Our next guest post for the Forgotten Disney series takes us into the realm of Disney’s True-Life Adventures…and a notorious one at that, 1958’s “White Wilderness.” Our reviewer for today is Andy Staats.
Andy hails from the Chicagoland area and runs the site Andy Watches Movies. He started the site in March of 2012 as a way to keep track of all the movies he watches throughout the year with the goal to tackle 300 in 2012. Andy’s father passed away in January of this year so his writing is meant to be the type of conversation he and his dad would have about films. His favorite films include “Goodfellas,” “The Shining,” and “The Big Lebowski” (he and his wife even named their poodle Lebowski AKA The Dude). Aside from film, his hobbies include video games, bicycling, and music.
White Wilderness, part of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures series, is a wildlife documentary about the Arctic.
Wanting to branch out from animation, Walt Disney decided to try his hand in documentaries with True-Life Adventures in 1948 with the short Seal Island. In 1958, White Wilderness was released. The documentary showcases many typical animals of the region including walruses, polar bears, wolves, reindeer, musk ox, and wolverines. Oh, and who could forget lemmings? The film is heavily narrated by Winston Hibler in a style very reminiscent of the 50s and also familiar to Disney. Stories are forced with animal families playing but there are some scenes showcasing nature’s crueler side. The narration starts near the North Pole and slowly winds southward into Canada, all the while tracking the interesting lives of the animals of the region.
White Wilderness has gained some notoriety for itself for depicting lemming mass suicide. Many people still believe that lemmings do, in fact, commit suicide by jumping off cliffs. This is entirely untrue. The film crew manipulated the entire section for the sake of the film and perpetuated the legend of the suicidal lemming. This segment alone, however, makes White Wilderness worth watching.
Aware of this underhanded documentarian tactic, I had my eyes peeled for other instances of photographers coercing nature to their advantage and I did come across a few minor things that felt forced. Of particular curiosity is this shot of an ermine with its foot pushing off of what appears to be glass, almost like it’s in a zoo enclosure.
For its part, White Wilderness is actually a fairly entertaining documentary, especially considering it is over 50 years old. The camera techniques used were revolutionary and the style and manner of the film holds up incredibly well, even with competition from TV series like Planet Earth. Even the sometimes corny narration doesn’t feel overly dated but the target audience is clearly a younger age group.
An Academy Award winner for best documentary, White Wilderness is a film I would recommend to audiences of all ages. The only caveat would be that children should not use the film as source material for a school project due to the dubious nature of the lemming segment. Disney has released its True-Life Adventures series on DVD and for entertainment purposes, the documentaries still shine after all these years.