Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rascal

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Rascal

Animals had been a huge part of Walt Disney’s aesthetic even before he’d started making live-action films. The studio temporarily became a veritable zoo during the production of films like Dumbo and Bambi as real elephants and deer were brought in for the animators to study. And if there was anything Walt liked more than animal pictures, it was the honey-glazed, Norman Rockwell-style nostalgia for smalltown America in the early years of the twentieth century.

Even though Walt had been dead for a few years, the studio that bore his name was still very much guided by the interests and tastes of its founder. So while a movie like Rascal feels out of step with the prevailing trends of late 1969, it makes perfect sense as a Disney movie. The problem is that it doesn’t exactly feel like a Walt Disney movie. Instead, it feels like a faded carbon copy of earlier successes.

Walt surely would have related to the subtitle of the book that provided Rascal’s source material. Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir Of A Better Era was published in 1963 and it went on to win a shelf-load of children’s book awards including the prestigious Newbery Honor. Walt may well have been familiar with the book himself. He’d based his 1948 live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart on an earlier North book. Everything about Rascal fell directly into Walt’s wheelhouse.

Former animator and True-Life Adventures veteran James Algar produced Rascal. Norman Tokar, most recently responsible for The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, handled the directing duties. The screenplay was written by Harold Swanton, whose only other Disney credit was on the Wonderful World Of Color two-parter Willie And The Yank (released theatrically overseas as Mosby’s Marauders).

Like so many other live-action Disney features, Rascal takes place in the bucolic American Midwest (Wisconsin this time) in a 1918 seemingly untouched by outside forces like World War I. That’s not the case with the book. The movie cuts out an absent older brother, away fighting in the Great War, as well as a sequence where young Sterling contracts the Spanish flu. The presence of a Stanley Steamer is just about the only thing left that gives the setting any specificity.

Former Lost In Space star and future Dr. Demento mainstay (thanks to Barnes & Barnes’ all-time great novelty song “Fish Heads”) Bill Mumy stars as young Sterling North. Walter Pidgeon, who had previously appeared in Tokar’s boy-and-his-dog drama Big Red, narrates as the older Sterling. It’s the beginning of summer vacation and the North family is still recovering from the recent death of Sterling’s mother. His older sister, Theo (Pamela Toll), has been taking care of things for their frequently absent father (Steve Forrest), whose work takes him on the road from state to state.

On the last day of school, Mr. North picks up his son and takes him out into the country for a surprise. A lynx has wandered down from Canada and made its home in the Wisconsin woods. The lynx surprises a family of raccoons, who manage to get away but leave the youngest behind. The young raccoon wouldn’t last a day with a lynx on the hunt, so Sterling brings the little fella home, naming him Rascal.

The Norths’ neighbors are less than thrilled by the new pet. Garth Shadwick is afraid Rascal will spook his prize horse, while Cy Jenkins warns that his old coonhound will chase him off the second he looks at his corn patch sidewise. But all the animals seem to get along just fine and Sterling vows he’ll “de-varmint” Rascal to ensure Cy’s corn remains untouched.

By the way, the great character actors Henry Jones and John Fiedler made their live-action Disney debuts here as Garth and Cy. Fiedler had joined the Disney family earlier, providing the voice of Piglet in Winnie The Pooh And The Blustery Day, a role he’d stick with right up until his death in 2005. Both Jones and Fiedler will be back in this column.

Theo has to return to her own job in Chicago, so she lines up interviews for a potential live-in housekeeper. Mr. North agrees to meet with Theo’s favorite, the no-nonsense Mrs. Slatterfield (Elsa Lanchester, making her fourth and final appearance in this column, although she’d go on to appear in the Wonderful World Of Disney two-parter My Dog, The Thief). But after realizing that both he and Sterling crave a bit of nonsense, Mr. North dismisses her and decides they can take care of themselves.

Mr. North soon returns to his life on the road, leaving Sterling on his own to have the best summer of his life with Rascal and his dog, Wowzer. He builds a canoe in the middle of the living room. His concerned schoolteacher, Miss Whalen (Bettye Ackerman), stops by with Reverend Thurman (Jonathan Daly) to see how he’s getting along. Fortunately, Mr. North makes it home himself, just in time to get everybody drunk on homemade cider. Most of all, Sterling writes copious letters to his sister, assuring her that Rascal’s just fine and pretending that Mrs. Slatterfield actually got the job.

Of course, the summer isn’t all cider and canoes. Rascal gets loose in the general store and trashes the place, turning everyone in town against Sterling and his raccoon. The local constable (Robert Emhardt) issues a citation for keeping an unlicensed varmint or something and threatens to hold Sterling responsible for damages unless he keeps Rascal caged up.

Sterling is just about to set Rascal free when Mr. North butts in. Turns out that Garth has made a not-entirely-friendly wager with local auto enthusiast Walt Dabbett (Richard Erdman) that his horse-and-buggy can beat Walt’s Stanley Steamer in a fair race. A lot of folks, including the constable, have bet good money on Garth to win. But things aren’t looking too promising until the Norths arrive with Rascal. Garth takes the raccoon as a passenger and that’s somehow enough to spur the horse on to victory. Now everybody loves Rascal again. Well, everybody that matters, anyway.

Everything goes back to normal until Theo comes home for Thanksgiving with her new beau, Norman (Steve Carlson). She hasn’t even made it to the house when she learns that Mrs. Slatterfield hasn’t been working for the family at all. Enraged, Theo abandons Norman and heads home. She’s appalled by the mess and finally has it out with her irresponsible father, reminding him in no uncertain terms that he still has a son to raise and no one to help.

That same night, Rascal hears the mating call of a female raccoon through the window. He predictably goes nuts and tries to escape through Theo’s room, waking her and everyone else. When Sterling goes to grab him, Rascal bites his finger. Sterling’s more sad and surprised than seriously hurt and realizes that now it really is time to let Rascal go be the varmint he always was. At the same time, Theo’s heart-to-heart has the desired effect and Mr. North decides it’s time to grow up and be a real father for a change.

Sterling sets out in his homemade canoe to return Rascal to his old stomping grounds. (By the way, Wisconsin experienced then-record snowfall during the Thanksgiving of 1918, not the balmy Indian summer weather Sterling paddles through here.) Rascal quickly locates his lady racoon (or a lady racoon, anyway) and they go off to make little Rascals. But before Sterling leaves, that lynx spots the happy couple and attacks! Sterling starts back to help but Rascal and Mrs. Rascal don’t need it. They outwit the lynx, sending him tumbling into the water. Looks like they’re gonna be just fine.

Rascal quad poster

It’s interesting that Rascal was Disney’s very next movie after Smith! Both films are quiet, low-key affairs that amble along at their own pace, seemingly unconcerned with sending the audience to sleep. They also both have acoustic, folksy theme songs by Bobby Russell. Unfortunately, while Russell’s “Summer Sweet” does indeed include the lyric “You Rascal You”, it only makes you wish you were listening to the Louis Armstrong song of that name instead.

Of the two, Rascal is certainly the superior film, although, considering what a waste Smith! ended up being, that is the faintest of praise. Sterling North’s book sounds pretty good and I think an interesting movie could be made from it. Steve Forrest’s character remains frustratingly two-dimensional until the end. But after Theo lets him have it, you can see the complexities that a richer film could dig into. A suddenly single parent mourning the loss of his wife in his own way, who very much loves his son but has never really been there for him? That’s an interesting character.

Forrest does the best he can with what he has to work with, although he’s more comfortable as the glad-handing dreamer than the wounded, irresponsible father. This would be Forrest’s only Disney feature, although he did make a couple of Disney TV appearances. Television became Forrest’s bread and butter in the 1970s, starring on the show S.W.A.T. and appearing in loads of guest shots, TV-movies and miniseries. He’s a charismatic screen presence. I’m sorry we won’t be seeing him back in this column.

Bill Mumy turns in a nicely restrained performance as Sterling, probably more nuanced than someone like Tommy Kirk would have given had this been made a decade or so earlier. But to my eyes anyway, he seems a little old for the part. In the book, Sterling would have been around 11 or 12. Mumy was 15 when Rascal was released, maybe 14 when the movie was shot. Not necessarily a huge difference. But to this Gen-Xer, when Sterling is left alone, my first thought was, “What’s the big deal? I was left on my own all the time at that age.”

Mumy seems like the sort of kid who would have been right at home on the Disney lot, especially in earlier movies like Old Yeller and Big Red. But this will also be Bill Mumy’s only appearance in this column. He’d earlier appeared in a couple of TV projects, Sammy, The Way-Out Seal and For The Love Of Willadean. But by 1969, I guess the studio was going all in on Kurt Russell as their resident juvenile lead and didn’t want to split their attention. Besides, Mumy was already fairly established thanks to growing up on TV in shows like The Twilight Zone and Lost In Space. Disney always preferred their young stars home-grown.

My biggest problem with Rascal is that there just isn’t much to it. For some folks, this might not be a deal-breaker. It’s pleasant and unchallenging and, at a brisk 85 minutes, is never in danger of overstaying its welcome. But it’s never a good sign when you have to really think to remind yourself what happened in a movie you just finished watching. When I sat down to write this column, all I could remember was the canoe in the living room, Rascal wreaking havoc on the general store and something about a horse racing a car. And I wasn’t too sure about that last one. For all I knew, my brain was mashing up The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit and The Love Bug. The perils of watching too many Disney movies, I guess.

Rascal was released on June 11, 1969, making this the last movie in this column to come out before I was born. Ouch. It didn’t have a huge impact, although it was the first movie ever reviewed by Gene Siskel in the pages of the Chicago Tribune (he didn’t like it). But a later adaptation of Sterling North’s novel would have a major effect on Japan, of all places.

In 1977, an anime adaptation of North’s book, Araiguma Rasukaru, began airing in Japan. The series was wildly popular. As a result, Japanese kids began begging their parents for racoons, an animal indigenous to North America. But just like Sterling, these kids eventually realized that racoons make terrible pets and they released them into the wild. So many racoons were imported that they eventually became a real nuisance, destroying crops and cultural landmarks. The government moved to ban the import of racoons but it was too late. Japan had been infested with an army of Rascals.

Back home, Rascal has its champions but it remains fairly obscure. It isn’t currently available on Disney+ and the studio has never done much with it on disc. Unless someone decides to remake it, I don’t foresee a huge resurgence of interest in Rascal any time soon. There are just way too many other places to get your coming-of-age-with-a-cute-animal fix these days.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Gnome-Mobile

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Gnome-Mobile

Ask anybody to start listing off live-action Disney movies and odds are The Gnome-Mobile is not going to be the first, second or even tenth movie they mention. Hell, even if you try to help them out by having them list off live-action Disney movies about magical little people, The Gnome-Mobile will come in at least second after Darby O’Gill. As of this writing, The Gnome-Mobile has not been released on Blu-ray and it’s not available on Disney+. It doesn’t seem to have much of a cult following. Just over 1,000 people have even marked it as “seen” on Letterboxd, making it slightly less popular than Johnny Tremain. But taken on its own merits, The Gnome-Mobile is a fun little movie that, for my money, is a lot more enjoyable than some of Disney’s other late ‘60s output.

Even though The Gnome-Mobile seems like a natural and even obvious subject for a Disney picture, it still has a somewhat unusual history. The movie is based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, of all people. Sinclair was a noted left-wing political activist and the author of such books as The Jungle and Oil! (later the basis for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood).

Sinclair had a rocky history with the movie industry. He had approved of and produced the 1914 adaptation of The Jungle (a silent film now lost) and he got a big payday from Victor Fleming’s 1932 version of his book The Wet Parade. But in 1933, he was hired by movie mogul William Fox to write a hagiography of Fox Film Corporation. The resulting book, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox, was a critical look at Fox’s attempt to create and control a monopoly. Needless to say, this did not endear him to Hollywood executives.

In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor of California as a Democrat with a Socialist-leaning platform. Every studio in town opposed him, churning out anti-Sinclair propaganda to defeat him (you may remember this being touched upon in David Fincher’s Mank). Sinclair practically went broke losing that election, so afterward he went out on a speaking tour to raise some money. The tour took him through Redwood National Park in northern California, which inspired him to write The Gnomobile, one of his only books for children.

After The Gnomobile was published in 1936, Sinclair’s friend, Rob Wagner (whose magazine, Script, had been one of Sinclair’s only defenders during his gubernatorial campaign), introduced Sinclair to Walt Disney, another former contributor to Script. Wagner and Sinclair thought The Gnomobile would make for a good cartoon. Walt thought it was better suited to live-action and promised to keep it in mind if he ever started making live-action pictures.

Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney discuss The Gnome-Mobile

Over the years, Sinclair held him to that promise, periodically checking in with Walt. By the mid-60s, a note of fatalism crept into Sinclair’s correspondence. He was getting up there in years and still hoped to see The Gnomobile turned into a movie before he died. Apparently, this worked. Walt assigned the newly-retitled The Gnome-Mobile to his A-team: director Robert Stevenson, producer James Algar and screenwriter Ellis Kadison.

(I don’t imagine Upton Sinclair and Walt Disney saw eye to eye on much of anything, especially politics, so I was very curious about how they got together. In particular, I need to thank author Ariel S. Winter, whose fascinating blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie provided a great deal of insight into their history.)

“A-team” might be a bit generous in describing Kadison who certainly had an interesting career but only worked with Disney on this one project. Like a lot of Disney writers, Kadison worked extensively in television. He’d also written, produced and directed some odd-looking, lower-budget family films like The Cat, Git!, and You’ve Got To Be Smart, which is probably what brought him to Disney’s attention. The Gnome-Mobile came toward the end of Kadison’s Hollywood career. His last major credit was writing several episodes of Sid and Marty Krofft’s psychedelic nightmare The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

Triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan (last seen around these parts as a friend of Those Calloways) stars as San Francisco-based lumber tycoon D.J. Mulrooney. He’s on his way to an important business meeting in Seattle but not before he stops at the airport in his vintage Rolls Royce to pick up his grandkids, Elizabeth and Rodney (played by those Mary Poppins kids Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber…the credits actually introduce them as “those Mary Poppins kids” to remind you that you already liked one movie these kids were in).

The Mulrooneys stop for a picnic lunch among some giant redwoods. Elizabeth goes exploring and meets a young gnome named Jasper (Tom Lowell, Canoe from That Darn Cat!). Jasper has a big problem and his closest friends, a bunch of talking, animatronic forest animals, haven’t been much help. It seems that Jasper’s grandfather, Knobby (played by Brennan without his false teeth), is fading away. He’s lost the will to live since he’s become convinced that he and Jasper are the last of the gnomes.

Elizabeth convinces D.J. to give Jasper and Knobby a ride in the jauntin’ car, now dubbed the Gnome-Mobile according to the Sherman Brothers’ song, to search for other gnomes in other forests. Knobby agrees to go along with it despite his mistrust of “doo-deans” (that’s gnomish for big people), especially the loggers he refers to as “Mulrooney’s Marauders”. D.J. tries to keep his identity a secret but once the cat’s out of the bag, Knobby goes ballistic. He wants nothing to do with Mulrooney and D.J. decides he doesn’t want anything to do with the short-tempered, ingrateful gnome, either. He plans to drop them off and be rid of them at first light.

Unfortunately, Knobby’s tirade caught the attention of Horatio Quaxton (Sean McClory, Kurt Russell’s drunken dad in Follow Me, Boys!). Quaxton runs a traveling two-bit sideshow called Quaxton’s Academy of Freaks (unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of the Academy, otherwise this would likely shoot to the top of my list of favorite weirdo Disney movies). He manages to sneak into the Mulrooneys’ hotel room and kidnap the basketful of gnomes. Once the crime is discovered, D.J. calls his right-hand man, Mr. Yarby (Richard Deacon, last heard as the voice of the survival manual in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.), and orders him to get their security team on the case immediately.

As far as Yarby’s concerned, this is just a sure sign that D.J. is cracking up. He arranges to have his boss locked up in a mental institution. Rodney and Elizabeth borrow the Gnome-Mobile, rescue their grandfather and figure out where Quaxton is hiding by interrogating a pair of his disgruntled employees (played by instantly recognizable character actors Frank Cady and Ellen Corby). By the time they get to Quaxton’s cabin, Knobby has already made his escape but they’re still in time to rescue Jasper.

Meanwhile, Yarby is still on their trail accompanied by a pair of male nurses (one of whom is played by Norm Grabowski from the Merlin Jones saga). They spot the Rolls while filling up with gas and immediately take off after them, yanking the hose out of the fuel pump in the process. D.J. leads them on a cross-country chase that ends up with Yarby’s car slowly coming to pieces bit by bit.

Ultimately, they get rid of their pursuers and are reunited with Knobby, who has found a gnome colony led by the thousand-year-old Rufus (who else but Ed Wynn). Rufus assures Jasper that there are plenty of other gnomes and a surplus of unattached gnome women. Jasper is immediately attracted to a shy beauty named Violet (Cami Sebring, ex-wife of celebrity hairstylist and soon-to-be Manson Family victim Jay Sebring). But in gnomish tradition, it’s the girls who chase the eligible boy. Jasper is dunked into a sudsy bath and whoever is able to catch him and hang on to him for seven seconds wins. In the end, Violet prevails over her more aggressive rivals. She and Jasper get married and D.J. donates 50,000 acres of forestland to the gnomes.

Theatrical re-release poster for The Gnome-Mobile

It seems clear to me that The Gnome-Mobile has been overshadowed by the not-dissimilar Darby O’Gill And The Little People. It’s easy to see why. Darby O’Gill has a lot going for it that The Gnome-Mobile has not, including richer characters and young stars like Sean Connery and Janet Munro. That movie makes room for drama, suspense and romance. This one is basically just a knockabout comedy. But it’s a funny, entertaining knockabout comedy and that goes a long way.

Sinclair was inspired to write his book in the first place by the magnificent redwoods and some echoes of his conservationist message still ring through the movie. But even though it looks briefly like the film is going to be Disney’s version of The Lorax, it never quite gets there. Sure, D.J. is an obscenely rich industrialist who made his fortune by deforesting huge swaths of land but he’s not a bad guy. He seems to feel that he’s made enough money and that it’s important to protect some land for future generations. Leave it to Disney to find away to make a movie that’s simultaneously pro-capitalism and pro-environmentalism.

At any rate, it’s not as though The Gnome-Mobile is heavy with messaging of any kind. The movie exists to showcase some fun special effects, engaging comic performances and goofy slapstick. I mean, what can you really say about a movie where a fuel pump starts spewing gas everywhere and the hapless gas station attendant tries to stop it with his hands and face? You can’t take any of this too seriously. As long as you go with the flow, you’ll have a good time.

We do have to say goodbye to a couple of familiar faces with this movie. Ed Wynn, who has been a presence in this column since Alice In Wonderland, died in 1966 at the age of 79. The Gnome-Mobile, his final film, was released posthumously about a year after his death. Wynn could be a lot but Disney usually had a pretty good sense of where and when to deploy his unique energy. Rufus is a good role for him to go out on. I’ll actually miss seeing him pop up in these movies.

The Gnome-Mobile also marks the end of Matthew Garber’s brief film career. He appeared in three Disney films beginning with The Three Lives Of Thomasina, then evidently decided acting wasn’t for him and went back to school. About ten years later, he contracted hepatitis in India. He died of pancreatitis back home in London in 1977 at the age of 21. In 2004, he and his on-screen sister, Karen Dotrice, were named Disney Legends. Dotrice will eventually find her way back into this column but it’ll be awhile.

When The Gnome-Mobile was released on July 12, 1967, critics weren’t exactly blown away but a lot of them found good things to say about it. It did OK at the box office, well enough to warrant a theatrical re-release in 1976. But it’s a movie that’s left a very small cultural footprint. You don’t hear it talked about much at all, either fondly or disdainfully. As usual, that’s kind of on Disney. They’re the ones deciding what to release on Blu-ray and promote on their streaming service. They could easily start introducing The Gnome-Mobile to a new audience if they felt like it. It’s a fun little movie that deserves another chance.

VERDICT: Another Disney Plus that’s not on Disney+.  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Incredible Journey

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Incredible Journey

Even though Walt Disney was no longer in the True-Life Adventures business, he’d continued working with the wildlife photography specialists at Cangary Ltd. Together, they’d made such films as Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North, Big Red and The Legend Of Lobo. But while the team at Cangary consistently brought their A-game, capturing some spectacular animal footage for each movie, the folks at Disney weren’t living up to their end of the bargain. The films looked great but the stories built around the footage left a lot to be desired.

With The Incredible Journey, Walt finally found a story that could live up to the work done at Cangary. Longtime True-Life Adventures steward James Algar produced and adapted the screenplay from the novel by Sheila Burnford. The premise can be boiled down to a single sentence. Three pets who think they’ve been abandoned make a cross-country journey back home. It’s the kind of simple, internationally relatable story that is guaranteed a spot on your local news whenever anything remotely like it happens in real life.

While most of the crew (including Algar and nature photographers Jack Couffer and Lloyd Beebe) were Disney veterans, director Fletcher Markle was new to the studio. Markle was a Canadian writer, director and occasional actor who started out in radio, creating the influential anthology series Studio One. When Studio One went to television, Markle went with it. Throughout the 1950s, he worked on some of the best shows from the golden age of television, including Studio One, the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller and Front Row Center.

There isn’t much in Markle’s career to suggest that he’d even be interested in The Incredible Journey, much less a good fit for the project. He only directed four features altogether, mostly crime dramas like Jigsaw. The Incredible Journey was his only Disney project and his last credit as director. Afterward, he stayed in Canada where he produced and hosted the long-running interview series Telescope. Telescope debuted in 1963, the same year The Incredible Journey was released. One of Markle’s first guests was none other than Walt Disney.

Our three heroes are Luath, a young Labrador Retriever, Bodger, an older Bull Terrier, and Tao, a Siamese cat. Although they belong to the Hunter family, we first meet them in the rustic bachelor home of John Longridge (Émile Genest, still making up for his mistreatment of Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North). Longridge is an old friend of Professor John Hunter (John Drainie) and godfather to his daughter. When Hunter receives an offer to become a visiting fellow at Oxford, Longridge volunteers to look after the animals.

Longridge has plans to leave on a two-week hunting trip, so he leaves a two-page note with instructions for his housekeeper (Beth Amos). But the second page is accidentally destroyed, giving her the impression that he was bringing the animals with him. After Longridge leaves, Luath assumes they’ve been left to fend for themselves, so he decides to return home to the Hunters with Bodger and Tao following close behind.

As long as the focus remains on the three animals, The Incredible Journey is on solid ground. Either the animals were incredibly well-trained or the units assigned to cover them were incredibly patient. Most likely, it was some combination of the two. The bond between these animals feels genuine. When Tao and Luath defend the weak and exhausted Bodger from a mother bear, it’s genuinely stirring. When Tao is forced to leap across a beaver dam to cross a river, it actually feels like the dogs are cheering him on from the other side. The animals, the editing and the music all work together to sell these moments.

The animals also encounter a handful of people along the way. A friendly hermit (Tommy Tweed) seems like he’s going to be helpful, sharing his stew with the trio. But when they don’t sit at the table like proper houseguests, he goes around and eats their portions. Tao almost drowns and is nursed back to health by a young girl (Syme Jago) and her family. And when Luath gets a face full of porcupine quills, a passing hunter (Robert Christie) removes them and gives the dogs food and shelter for the night.

The Incredible Journey only stumbles in its second half, after Longridge returns home to discover the animals missing. Longridge is understandably worried and he makes an effort to track them down. But none of this is very interesting since we already know exactly where they are. And in the end, his search leads nowhere and has no impact. The animals find their way home on their own, just like we knew they would. It’s even harder to care when he breaks the news to the Hunters. At this point, we have nothing invested in the family and everything invested in their pets. Jumping back into their lives is just a waste of time.

Most of the human actors in The Incredible Journey are not household names, unless your household is particularly into the history of Canadian broadcasting. John Drainie, who appears as Professor Hunter, was once called “the greatest radio actor in the world” by no less an authority than Orson Welles. Tommy Tweed and Robert Christie were also radio fixtures on CBC. To Americans, the most famous performer would have been Rex Allen, returning to narrator duties after The Legend Of Lobo. Fortunately, the Sons of the Pioneers decided to sit this one out. No musical interludes to interrupt the narrative flow this time around.

Although there aren’t any original songs, The Incredible Journey did mark the end of a significant musical era. Longtime Disney composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the 1930s, died just two months prior to The Incredible Journey’s release. Over the years, he had composed music for countless short subjects, animated and live-action features and documentaries, winning an Oscar for his work on Dumbo. With Wallace’s passing, the torch was officially passed to the next generation of Disney composers.

When The Incredible Journey was released in November 1963, it made a respectable amount at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it outperformed other recent Disney animal movies like Savage Sam. It also never entirely faded from memory, thanks to re-releases and TV broadcasts. Twenty years later, the studio produced a remake. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey made some significant changes to the original, most obviously giving the animals the voices of Michael J. Fox, Sally Field and Don Ameche. They also changed their names and I can certainly understand why. Luath, Tao and Bodger are some of the most awkward pet names I’ve ever heard. Homeward Bound did very well, generating a sequel in 1996. This column will get to those movies in due course.

All these years later, The Incredible Journey remains one of Disney’s best animal adventures. It has the heart and emotion that was missing from the earlier adventures of Nikki and Lobo. It seems that to make a truly humane animal picture, all they had to do was get rid of most of the humans.

VERDICT: Disney Plus  

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Legend Of Lobo

Theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Legend Of Lobo

Big Red was released in June of 1962, about a year after Greyfriars Bobby. Besides the adventures of the little Skye Terrier, 1961 also brought us Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North (and One Hundred And One Dalmatians, for that matter). Perhaps fearing that his animal pictures were getting into a bit of a rut, Walt decided to do something different than just another dog movie. His next picture, released in November of 1962, would be a wolf movie. So maybe not all that different.

The Legend Of Lobo was another production from the former True-Life Adventures team led by producer/writer James Algar. Algar cowrote the script with Dwight Hauser (father of cult star Wings Hauser) from a story by Ernest Thompson Seton, a wildlife writer and one of the founding pioneers of the Boy Scouts of America. Dwight Hauser had worked on several documentary shorts for the studio, including the Oscar-winning Ama Girls (part of the People & Places companion series).

Jack Couffer, whose work as field producer and cinematographer had enlivened such films as Secrets Of Life and Nikki, shot the film with Lloyd Beebe, another long-time True-Life Adventure contributor. The editor, Norman Palmer, had also worked on True-Life Adventures dating back to Beaver Valley in 1950. Curiously, The Legend Of Lobo has no credited director. Perhaps the entire team felt they’d all contributed equally. Maybe it was an attempt to save some money on union fees. Whatever the reason, it’s an unusual omission.

The Legend Of Lobo distinguishes itself from previous animal pictures like Perri and Nikki primarily through its narration. Like Perri, the film has no spoken dialogue. But instead of the folksy narration of Winston Hibler, The Legend Of Lobo features a musical voiceover from Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers had previously appeared alongside Roy Rogers in Melody Time, performing “Blue Shadows On The Trail” and “Pecos Bill”, although most of the members of that incarnation of the group had since moved on, replaced by new Sons of the Pioneers.

Rex Allen was never a Son of the Pioneers but he was cut from the same cloth as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. He was a late addition to the Singing Cowboy subgenre, making his film debut with The Arizona Cowboy in 1950. Westerns were on their way out by the 1950s, or at least transitioning over to television, but Allen still managed to become a box-office draw. In 1956, he landed his first Disney gig, narrating the Oscar-nominated short Cow Dog. This started a long association with the studio. In 1961, he narrated the animated short The Saga Of Windwagon Smith. A little later, he’d provide the voice of Father for the Carousel of Progress attraction that debuted at the New York World’s Fair before moving to Disneyland. We’ll be hearing from Rex Allen again in this column.

Allen was also a talented songwriter but he didn’t write The Legend Of Lobo song that recurs throughout the film. That job went to Walt’s new favorite songwriters, Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. The Sherman Brothers had been kept extremely busy since joining the studio in 1961, cranking out tunes for everything from The Parent Trap and Moon Pilot to Disney’s upcoming World’s Fair attractions (including “It’s A Small World”). Allen also performed the Shermans’ “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for the Carousel of Progress. “The Legend Of Lobo” is not one of their most memorable numbers. The only reason it gets stuck in your head is that it pops up so frequently.

Narratively, The Legend Of Lobo hews closely to the template established by Perri. We first meet Lobo as a young cub, the independent and headstrong son of El Feroz, mightiest of all wolves. While El Feroz is out hunting, a cougar discovers the wolves’ den. The cougar is ready to pounce when she’s unexpectedly shot by some passing cattlemen. The humans don’t find the den but the wolves decide it’s time to move on anyway.

As the wolf family hits the trail, L’il Lobo allows his curiosity to separate him from the rest of the group. He messes around with a tortoise and an armadillo before getting trapped by a rattlesnake. Fortunately, Lobo’s parents have been looking for him. They hear his plaintive howls and come to the rescue just in the nick of time. Most things in this movie happen just in the nick of time.

Lobo grows up and starts hunting with his family. But El Feroz has set his sights on the cattle being driven through the territory. It isn’t long before the cattlemen begin hunting down the wolfpack. And since this is a Disney movie, Lobo’s parents are soon killed, leaving Lobo in search of a new pack.

The cattlemen, like the other humans in the film, have no dialogue and aren’t credited. But if you look closely, you might recognize them as Walter Pidgeon and Émile Genest, reteamed after their appearances in Big Red. It wouldn’t surprise me if they shot all their footage in a day during a break in production on the earlier film.

Lobo finds a mate and becomes leader of the new pack, continuing to prey on cattle. The cattlemen respond by placing “Wanted” posters all over, offering a reward for the capture or killing of “the wolf known as Lobo”. There are no pictures on the posters, so these raise all sorts of questions. How do they know Lobo’s name? Without a picture, how are people meant to know they’ve got the right wolf? “Excuse me, you wouldn’t happen to be Lobo by any chance?” “Nope, my name’s Steve. Lobo lives two dens down.” “Sorry, my mistake!”

At any rate, a hunter eventually turns up and tracks Lobo and Mrs. Lobo back to their den, an abandoned cliff-dwelling accessible by a tree-bridge. The hunter manages to trap Mrs. Lobo but Lobo rounds up the pack to create a cattle stampede. In the chaos that follows, Lobo rescues his mate. But recognizing that the area has become too dangerous, Lobo decides it’s time to move on and leads the pack to pastures new.

As usual, The Legend Of Lobo is a handsome looking film. Couffer and Beebe capture some nice wildlife photography, even if it lacks the wow factor of earlier True-Life Adventures. Couffer would eventually return to Disney to produce a much better movie about wolves, the underrated 1983 drama Never Cry Wolf. But for now, he seems content to just film wolves being wolves.

Hyperbolic title aside, Lobo doesn’t seem like a particularly extraordinary wolf. The Shermans’ song works overtime to sell us on Lobo’s mythic stature among wolves. But we don’t get to see any of the legendary feats that earned him his reputation. On the one hand, that’s fine. Nobody’s going to bring their kids to a movie with multiple sequences of wolves slaughtering cattle. But it also makes you wonder why they decided to film this particular story in the first place. Sure, the wolves are just trying to get along but you can understand why the cattlemen are trying to kill them. And since movies like this don’t deal in moral ambiguities, the wolves are portrayed as the good guys and the humans are the bad guys.

Wolves are beautiful, majestic animals but they’re also apex predators. It’s a whole lot easier to make a movie about a sympathetic squirrel or a sympathetic dog than it is to make one about a sympathetic wolf. The Legend Of Lobo works about as well as it can under the circumstances but there’s still a strain between how the story is told and what we’re actually seeing. Between the tonal whiplash, the ordinariness of the animals’ behavior and the repetitious song, this short feature (it clocks in at barely over an hour) feels about three hours long.

The Legend Of Lobo didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, Algar and Couffer remained committed to the idea of making narrative feature films with animals and as few humans as possible. Their next project would hit theaters in 1963. And this time, they’d make things a lot easier on themselves by focusing on three domestic house pets instead of squirrels or wolves.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Ten Who Dared

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Ten Who Dared

Part of the appeal of the Disney brand lies in its familiarity. These films are part of our cultural DNA. You don’t even need to have seen something like Pollyanna to have a pretty good idea what it’s about. But every so often, this column runs into a movie I know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes these obscurities turn out to be hidden gems like Secrets Of Life. And sometimes, you get Ten Who Dared.

Based on the journal of geologist and former Union Army Major John Wesley Powell, Ten Who Dared recounts the picturesque story of the first exploration down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter behind a number of other live-action features including such historical pictures as The Great Locomotive Chase, wrote the screenplay. William Beaudine, who had come to the studio through the TV division, was given his second big-screen Disney assignment after Westward Ho, The Wagons!

Producer James Algar, who had recently wrapped up the long-running True-Life Adventures series, led a film crew to Arizona to shoot background footage. He was accompanied by legendary river runner Otis “Dock” Marston, who Walt hired as a technical advisor. They captured some terrific footage of the area, which is just about the only good thing one can say about the film.

John Beal stars as Major Powell, the one-handed leader of the expedition. In real life, Powell lost most of his right arm during the Civil War but unless I’m missing something, Movie Powell only appears to be short a hand. This wasn’t Beal’s first Disney gig. Years earlier, he had provided the narration for the live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart. It would, however, be his last. After Ten Who Dared, Beal worked primarily in television, including a stint on Dark Shadows and the acclaimed PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles.

Beal received second billing after an actor who will become a familiar face in this column. Brian Keith had been trying for years to breakthrough as a leading man and never quite making it. He’d starred in some low-budget westerns and action films like Chicago Confidential and Desert Hell. He’d also headlined a couple of TV shows, notably the short-lived cult favorite The Westerner created by Sam Peckinpah. His first assignment for Disney, a guest spot on the Elfego Baca miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, led to a lengthy association with the studio. We’ll be seeing a lot more from Brian Keith in this column.

Watkin and Beaudine introduce Powell and his nine other darers in one of the most ham-fisted ways imaginable. At the beginning of the film, a reporter approaches Powell as he prepares to launch his boats. Powell establishes his bona fides, the date and setting, and whatever other exposition necessary to understand the premise. As Powell begins to drift away, the reporter asks who the other members of his crew are. “Ask ‘em yourself,” Powell yells. So he does, going down the bank and shouting his questions to each man as they float past. This happens nine times. It’s one of the most awkward and unnecessarily prolonged introductory scenes in movie history.

For the record, Powell’s fellow adventurers include several other notable character actors. James Drury, most recently seen in Pollyanna, appears as Powell’s brother, Walter, who can’t seem to leave the Civil War behind him. David Stollery, Spin & Marty’s Marty, is Andy Hall, the youngest member of the expedition who smuggles an adorable puppy on board his boat. David Frankham, who will soon be back in this column as the voice of Sgt. Tibbs in One Hundred And One Dalmatians, is English adventurer Frank Goodman. Stan Jones, a songwriter and occasional actor who had appeared on Spin & Marty and in The Great Locomotive Chase, plays Seneca Howland. And beloved cowboy stars R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Dan Sheridan round out the cast.

It doesn’t take long for the men to start squabbling amongst themselves. After the crew discovers Andy’s puppy, they order him to pull an Old Yeller and shoot the poor thing. Only Major Powell’s last-minute change-of-heart spares the dog’s life. Frank Goodman pointlessly taunts alcoholic “Missouri” Hawkins (L.Q. Jones) into having a drink with him, immediately resulting in disaster when a fight breaks out and they lose one of their boats. And Walter Powell finds out that George Bradley (Ben Johnson) was a “Johnny Reb” and starts plotting to kill him. You’d think Major Powell would have done a better job prescreening the candidates for this job.

Whenever the men aren’t actively trying to kill each other, they find time to gather around the campfire for a singalong. This happens more often than you might think. There are no fewer than three original songs, written by Lawrence Edward Watkin and Stan Jones, sprinkled throughout the movie. Toby Tyler didn’t have that many songs and it takes place in a circus. Evidently explorers in the 1860s really loved to sing.

Eventually supplies run low and a mutiny begins to percolate. Bill Dunn convinces a handful of men to abandon the river and hike out of the canyon to the nearest settlement. Powell remains convinced that the river is their best option, despite the potential danger. The group splits up and Dunn’s party encounters some Indians who suspect them of being responsible for the murder of some of their own. Fortunately, Dunn is able to talk their way out of danger and the Indians allow them to continue on their way.

Meanwhile, Powell and his remaining daredevils run the river. Sure enough, they hit some treacherous rapids but they’re able to navigate them without too much difficulty. The river calms down and the remaining six who dared celebrate the end of their long journey.

At this point, a narrator chimes in to acknowledge this accomplishment over footage of the present-day historical marker commemorating the expedition. As for Bill Dunn, we find out that his fate remained a mystery until a few years later. Turns out those Indians weren’t as forgiving as they appeared. Dunn’s men met with a bad end, stalked across the desert and dying in a hail of arrows. In other words, there was a much more interesting story here that the filmmakers chose not to tell us for whatever reason. Thanks for nothing, Walt.

For much of its running time, Ten Who Dared resembles a glorified orientation film that you might see at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Algar and his second-unit team did a nice job capturing footage of the canyon itself. Unfortunately, most of it is relegated to background imagery in some spectacularly unconvincing blue-screen shots. When a movie about river running fails to deliver even one exciting river running sequence, you’ve got a problem.

Watkin and Beaudine are a lot more interested in geographic formations and mapmaking than in the men making the journey. When they do delve into their personalities, the conflicts are dealt with in such a perfunctory matter that it’s virtually impossible to care about their outcome. One second, Walter Powell is taking a shot at George Bradley. The next, it’s all water under the bridge.

These are all good actors, so it’s really Watkin’s script and Beaudine’s flat direction at fault. Brian Keith seems to be having fun. During one fight scene, he sits off to the sidelines muttering commentary like an Old West Popeye. But he’ll be much better utilized in future Disney projects. John Beal, on the other hand, is a bland and uninspiring leader. It’s hard to imagine why any of these guys would follow him on this trip. Even his own brother seems like he’s just barely tolerating him.

Ten Who Dared was pretty close to the end of the line for both William Beaudine and Lawrence Edward Watkin. The prolific Beaudine would continue to work in television for the next decade on such shows as The Green Hornet and Lassie but this would be his last feature for a major studio. Beaudine would ignominiously conclude his feature film career with the ultra-cheap double feature Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy The Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. Watkin, who had been with the studio since Treasure Island in 1950, would also move into TV. Later in the 1960s, he’d be commissioned by the studio to write a definitive biography of Walt Disney. The book was never published and he’d only write one more Disney feature, 1972’s The Biscuit Eater, before his death in 1981.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Ten Who Dared is not currently available to watch on Disney+. Nor is it available on Blu-ray. The Disney Movie Club has it as a DVD exclusive but you’d have to be a serious Disney completist to want it in your collection. The folks at Disney don’t always make the right call about what movies to bring to home video. There are certainly plenty of titles in the vault that deserve a higher profile. Ten Who Dared is not one of them. Some movies are just better off forgotten.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Jungle Cat

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Jungle Cat

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

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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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Secrets Of Life

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Secrets Of Life

Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure features were not in the business of playing coy. When you sit down to watch The Living Desert or The Vanishing Prairie or The African Lion, the title alone gives you a pretty good idea what to expect. If anything, Disney was criticized for simplifying things too much, reducing complex behaviors to cute, anthropomorphized routines. But Secrets Of Life is a grand, mysterious title that tells you almost nothing. The poster is even less helpful. This movie could be about anything.

As usual, Walt knew what he was doing. The True-Life Adventure movies had been surprisingly popular but they mostly focused on easily recognizable animals. Secrets Of Life takes a different approach that borders on the experimental. This time, director James Algar sets his cameras on plant life, insects (primarily bees), and fish.

If you think that sounds like kind of a hodgepodge of unrelated subjects, you’re not wrong. Algar does his best to transition smoothly from one topic to the next, relying on the Animated Paintbrush that has traditionally been used to open each feature. We see a lot more of the A.P. this time and with good reason. It’s a quick and easy way to segue from one thing to the next.

But Algar also expands his cinematic toolbox this time out, utilizing time-lapse photography, macro photography and underwater cameras more than ever. He even switches to CinemaScope for the grand finale (more on that in a second). As a result, this is one of the most visually spectacular True-Life Adventures. The time-lapse sequences of plant growth and blooming flowers are beautiful and genuinely interesting. Algar lets these images speak for themselves, reducing the role of Winston Hibler’s folksy narrator. Honestly, Algar may have overestimated how compelling that footage actually is. By the end of the sequence, even the most hardcore gardener may find their attention starting to wander.

We next get up close and personal with bees and ants, thanks in part to the macro-photography of Robert H. Crandall. Crandall had previously worked on the memorable spider-vs-wasp sequence in The Living Desert. There isn’t anything quite that dramatic in Secrets Of Life but the footage is still remarkably intimate. Even with modern advances in camera technology, Crandall’s work still holds up today.

The underwater sequences probably could have provided the basis for an entire True-Life Adventure of their own. Both the short subjects and the features covered creatures of the land and sky extensively but rarely went aquatic. Even when the series did go to the ocean for the Oscar-winning short subject Water Birds, the cameras were pointed up, not down. But Algar finds plenty of fascinating subjects in the water, including the alien-looking anglerfish and the diving bell spider.

There are plenty of possible reasons why Disney never gave sea creatures their own True-Life Adventure spotlight. Maybe shooting an entire feature underwater would have been too expensive or technically challenging. Maybe Walt didn’t think fish were relatable enough to attract general audiences. It’s even possible that Walt didn’t think he could compete with the groundbreaking work of Jacques Cousteau, whose 1956 documentary The Silent World won the Oscar. Whatever the reason, the lack of an underwater True-Life Adventure feature feels like a missed opportunity.

Having covered plants, insects and sea creatures, Secrets Of Life wraps things up with…volcanoes. Why? I guess because when you’ve got breathtaking, CinemaScope footage of active, erupting volcanoes, you’ve gotta use it somewhere. And don’t get me wrong, this stuff does indeed look fantastic. Hibler tries his best to tie the footage to the rest of the picture, intoning about the earth’s cycle of life, reinventing itself in fire and so on and so forth. But really this is just a big fireworks show included for the sole purpose of making the audience go, “Ooh!”

Despite the movie’s lack of cohesion, Secrets Of Life is one of the better True-Life Adventures. The photography is top-notch and the variety of plant and animal life we’re introduced to is genuinely interesting. Algar picked his subjects wisely, providing unusual facts and information. Of all the True-Life Adventure features covered in this column so far, Secrets Of Life is probably the most educational. I think most viewers would learn at least a little something new from this.

But it’s also the entry in the series that feels the most like school. Hibler’s narration is a little drier than usual and the moments of comic relief are less frequent. As long as you’re interested in the subject at hand, the movie remains compelling. But if your interest starts to flag, and at some point, it certainly will, the movie becomes a bit of a slog.

Still, with a running time of only 70 minutes, it never turns into an interminable slog. If you find yourself getting bored with a segment, just wait for a few minutes. It’ll soon be over and you’ll be on to something new. Secrets Of Life can feel a bit like a clip show made up from leftover scraps of footage that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. If that is indeed the secret of Secrets Of Life, Algar and Disney made the right call. The footage was too good to waste.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The African Lion

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The African Lion

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.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Vanishing Prairie

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Vanishing Prairie

With the release of Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, Walt and Roy Disney were almost free of their obligation to former distributor RKO. They still owed them one animated feature, which would end up being Music Land, a re-edited remix of segments from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. But now, the Disneys were free to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

After the surprise success of the first True-Life Adventure feature, it makes sense that Disney would want to get another one in theaters as soon as possible. And so The Vanishing Prairie became the second release from the fledgling Buena Vista Distribution Company, a mere nine months after the release of The Living Desert.

It isn’t surprising that Walt was able to get The Vanishing Prairie in theatres so quickly. True-Life Adventures had started out as a series of short subjects. Several of these shorts were actively in production when The Living Desert was released, with titles like Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Story and Cat Family. Now that the Disneys were responsible for their own distribution, features made more economic sense than shorts since they could charge theaters a higher rate for them. So Walt directed James Algar to combine several of the in-progress short subjects into a single feature focusing on the wildlife of the American Prairie.

As you can probably tell from the title, The Vanishing Prairie turns back the clock to focus on animals who once roamed freely in abundance but are now in danger of disappearing. This is a fairly forward-thinking position for a documentary in 1954. The idea of wildlife conservation had been around since the turn of the century. Some of the animals concerned in those earliest efforts, including the bison and whooping crane, are featured in the film. But the first federal protection act wouldn’t be enacted until 1966. In ’54, the idea that a species could simply vanish off the face of the Earth hadn’t quite sunk in for most folks.

James Algar established a winning formula with his direction of the True-Life Adventure shorts and he doesn’t deviate much from it here. If you see something cute or funny and want to see it again, don’t worry. Algar’s got you covered with plenty of additional shots of ducks slipping on ice and baby mountain lions playing. He’s more than happy to show it again and again and again.

But The Vanishing Prairie doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life. We see the mother of those adorable kittens stalk and kill a deer. Although the actual attack is kept off-camera, we do see her drag the carcass back, feed on it with her young and bury the remains for later. This ain’t Bambi, kids.

Some of the footage proved too graphic for 1954 audiences. A shot of a buffalo birthing a calf caused the film to be censored and even banned outright in some cities. To their credit, I don’t believe Disney ever cut the scene themselves. The uncut version is currently available on Disney+.

The footage in The Living Desert had primarily been the work of two men, N. Paul Kenworthy Jr. and Robert Crandall. The Vanishing Prairie utilizes a large team of nature photographers. The footage they were able to capture is absolutely remarkable by 1950s standards. The best of it holds up even today.

Tom McHugh and his team traveled to Montana to film the buffalo. Draped in a buffalo skin, McHugh was able to position himself right in the middle of the herd. Husband-and-wife team Dick and “Brownie” Borden shot some beautiful slow-motion sequences of geese in flight. In arguably the film’s most memorable sequence, Lloyd Beebe and James R. Simon follow a mountain lion as it attempts to track a fawn, getting startlingly close without ever actually finding it.

Kenworthy also returned, creating a cut-away prairie dog burrow to track the animals’ movements underground. Once again, Disney took some heat for including staged sequences like these. Animals enter and exit the burrows on the surface and the camera follows right along, seeming to plunge beneath the earth. Editor Lloyd Richardson does an extraordinary job making this look seamless. But obviously what we’re seeing is impossible. The above-ground footage can’t possibly have been shot at the same time and place as the below-ground footage. In “documentary” terms, this fails as an objective and accurate document of events. But dramatically, it works like gangbusters.

Of course, this was 1954 and not all elements of the film have aged well. Winston Hibler’s introductory narration praises the “Red Man” and his relationship to nature, coming to understand the world in “his primitive way”. Later on, Hibler claims that Native Americans patterned their dances off the mating dances of the grouse. Composer Paul J. Smith lays on some stereotypical Indian music in case you can’t see the similarity. Now, did some tribes actually get inspiration from the grouse for their dances? Possibly, I guess. But without any concrete proof to back up this assertion, the sequence just comes across as, “Hey, look at the funny birds!”

The condescending tone continues when it comes to gender roles. Another sequence shows male and female birds trading off the duties of going out to find food and warming the eggs in the nest. That’s fairly progressive…until the male bird accidentally carries an egg out of the nest and Hibler pipes up to remind us that dads are dumb when it comes to woman’s work. Gotta love the domestic humor of the 1950s.

Fortunately, these are minor moments in a film where the focus remains on the wildlife. Algar, Hibler and cowriter Ted Sears don’t bludgeon you over the head with their conservationist message but it’s definitely present. Hibler never once utters the word “endangered” but nearly every species we meet is described as “vanishing”. The narration includes at least one disparaging reference to “Man, the Invader”. This is clearly understood to refer to white settlers, not the Native Americans who had found a balance with nature.

Theatrical re-release poster for a double feature of The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie

Any doubts about the commercial viability of True-Life Adventure features were wiped out by The Vanishing Prairie. On its initial release, The Living Desert had been paired with Ben And Me, an animated featurette about Benjamin Franklin and his best friend and assistant, a mouse named Amos. Skeptics might argue that The Living Desert’s success had been helped by the prospect of a brand-new Disney cartoon. But The Vanishing Prairie was released with Willie The Operatic Whale, the Nelson Eddy segment from Make Mine Music. Not to diminish the popularity of Nelson Eddy but it’s safe to assume that audiences were not primarily drawn to theaters by an 8-year-old cartoon.

The Vanishing Prairie netted Walt Disney his second consecutive Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It raked in close to two million dollars at the box office. Not at all bad for a picture that was budgeted at less than $400,000. Like The Living Desert before it, The Vanishing Prairie remained popular over the years. In 1971, both films were re-released theatrically as a double feature. The True-Life Adventure features were here to stay. We’ll see a bunch more of them in the weeks ahead.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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