Any number of people could make a legitimate claim for being most responsible for the success of Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. Director James Algar, narrator and co-writer Winston Hibler, producer Ben Sharpsteen and composer Paul Smith all worked on every installment, both shorts and features. They established a consistent tone and style for the films that worked like a charm. The series had been successful from the get-go and nobody was in a hurry to shake things up.
But the backbone of the series was the work of the nature photographers who spent months in the wild gathering hundreds upon hundreds of feet worth of footage. Alfred and Elma Milotte had been the first to join the studio. Their work resulted in the Oscar-winning Seal Island. If the Milottes had never met Walt Disney, True-Life Adventures may never have existed at all.
The Milottes had been responsible for most of the early True-Life Adventures shorts. Six of those short subjects had won Oscars. So it was inevitable that the Milottes would eventually get a feature of their own. The husband and wife team spent three years in Africa, shooting enough footage for multiple features. Eventually, Algar and his team pared it down to a brisk 75-minute feature titled The African Lion.
The film itself is a fairly straight-forward and clear-eyed look at the African ecosystem. The King of the Jungle is front and center, positioned as the alpha predator sitting atop the food chain. It’s through the eyes of the lion that we see how other animals interact and coexist with each other on the savanna. The Milottes’ cameras capture giraffes, hippos, rhinos, baboons, elephants and lots more. None of the animals are particularly rare or unusual, even for 1955, but the Milottes manage to get a bit closer than most of their contemporaries.
The African Lion deviates ever-so slightly from the successful True-Life Adventures formula by downplaying the anthropomorphism and cornball humor of previous installments. No mating dance hoedowns in this one. In fact, this is one of the grimmest entries in the entire series. Algar and the Milottes do not shy away from the fact that the lion and other large cats like the cheetah are both hunters and carnivores. The African Lion is all about the Circle of Life and we see the end of that circle over and over again.
Perhaps the most upsetting sequence in the film comes with the discovery of a rhinoceros trapped in the mud of a drying water hole. The rhino thrashes and bellows, attracting the attention of other nearby animals. For a second, Hibler’s narration actually tricks us into thinking we’re watching a cartoon. Hibler suggests that the observing animals are considering the problem and trying to figure out a way to help. Of course they don’t but you half expect the elephant to extend a helping trunk to his pal the rhino. In the end, the rhinoceros is left to suffer what will surely be an agonizing fate.
(Don’t worry, the rhino was actually fine. After they got their footage, the crew managed to free the animal. In return, the rhino charged after the crew before going on his way. That’s gratitude for you.)
The most interesting moments in The African Lion all tend to be on the dark side. We follow a lioness dragging half a wildebeest carcass back to her young, followed close behind by scavenging jackals, hyenas and vultures. A prolonged drought brings a swarm of locusts so thick they all but block out the sky. A cheetah runs down an unfortunate gazelle. By comparison, sequences of baboons carefully selecting which grass to eat can’t help but seem a little bland.
Of all the True-Life Adventures covered in this column so far, The African Lion suffers the most from the limitations of the technology of its time. The Milottes don’t break any new ground in terms of filmmaking technique. They get as close to their subjects as their telephoto lens will allow. As documentarians, their greatest strengths are really just patience and persistence. Today, advances in technology have allowed filmmakers to capture even more extraordinary footage in shows like Planet Earth. But even by 1955 standards, The African Lion is good but not great.
Contemporary critics and audiences seemed to agree. For the first time, a True-Life Adventure feature was not nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. (That year’s winner was the Helen Keller documentary The Unconquered. Its director, Nancy Hamilton, was the first woman to win the award. That has nothing to do with The African Lion but I thought it was an interesting bit of trivia.) Even so, it made over $2 million at the box office, which remains impressive for a nature documentary.
The African Lion would remain Al and Elma Milotte’s most ambitious work for Disney. After their three years in Africa, the Milottes spent two years in Australia, resulting in the short film, Nature’s Strangest Creatures. In 1959, they retired from filmmaking and turned their attention to publishing nature books. Elma and Al passed away within five days of each other in 1989 but their legacy lives on. True-Life Adventures continue to attract new audiences on Disney+ and Disneynature, the spiritual successor to True-Life Adventures, continues their work today. So if anyone can be said to be responsible for the long-term success of the True-Life Adventures, I would argue it’s Alfred and Elma Milotte.
VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus, albeit a relatively minor one.