Disney Plus-Or-Minus: White Wilderness

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's White Wilderness

In 1957, Walt Disney tried mixing up the tried-and-true True-Life Adventures formula with Perri. Labeled a True-Life Fantasy, Perri was the first explicitly fictional entry in the popular series. But Disney had been playing fast and loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking from the beginning. Even Oscar winners like The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie made no distinction between footage caught in the wild and scenes staged in the controlled environment of the soundstage. If you knew what you were looking at, you could tell the difference. But to most audiences, the movies were so entertaining that nobody seemed to notice or care.

White Wilderness would be the third and last True-Life Adventure to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Purportedly shot in the Arctic over the course of three years, the movie won rave reviews. More than one contemporary critic singled it out as Walt’s best nature film to date. And on the surface, it is indeed a beautifully shot, highly entertaining picture. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were more than a little overzealous in their use of movie trickery this time. They crossed a line that ends up tainting the entire project.

Things start promisingly enough with Winston Hibler’s narration and our old pal, the Animated Paintbrush, whisking us back to the Ice Age. Hibler gives a little backstory about some of the animals we won’t be seeing in this film, like woolly mammoths and mastodons. We next tour the Arctic landscape, accompanied by majestic images of glaciers, avalanches and frozen seas. It’s some of the most stunning nature photography in the entire series.

Then we start to meet the animals and they’re frankly delightful. Walruses, beluga whales, seals, they’re all here and they’re all fantastic. Best of all are the polar bears, especially Mama Bear and her cubs. Cute baby animal footage is the stock-in-trade of the entire True-Life Adventures series. But of all the adorable baby animals we’ve seen so far, there are none cuter than polar bear cubs and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. We don’t really learn much about them but who cares? Just look at those little goofballs!

Later on, more baby animals turn up in an attempt to give the polar bears a run for their money. There are the goldeneye ducklings who are hatched in trees. They leave the nest before they’re able to fly, so they tumble out of the tree and bounce when they hit the ground. There are some cute little wolf cubs taught how to howl by Papa Wolf. They’re all fun but bouncing ducks and playful wolves are still no match for polar bear cubs in the cuteness department.

By the end of the movie, we’ve been introduced to a wide cross-section of animal life. Majestic birds like the osprey. Great herd animals like the caribou. Cute but fierce predators like the ermine. Less cute and even fiercer predators like the wolverine. The footage is top-notch. The animals are varied and interesting. Even the Oscar-nominated music by Oliver Wallace is less overbearing than some of the other True-Life Adventures. All signs point to this being a high point of the entire series.

But then, right smack in the middle of all this, there’s the lemmings.

Hibler informs us that the little hamster-like lemming breeds even faster than the rabbit. Mama Lemming can welcome two or three big litters each season. Once they’re old enough to fend for themselves, the lemmings emerge from their underground burrows to forage for food. Sure enough, there are lemmings as far as the eye can see, getting underfoot and gobbling up every bit of vegetation in sight.

Once the lemming population becomes unsustainable, Hibler tells us they follow a primal instinct to migrate to the sea. Off they go, swarming the countryside on their little lemming feet, until they reach the inevitable end of the line. Confronted with the frigid Arctic Sea, the lemmings march on, plummeting over the edge of the cliff and into the waters below. They swim until their little lemming bodies can swim no more. And so, the lemming population ebbs back, the result of an instinctual kind of mass suicide. The ways of nature are mysterious indeed.

As it turns out, almost everything we’ve seen and heard in this sequence is complete crap. It’s probably worth pointing out again that screenwriter and narrator Winston Hibler and director James Algar were not men of science. They were men of cartoons. They knew how to tell a story and the myth of lemmings committing suicide is a good one. Not true, though. The idea is so widespread that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game felt compelled to address it on their website.

But worse than the misinformation is the way the sequence was filmed. In 1982, a Canadian news show called The Fifth Estate ran an episode called Cruel Camera. Journalist Bob McKeown investigated reports of animal cruelty in Hollywood. He sat down with Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who had worked on several True-Life Adventures, to discuss staged sequences in the series and in particular, White Wilderness.

The lemming sequence was not shot on location in the Arctic. It was filmed in Calgary with lemmings bought from local Inuit kids for about a quarter a pop. These particular lemmings weren’t even migratory. To make it look like they were migrating, the filmmakers built a set, stuck the lemmings on a turntable and just cut it together over and over. And when it came time for them to jump into the “ocean” (actually the Bow River), they just pushed ‘em in.

In Cruel Camera, Roy admits they went too far that time. However, he is also careful to make clear that he personally didn’t work on White Wilderness and that he doesn’t believe Walt knew anything about what the crew was up to. Strictly speaking, the crew didn’t break any laws or even guidelines. Oversight of animals in film and television was a whole lot looser in the 1950s than it is now. Even if it wasn’t, the film’s status as a “documentary” probably would have allowed them to sidestep any pesky regulations. Still, it’s a black mark on the film that leaves a really bad taste in your mouth.

The entire Cruel Camera documentary is available on YouTube and it’s worth checking out. In addition to Roy’s interview, you get to see Ronnie Hawkins talk about some of the insanity he witnessed on the set of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Marlin Perkins from Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom get super-defensive when asked about staged sequences on his show.

The lemming business is truly unfortunate because it mars what is otherwise a terrific film. I suspect that lingering concern about the lemming issue was behind the studio’s decision to yank White Wilderness off of Disney+ shortly after its launch. I can’t imagine they had pre-existing contracts with other streamers for the True-Life Adventures and all of the other features are available. Better to just ward off any potential controversy before it starts.

I think it’s important to try and watch movies within the context of their times and not judge them based on contemporary values and ideals. But a film like White Wilderness makes that hard. Audiences in 1958 didn’t know that a lot of this stuff was staged. Even if they did figure it out, they certainly didn’t know the extent to which the filmmakers went. White Wilderness has a lot going for it and if you can somehow overlook its dark history, it’s well worth watching. But once you know the behind-the-scenes story, it’s almost impossible to look at it the same way.

VERDICT: Like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the story behind the making of the film turns an easy Disney Plus into an unfortunate Disney Minus.

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