Disney Film History: Jungle Cat

jungle cat 1

More than any animated film, or more than any Western film starring Fess Parker, I can sum up the 1950s as the decade that Disney experimented with documentaries. The True Life Adventure series had been Disney’s “little project that could”. The crew for True Life Adventures was small and had continued to be the same for the majority of it’s run. It made the leap at the beginning of the decade from short subject film making to full length feature film. Many of the films were praised for their content by critics. So now, at the end of the decade, it’s fitting to wrap up the True Life Adventure series with one last film before we head into the 1960s.

The 7th and last True Life Adventure film was Jungle Cat, a film focusing on jaguars in Brazil. The film starts like all of the others, with an animated paintbrush. The film gives a quick history of cats before focusing in on the main subject. The film also includes snakes, sloths, monkeys, crocodiles, and otters. (Otters are one of my favorite animals ever! Where was a complete Otter movie in this series Disney?)

Jungle Cat 2

It’s wide release came in August of 1960, but it’s official release is December 16th, 1959 as it was played in a few theaters so it would be eligible for awards season. At it’s release, the film was praised by critics and this film was generally liked by audiences as well. Despite troubles with it’s production (Amazon weather destroyed some film before it made it back to the studio.) Disney and the True Life Adventure crew had very little trouble putting this film together and making sure it would be a hit with audiences.

So why is this the last film in the True Life Adventure series? If they were making money on low budget documentaries, wouldn’t they want to continue making them? That’s a big mystery. There are several possible answers to this. The most popular answer is that Walt himself didn’t see the need to continue these films in theaters, but instead use the footage for television as he was working to stay on tv. He felt the nature documentary was suited for 30 minute or one hour episodes of television. He was right as Disney did continue to be successful with showing nature on television. Beyond Disney, nature has become a big subject for television, especially during the expansion into cable in the 1980s when we started to see channels like Discovery completely embrace the nature documentary. That’s practically all they show. That has also expanded into travel channels, and even National Geographic bringing it’s popular magazine to the small screen.

jungle cat 3

The other probable answer to why the True Life Adventure films died with Jungle Cat despite it’s success has to do with the previous film in the series, White Wilderness. If you recall from my previous article on the subject, White Wilderness was later found to include “phony” images. Polar bears were shot in a studio instead in real snow, and lemmings were forced into killing themselves to sell the audience on rumors of lemmings following each other, even to death. The controversy of the film didn’t make it to the public until decades later, and Walt may not have even known about the film’s use of fake material, but if he did I would suspect that Jungle Cat was our last film as he wanted know part of cinematography that was portrayed as real but wasn’t. He had no intention of fooling the audience, and he especially didn’t want his subjects on film being killed just to make money.

Whatever way you want to spin it, the fact is the True Life Adventure series was the birth of the nature documentary and it’s legacy lives on in film and television. Disney did eventually go back to the nature documentary as something they would like to put in theaters when they created the permanent division of Disney titled Disney Nature. Those films will eventually be covered, but we still have decades of material to go before getting there. In the meantime, we will have to look to the 1960s as the death of the nature documentary and the beginning of something new. What that is, I guess we will see as we venture into the oncoming films of the decade!

Josh Taylor
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Next film: Toby Tyler

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Posted on January 13, 2016, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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