Galen Rowell / STILL PICTURES
Nature by design
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 so Disney has instilled an appreciation of nature in generations of media consumers. Many environmentalists and animal-rights activists credit Disney with awaking their concern for the environment.
But this appreciation has not been delivered in a value-free package. From the outset Disney’s nature films have supported the notion that the natural world’s chief value lies in the profit that industrial society can extract from it. At first this support took the form of simple paeans to the righteousness of logging, mining and urban development. Now, amidst the increasing commodification of everything from tribal myth to basmati rice, the value extracted from nature is the right to define nature. Disney covets that right and will gain it at our peril.
Not much besides hindsight distinguishes the company’s early work from its predecessors and competitors. Where nature appeared, it was in its traditional role of deadly threat, or in the form of humanoid cartoon animals.
It wasn’t until Bambi (1942) that Disney found the framework on which his later nature work would hang. Rather than living obviously human lives, wearing clothes, guiding a plough or at the helm of a steamboat, the animals in Bambi were far closer to the real thing. 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.
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 documented in lemmings was of little import to the filmmakers, nor to much of the audience. With White Wilderness, Disney demonstrated the power of the ‘mockumentary’ as a tool for shaping perceptions of wildlife. People who know nothing else about lemmings ‘know’ that lemmings march to the sea and drown themselves. The species has become symbolic of thoughtless, mass self-destruction, based on behaviour the filmmakers made up.
In the 1960s Disney’s nature work moved out of the realm of ‘documentary’ and into a genre Seton would have understood: the animal story. Here the trappings of objectivity were shed; humans moved back into center stage. The plots were formulaic. A young male wild animal is adopted by a person of soft heart. The animal grows up in a human household, until its wild energy and instincts make domestic life impossible. After the animal destroys a kitchen, flour and eggs strewn about, the stove upended and the place set ablaze, soft-heart regretfully releases the now-adult animal into a sanctioned wilderness area where it immediately finds a wife and the credits roll.
The animal stories centered on conflict with industry. In Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar, the eponymous cat wreaks inadvertent havoc in the timber mill where his owner works as a forester. In Sammy the Way-Out Seal, the star (actually a sea lion) sabotages a plan to raze a small town for corporate development. Wahb, the protagonist of King Of The Grizzlies, terrifies the hands on the ranch whose fringes he stalks. King Of The Grizzlies, incidentally, was adapted from a book by Seton.
Resource extraction is shown as an age-old part of nature. In the spring, saw-logs float down the river as cattle present their hindquarters for branding. The wild animals in these films, centaurs at the wedding, upset the natural order of resource extraction and must therefore be managed, kept in places where they won’t interfere with natural industrial cycles. Fragile human society is saved by relegating the devastating wild to its sanctuaries and the wild is happy to be segregated. Disney made this inversion of environmental politics plausible and compelling.
A third genre, typified by The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit and The Incredible Journey, presented us with animals anthropomorphized enough that they might have been played by a human repertory troupe. The ecological content of these films was often lacking, though Incredible Journey, the story of three marooned pets making their way home across the wilderness, did present an almost-paradoxical message. The animals were so thoroughly ‘people’ that wilderness resumed its traditional threatening role.
One could argue that such fictional films were no more destructive to our understanding of nature than are Aesop’s fables or Grimm’s fairy-tales. It would be hard to picture a society that imbued no human qualities to any animal in its mythology. If Disney had limited his animal movies to the obviously fanciful, his impact on our perceptions of nature would not be nearly so worthy of discussion. But Disney’s work blends seamlessly from the Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit to White Wilderness and these seemingly innocuous films must be analyzed in the context of the whole. By themselves, they’re arguably innocent frivolity. Alongside the more ‘serious’ nature work they reinforce Disney’s extension of human standards across species lines.
Millions of people saw these films. First released to theatres, many were later edited and serialized for broadcast on Disney’s long-running television show. Some were made available to schools which undermined any non-instructional intent on the part of the filmmakers. Children were shown these movies as parts of a nature curriculum and usually accepted them as factual.
Reinforcing the lessons of Disney’s nature movies were the ‘wilderness’ components of the company’s theme parks. First among these was an attraction at the first Disneyland in Anaheim, California. ‘The Jungle Cruise’ treated boat passengers to a carefully orchestrated display of ‘tropical’ foliage and mechanical fauna, grouped together with little regard for their continents of origin.
‘Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland’, a later Anaheim attraction, was based closely on the True-Life Adventures series. The Mine Train took visitors from ‘the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge’ through a disjointed series of caricatures of North American natural environments. As in the later animal movies the gateway to the ‘wilderness’ of Nature’s Wonderland was a center of resource extraction, reinforcing the notion that such industry is not only compatible with, but intrinsic to nature appreciation.
Then there’s Disney World, the gargantuan park at the headwaters of the Everglades in Florida, essentially a major city in a fragile ecosystem. A chronicle of the environmental damage brought by this resort would require volumes. Two particular Disney World features especially merit mention. One is a ‘Wilderness Lodge’ that seeks to recreate the experience of a real National Park Lodge – without the dirt and bugs and with 725 rooms and four restaurants.
There’s also the Disney Wilderness Preserve, a much-heralded (by Disney) wetland area of about 10,000 acres set aside for local wildlife which includes bald eagles, crested caracaras, wood storks and sandhill cranes. Disney boasts that wildlife occupies this reserve in rather high concentrations, unsurprising given that any nearby habitat has been destroyed by Disney-driven development. A four-mile trail through the Preserve, marked with officially-sanctioned interpretive information, allows guests to enjoy a brief glimpse of what all of Disney World used to be like and enables them to feel grateful that Disney World deigned to save this much before they slip back to the Wilderness Lodge for drinks. In the larger arena of Disney World, wildflowers are planted to create what Disney calls ‘natural roadside habitat’, presumably inhabited by flattened fauna. Hired landscapers are directed to restrict use of pesticides so as to allow ‘good bugs’ to eat ‘bad bugs’ – an application of Disney’s ordered moral universe to the anthropod phylum.
The nature attractions borrow more than concept from Disney’s nature films. They borrow pacing as well. Film editors quail at the hours of inactivity that characterize the natural world; a two-hour film may show enough vigorous activity to fill a year of an animal’s actual life. Gone are the endless hours of silence, the slow changes in sky and light, the arduous and heavy-laden progress along a steep trail, that characterize much of the true wilderness experience. Seasons cycle in less time than it takes to get to the bottom of your popcorn bag. The complex and interwoven rhythm of nature, plain to those who spend more than a few rushed days outside of cities, is lost, replaced by rhythms measured in frames per second.
Unless some filmmaker adopts Andy Warhol as a major influence, nature documentary isn’t likely to escape this limitation. But by modelling its attractions after its nature films, Disney extends this distortion of nature’s rhythms into what most take for real life. On the mine train, you can get from Arizona to Wyoming in five minutes. On the Jungle Cruise, you find predator after large predator leaping out from behind the cramped foliage. Even if you simply measure your four-mile Florida hike by the distance between interpretive signs, you’re experiencing nature that has been strapped to the procrustean bed of industrial time.
What happens when people accustomed to this industrial nature are faced with a natural environment in unenhanced form? Where seasons change at the traditional pace, flowers don’t open in time-lapse and the animals mostly hide or run away before you can see them? By comparison to nature in its disneyfied state, the simple swamp or desert valley floor will seem a flaccid, lifeless thing, its resident wildlife uninteresting and devoid of musical accompaniment, certainly of less value than the proposed shopping mall or airport. There’s no nature there: nature is bears and big snakes and rams duelling to the Anvil Chorus. Who could thus oppose a Disney-style development in which a few of the original plants would be preserved and labelled for our enjoyment?
In 1995, Disney reached an agreement with most of the land management agencies in the US federal government. Under the agreement Disney would begin to provide interpretive services for visitors to public lands. Since then Disney has provided ‘tour guide training’ to federal land managers at posh symposia in Orlando. The American Recreation Coalition (ARC) – a corporate-sponsored group to which Disney is a major donor – is pressuring Washington to actively promote commercial recreation on public lands. As a majority of US park visitors favor industrially-oriented tourism, ARC has enjoyed widespread support. Soon those seeking quietude in the back-country may find themselves hemmed in by heli-skiing sightseers, snowmobilers, powerboaters and camper vans heading for the newest Disney Wilderness Lodge and Visitor Center.
It’s ironic that those beleaguered backpackers may well have been inspired by Disney’s films. Many of us found joy in the portrayals of wilderness unfettered by obvious human presence. There is power in the images of the wild that Disney brought us, power enough to lure thousands of former grade-school kids into a gradual appreciation of the wonderful, elusive subtlety of most of nature. Even Ernest Seton was eventually redeemed by the nature he’d faked, spending decades writing relatively accurate depictions of wilderness. He never matched the commercial success he found in nature fakery, but he did help defend habitats under threat and – one hopes – he felt better for his intimacy with the real thing.
Chris Clarke is editor of the San Francisco-based environment magazine Earth Island Journal.