authentic portrayals of nature.
The distortions in Disney’s nature films were part of a grand North American literary and artistic tradition. Painters of the Hudson River School took liberties with such trivia as proportion and scale. Writers like Ernest Thompson Seton enthralled hundreds of thousands of readers with stories such as those in Wild Animals I Have Known. The tales were exciting, went into great detail about the lives of wild animals and coincided only occasionally with reality. By 1910 Seton and his cohorts had been thoroughly discredited as the ‘nature fakers’. Naturalist John Burroughs referred to Seton’s magnum opus in the Atlantic Monthly as Wild Animals I Alone Have Known.
Perhaps with an eye to the nature fakers’ ignominy, Disney admitted the subjectivity in his True-Life Adventures series from the outset, claiming that his purpose was not to educate but to entertain. Critics blasted the films’ ecological inaccuracies anyway. Disney referred to animals as ‘courageous’, ‘jolly’, ‘lonely’, ‘treacherous’ and other terms best suited to a human ethical framework. Animal mothers were praised or condemned based on how closely their parental care standards coincided with the idealized model of an American family from the 1950s. In Bear Country the writers created an entity never before seen in nature: a bonded pair of bear parents in which Mama became a sort of ‘den-wife’ while Papa went out to bring home the bacon. Presumably the spectacle of Papa deciding the little cubs were a suitable meal, as would likely happen in the wild, wouldn’t have sold well.
Probably the most egregious misrepresentation of True Life occurred in White Wilderness (1958). The film crew brought a handful of lemmings from Manitoba to Alberta, placed them atop a large, snow-covered turntable, and filmed their movements from various angles. Later the crew brought the rodents to a precipice above a river and herded them off, faithfully recording the lemmings’ fatal leap.
In the film the lemmings were portrayed as engaged in a suicidal migration marching en masse to drown in the sea, or at least what passes for sea in landlocked Alberta. The fact that no such behaviour had ever been...