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DVD Reviews


Posted May 30, 2007


Walt Disney's "True-Life Adventures" On DVD


William Kallay

Somewhere in our childhood minds, we can probably playback 16mm reels of Walt Disney’s “True-Life Adventures.” Those scratched prints featuring animals of many wild kingdoms were, for many of us, our first glimpse into the world of nature. If we weren’t kids in the time these were released in theatres, we probably caught one or a few of these in classrooms on those special “movie days.” With tinny mono sound blasting from a 16mm projector in the back of the classroom, these Disney films were a welcome break from the occasionally monotonous school day.

Long before Discovery Channel took us to the farthest reaches of the planet, Disney produced a number of theatrical films meant to educate and entertain us about the life and death struggles of the animal kingdom. Now these fascinating films, both feature-length and short, are available on an excellent DVD collection. The series spans four (4) individual packages, each containing two discs.

The transfer of each one of these films is exquisite. They’ve been digitally cleaned and “restored.” I’m not sure if the original 16mm film elements were restored, but the digital versions appear very clean and natural. There is softness to the picture that is indicative of 16mm, but it’s not overly soft and looks better than any print you may have seen in a classroom environment. No scratches and no tinny sound here! The digital restoration gives these films a natural film-look, as it should. The images are colorful without being overbearing. The detail of heat rising from the hot African plain, for instance, in “The African Lion” (Disc #3-“Creatures Of The Wild”), is clearly seen on a television monitor. I don’t believe these films have ever looked this good.

The Dolby Digital soundtrack, presented in mono, is very clear, and most of the films are presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (though the second disc of  “Nature’s Mysteries” [Volume 4], shows that a short segment of "Secrets Of Life" was shot in CinemaScope.)

This DVD series is very extensive. I recommend that you explore each of these discs. I will highlight certain features I enjoyed. There’s not a single bad disc in the bunch. These discs will provide children with hours of entertainment. These are recommended for children 9 and older, as some of the sequences may upset younger children. Keep in mind that most of the action in which animals are hunted or killed is mostly subdued and it’s never shown for graphic effect.

Each disc begins with an introduction by Roy E. Disney. This is basically a preview for upcoming DVDs that are a part of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. Mr. Disney then goes into short intros for the “True-Life Adventure” series.

The discs are housed in film canister replicas, each with detailed artwork from some of the films. The canisters are held in an attractive gold case with a green felt interior. Disney seemed to put a lot of time an effort into this endeavor.

The series includes “Wonders Of The World” (Volume 1), “Lands Of Exploration” (Volume 2), “Creatures Of The Wild” (Volume 3), and “Nature’s Mysteries” (Volume 4). Each disc features a number of either the feature films and/or short films. Extra details about the contents of each of the discs are included at the end of this review.

Walt Disney and his filmmakers may have not been the first people to film nature’s habitats. Some of the earliest films ever made were done in the wild, including Robert Flaherty’s early documentaries like “Nanook Of The North” (1922), certainly precluded any “True-Life Adventure” films. But it was Disney’s remarkable team that brought the world of nature to movie screens in a populist way. Sending a small army of cameramen and women around the world, Disney captured nature like no other studio had before. What’s more remarkable is that this was done in a time of limited air travel, and with the lack of high tech equipment. Many lenses and cameras had to be invented for these films.

What Disney film would be complete without a bit of Disney animation thrown in for good measure? The “True-Life Adventures” began with the wonderful opening of a spinning globe and animated titles. The painter’s brush enters the frame and paints cartoon geography, then dissolves into the live-action footage.

Each one of the “True-Life Adventure” films is filled with whimsy and danger in the wild. There is little doubt that both children and adults will get a kick out of a polar bear cub making snow balls to drop on a brother bear, for instance. Clever editing helps to create a storyline and drama within these films. In “Beaver Valley” (Volume 1, Disc 1), a group of animals warns of a dangerous coyote’s immanent approach, for instance, almost saying, “Look out!”

The animals are given human qualities through the addition of music by Disney’s veteran composers, as well as sound effects. Hours and hours of footage was shot for each one of the films, and then edited down to reasonable running times. If the films featured simple narration and a little bit of music, I doubt if they would’ve been very entertaining to most audiences. With the music and Winston Hibler’s narration, the films come alive.

There was probably some criticism directed toward the “True-Life Adventures” for being playful. The music, Hibler’s narration and clever editing sometimes added an atmosphere of frolics to the films. I can imagine some hardcore critics, displeased with the films, saying that frivolity doesn’t belong in a nature film. Yet that’s exactly the tone that works so well for the series. Animals are playful, dangerous, sometimes silly and downright fun to watch. With the filmmakers adding human elements to the animal antics, oddly enough, an audience can identify with them. One minute, you could be sitting on the edge of your seat watching a paca (a South American rodent) get carried away by a jaguar, the next, watch a monkey tease a giant lizard (“Jungle Cat,” Volume 3). These films cleverly mix in pathos with laughter. The “True-Life Adventures” were made for mass audiences, as well they should’ve been.

Winston Hibler deserves a lot of credit for his narration. He was one of the many talented individuals who performed multiple duties at the Walt Disney Studios. One of them, of course, was the on-camera host of these nature docs. His voice was comfortable and home spun. Listening to him, I imagine, is just like listening to a favorite uncle or grandparent regale stories about critters doing funny things in the wild. Hibler was a perfect match for these films and the Disney style of the era. He taught you, without even knowing it, about animals and their struggle for survival.

Disney has highlighted some of the filmmakers responsible for bringing the “True-Life Adventures” to life. James Alger, director of many of the films, is featured, as well as the Milottes and Crislers, who filmed many of these in the wild.

Given the limitations of camera lenses and film stock when these films were made, the filmmakers did a remarkable job in capturing the extensive footage. There are shots of sunsets, frogs singing at nighttime, avalanches, underwater scenes, and footage of insects, all captured on what some might now consider ancient equipment. There was no high definition video done here! The use of zoom lenses is something rare to see in this era (late 1940s-1960s), but is put to good use. The camerawork is extraordinary. Occasionally, there are out-of-focus shots, but they’re used sparingly and for use to tell the story. What impressed me more were the lengths that the camera teams went to. There are some shots that are unbelievable in that the cameramen/women perched themselves on cliffs, or often set themselves in harm’s way via camouflage.

The films didn’t flinch at the brutal aspects of nature. Contrary to myth, many of Disney’s films, especially ones that dealt with animals, were honest in their portrayal of the life cycle. There has been a common misconception that older Disney films are family friendly, kid friendly and bland entertainment. Ever watch “Old Yeller”? The “True-Life Adventures” are no exception. Though many of the films cut away from violent deaths of cute little animals, some do not. The footage of a jaguar catching a paca, for instance, isn’t gratuitous, but it may disturb younger children. Disney took the correct approach in allowing audiences to decide for themselves whether to watch the violence, or turn away from the screen. He was a realist in this regard.

One thought that crossed my mind while watching footage from, say, “The Jungle Cat,” is that some of the jungles featured here are now probably gone. Tremendous amounts of jungles and forests have given way to mankind’s growth. When these films were made, there was conscious regard for preserving nature. It’s too bad that mankind has encroached many of these habitats, because they are extraordinary to see.

I’m glad to be able to experience Walt Disney’s award-winning “True-Life Adventures” again. I was transported to those rainy days in which my classmates and I cheered as our teacher rolled in the 16mm projector. There is no reason why new generations of children can’t enjoy these films and learn about nature. With the influx of programming on the Discovery and National Geographic channels, one might think there are more than enough nature shows on television. The beauty of the “True-Life Adventures” is that they’re from a more innocent time, and they’re possibly more entertaining than much of the programming we see today.

As Roy Disney comments, “They’re a little more naive, a little less cynical. You can be watching Discovery Channel until your eyes blur over. But you won’t be as entertained by that stuff as I think what we did.”

“Wonders Of The World” (Volume 1)

Disc 1
White Wilderness
Water Birds
Beaver Valley
Prowlers Of The Everglades
Sneak Peeks

Disc 2
Mysteries Of The Deep
Wonders Of The Water Worlds
The Crisler Story
Backstage With Roy Disney At Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Birds
Tribute To James Alger
Filmmaker’s Journal
Collector’s Corner
Original Theatrical Trailers

“Lands Of Exploration” (Volume 2)

Disc 1
Introduction By Roy Disney
The Living Desert
The Vanishing Prairie
Seal Island

Disc 2
Islands Of The Sea
Nature’s Strangest Creatures
Behind The True-Life Cameras
Backstage With Roy Disney At Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Desert Insects
Backstage With Roy Disney At Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Snakes
Filmmaker’s Journal
Collector’s Corner
Trailers & Promos

“Creatures Of The Wild” (Volume 3)

Disc 1
Introduction By Roy Disney
The African Lion
Jungle Cat
Bear Country

Disc 2
Olympic Elk
Cameras In Africa
The Yellowstone Story
Tribute To The Milottes
Backstage With Roy Disney At Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Elephants
Backstage With Roy Disney At Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Cheetah Medical Exam
Filmmaker’s Journal
Collector’s Corner
Trailers & Promo

“Nature’s Mysteries” (Volume 4)

Disc 1
Introduction By Roy Disney
Secrets Of Life

Disc 2
Nature’s Half Acre
Searching For Nature’s Mysteries
Adventure In Wildwood Heart
Backstage With Roy Disney At Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Butterflies
Tribute To Winston Hibler
Filmmaker’s Journal
Collector’s Corner
Original Theatrical Trailers

True-Life Adventures

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Catalog Numbers 51114, 51115, 51116, 52543

Region 1


Dolby Digital 2.0

DVD Release Dates: December 5, 2006

$32.99 each

Not rated

Two DVD-9 Discs (per box)


169 minutes (Volumes 1, 2 & 4), 204 minutes (Volume 3)

Directors: James Alger, Ben Sharpsteen, Paul Kenworthy Jr., Ralph Wright

Cast: Winston Hibler, James Alger, Walt Disney and animals of the wild


Special thanks to Mac McLean


IMAGES: © Disney.  All rights reserved.




Copyright 2004-2007 From Script To DVD.  All rights reserved.


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