How movies have changed our expectations of the wild

Decades of Disney have prepared us for a tamed, cleaned-up version of nature.


Yesterday, an hour before dusk, a black bear padded across my front porch and meandered up the Rocky Mountain hillside through a mix of conifers. It was a mid-sized male with a scruffy coat, disproportionately tiny eyes, and thick haunches that it lifted with every step to accommodate the long claws on its back feet. The bear paused a couple of times, once to sniff the compost pile and once to rub its scent against a tree trunk. Nothing spectacular or particularly personal happened. Yet the encounter still gave me a thrill: A 250-pound wild animal had wandered freely into and then out of my day.

Over the last century or so, as our world population has grown by 600 percent — to more than 7 billion people — wildlife has become ghettoized, cinched into increasingly limited zones. The Wilderness Act, signed into law 51 years ago this September, states that people should remain “visitors” in certain “untrammeled” U.S. landscapes. Yet even in wilderness areas, animals are managed, tracked, counted, collared and culled, lending a surrealistic, Truman Show-like quality to the pretense of isolation and free will.

Our encounters with the natural world are increasingly mediated, too, particularly by the moving image. Our experiences of nature on film have led us to expect the same from reality: We demand to see the whale spout, the Komodo dragon spit, the booby dance, the monkey swoop, the African lion make the kill — even though those moments never look quite as good as they did on TV in HD, in the 10-second “money shot” that took a cadre of cinematographers four years of frostbite and celibacy to obtain.

An Alaskan brown bear and two cubs on the Alaskan Peninsula, a more common sight in wildlife films and photography than in reality.

Such dramatic expectations of nature date back at least 75 years, when Walt Disney began to “let nature write the screenplays.” (The actual cinematic lineage goes back even further to early nature filmmakers such as Percy Smith, who pioneered time-lapse photography, and Jean Painlevé, who built the first underwater housing for a camera.) As the story goes, Walt was ambling through his animation studios during the production of Bambi when he noticed the live footage of a fawn that his animators were using as a model. Walt found the “factual” footage as enticing as the fictional version; he had been striving for the utmost realism in Bambi, which was arguably a prescient animal-rights piece about human incursions in the forest. (The film lost money when it was released in 1942, partly due to the vocal outcry of gun-owners and deer hunters steamed about the portrayal of the heartless doe-killing hunter.) By 1945, Walt had hired a couple, Edna and Alfred Milotte, to make a Disney “True-Life Adventure” film, Seal Island, in the Alaskan wilderness. It was the first non-animated Disney film, and it went on to win an Academy Award in 1949 — as did seven subsequent others in the series, including The Living Desert in 1953 and The Vanishing Prairie in 1954.

The films were technically groundbreaking, and they still look stunning today. Their voice-of-God narration, Fantasia-like music, and outdoor choreography make them the clear progenitors of every PBS, National Geographic, IMAX and Discovery Channel nature show. Early viewers in the 1940s supposedly asked Disney how he got the animals to “perform” in sync with the sound. While there were no performing animals, the filmmakers did manipulate nature, most notoriously by slinging lemmings off a Canadian cliff during the making of the film White Wilderness: It was there that the myth of lemming mass suicide was born.

Last year, a new Disney “True-Life Adventure” film was released, called Bears. It begins not in the wilds of Alaska, as the narrator suggests, but on a controlled set with a captive bear giving birth. A quick cut to the exterior of a den elides the switcheroo, and we embark on the perilous mission of a female Alaskan brown bear, dubbed Sky, who is attempting to feed and protect her two anthropomorphic cubs, a “curious” male named Scout and a drowsy “mama’s girl” named Amber. The trio must battle a “mischievous, scheming” wolf, Tikaani (the only “character” with an Inuit name) and more. Clearly, mainstream media still has a long way to go in how it portrays wildlife.

It all makes for theatrical viewing, yet could the contrast between that kind of colorful drama and real life trivialize, or even sour, our actual outdoor experiences?  Me, I’d rather keep an eye out on my porch for another chance sighting of a live bear, even if I only catch a glimpse of its anonymous haunches.

Filmmaker and writer Erin Espelie is editor in chief of Natural History magazine. She recently joined the faculty in film studies and critical media practices at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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