Between 1948 and 1960, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures shorts and features reinvented the nature documentary. The combination of breathtaking nature photography with clever direction, editing, music and narration proved to be irresistible. Director James Algar, producer Ben Sharpsteen, writer/narrator Winston Hibler and composer Oliver Wallace took the skills they honed in animation and seamlessly transferred them to nonfiction. The series won eight Oscars and proved surprisingly popular at the box office, both at home and overseas. Jungle Cat would be the final True-Life Adventure. Happily, the series goes out on a high note.
This time, the Animated Paintbrush whisks us away to South America where the jaguar prowls the Amazon rainforest. The jaguar, we’re told, has a great deal in common with our domesticated housecats. To demonstrate this, Algar shows us some footage of kitties roaming around the Disney lot. If nothing else, this proves that even in 1960, everybody was a sucker for a cat video.
After some stunning footage of the Amazon, still looking to be in pretty good shape back then, Hibler introduces our leading lady, a spotted jaguar. Because the True-Life Adventure team was always looking to graft a little romance onto the harsh realities of nature, it isn’t long before the female jaguar finds a mate: a black jaguar. Personally, I never knew the difference between a jaguar, a panther and a leopard. Now I do. I hope Walt would be happy to know that his educational films are continuing to educate all these years later.
The two cats eventually get together and have kittens. They are, of course, the most adorable little screwballs this series has seen since the baby polar bears in White Wilderness. The proud parents teach their babies to swim, to fish and to hunt. They’re too young and uncoordinated to have much luck hunting but they certainly look cute trying.
Unlike prior films like White Wilderness and The Living Desert, Jungle Cat doesn’t suffer from obviously staged sequences, charges of animal cruelty or goofy camera and editing tricks. The series has left the days of the square-dancing scorpions behind it. The film’s only potential downside is one of expectations. The series was always better off when the titles were kept somewhat vague and generalized. Jungle Cat has the same problem as The African Lion: it could use more cat.
Not that the other animals we’re introduced to aren’t interesting in their own right. There are tapirs and anteaters and monkeys and marmosets galore. As usual for this series, we’re treated to a lengthy montage of seemingly every bird the crew was able to capture on film. But by the time Algar turns the spotlight on the sloth, I was only too happy to see the jaguar come back and chase it up a tree.
In another typical move, Algar saves some of the most intense footage for last. This time it’s a battle of the apex predators as an enormous boa constrictor comes along to pick up some baby jaguar for dinner. Mom and Dad get the kittens to safety, then take the snake on themselves. Even though this is a Disney movie, the fight has a definitive conclusion and it isn’t a happy ending for one of the combatants. Indeed, there are several moments where the fight looks like it could go either way.
Jungle Cat was released to theatres in August of 1960. It did reasonably well at the box office, earning over $2 million. Nevertheless, Walt decided it was time to close shop on the True-Life Adventures. He had already begun directing his documentary resources toward television. Going forward, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color (and its various retitled successors) would be the studio’s home for educational projects, often with animated framing sequences starring a new character, Ludwig Von Drake.
But the spirit of the True-Life Adventures would live on at the studio for many years. Perri had demonstrated that it was possible to tell a completely fictional story using only animals and narration. The studio would now head in that direction. Don’t worry, animal lovers. We’ll still see a lot more dogs, cats, wolves, cougars, horses, raccoons, bears and monkeys in this column in the weeks ahead.
We also haven’t seen the last of the regular True-Life Adventure team. James Algar, Winston Hibler and Oliver Wallace will all be back, more often than not on those aforementioned animal pictures. But this is the last we’ll be hearing from producer Ben Sharpsteen. Sharpsteen had been with Walt since 1929, working as an animator, a director, a production supervisor, and establishing the studio’s in-house animation training program.
After the True-Life Adventure series ended, Sharpsteen worked for a couple more years on the TV end. In 1962, after more than thirty years with the studio, he retired and moved to Calistoga, California. In 1978, he founded the Sharpsteen Museum, dedicated not only to his career at Disney but local Calistoga history in general. He passed away December 20, 1980, and was posthumously named a Disney Legend in 1998.
The True-Life Adventures series was certainly not without its share of controversy. Even before allegations of animal cruelty were leveled at some of the films, critics questioned the techniques used and information imparted. But on balance, the work done by Algar, Hibler, Sharpsteen and their many cinematographers was groundbreaking and undeniably entertaining. These films paved the way for later, more humane nature documentaries.
Disney itself would eventually get back into the documentary business with IMAX movies like Sacred Planet and the creation of Disneynature, essentially True-Life Adventures for the 21st century. Because of the True-Life Adventures, nature films became an integral part of the Disney identity. I’d go so far as to argue that they’re a big reason why Disney+ has an entire section devoted to National Geographic programming. Even today, the True-Life Adventure legacy lives on.
VERDICT: Disney Plus