Disney Film History: The Living Desert

The Living Desert

The Living Desert

During the late 1940s, when Disney had regained some money, thanks to his “Package Films” as well as government projects, Walt himself took on an interest in documentaries. In 1947 he contracted Alfred and Elma Milotte to shoot footage of wildlife in Alaska. Over 100,000 feet of film later, Walt had enough footage to make several movies, but what he found more interesting than humans, were seals from the Pribilof Islands. The footage became the 30-minute short film Seal Island. The short film started something much bigger, which was the True Life Adventure series. Documentaries of wildlife that would be showcased on the Disneyland television show and in the theaters. The first of the full theatrical releases was The Living Desert.

Filmed in Arizona for $300,000, the first feature length True Life Adventures film was inspired by a 10 minute short film of a battle between a tarantula and a wasp. Walt Disney saw the piece as a way to tell a story the way they saw it and for the truth of nature to tell the story itself.

Lizards of the Arizona Desert

Lizards of the Arizona Desert

On an important sidenote, Disney had begun his own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution, which allowed Disney the freedom to release things without the middle man. RKO, the former distributor dating back to Snow White, had been firmly against the True Life Adventure shorts and were certainly not going to allow a feature film to be released under their name. With RKO out of the way, Disney was able to release the film on November 10th, 1953.

The film, narrated and co-written by Winston Hibler, was an instant hit, garnering $4 million at the box office and earning Disney an Academy Award for best Documentary of the year. However, the success of the film has it’s positive and negative reviews. With The Living Desert and the shorts preceding it in the True Live Adventure series, Walt Disney had pioneered a new type of film, the wildlife documentary. Up until then, the focus of documentaries was on war or other human stories, but Disney found a new niche with nature.

Scorpion Hoedown

Scorpion Hoedown

On the flipside, Disney underwent some criticism for the exploitation of animals and nature to tell a somewhat fictional story. Within the film, two scorpions are shown during mating season and the joke was made that they were doing a hoedown. The joke was fit into the feature so that the audience never lost interest. Several jokes fit in and were conjured by using camera tricks and background music, but many said that if Disney was out to make a true nature film, he would have left out the jokes to let the stories tell themselves.

Regardless on this scrutiny, The Living Desert can’t be denied as a brilliant new venture for Walt Disney, the Disney product, and the documentary genre. It has inspired film makers to dig into this genre, and even inspired the Disney company to come back to the True Life Adventure idea with Disney Nature, the film division focusing only on nature documentaries. I can’t also help to think that this was a precursor to the future Disney’s Animal Kingdom as well.

What are your thoughts on The Living Desert? Seen it or not? What are your thoughts on nature documentaries overall?

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: The Sword and the Rose
Next Film: Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue

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Posted on February 5, 2014, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve never seen any of these nature documentaries and honestly don’t intend to.

  1. Pingback: The Whole Picture: The Vanishing Prairie | Modern Mouse Radio

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  3. Pingback: Disney Film History: The Sword and the Rose | Modern Mouse Radio

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