Back to nature

By connecting to the green movement, Disney reclaims one of its early filmmaking traditions, reminding us its moves are more than just kid stuff

Polar bear cubs curl up together, and an African elephant and her calf roam Botswana in Disneynature’s first nature documentary, “Earth,’’ which was released last year on Earth Day. Its second film, “Oceans,’’ opens April 22. Polar bear cubs curl up together, and an African elephant and her calf roam Botswana in Disneynature’s first nature documentary, “Earth,’’ which was released last year on Earth Day. Its second film, “Oceans,’’ opens April 22.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 11, 2010

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Here are two names people recognize the world over: Disneyland and Disney World. Here’s another that few people are aware of yet: Disneynature. The Walt Disney Company is hoping it will eventually become as recognizable as the other two.

A distribution arm of Disney dedicated to nature documentaries, Disneynature releases its second film, “Oceans,’’ on April 22, Earth Day. The first, “Earth,’’ was also released on Earth Day, last year. Interestingly, the documentary, which was mostly culled from the 2006 BBC series “Planet Earth,’’ opened overseas in 2007. That Disney would delay US release that long, so as to get the ecological tie-in, indicates how much the company wants to connect Disneynature to the green movement. The headline on the Daily Variety news story announcing the debut of Disneynature summarized the situation: “Disney arm seeks gold with green.’’

“Oceans,’’ which took seven years to make, looks at all five of the planet’s oceans. Filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud shot nearly 470 hours of footage (both 35mm and digital video). Some 80 species appear in the film, from humpback whales nursing their young to 2-inch-long krill. The filmmakers developed a special camera, a kind of nautical Steadicam, to keep the horizon steady. They named it after the Greek goddess Thetys.

Disneynature marks both a departure for Disney and an attempt to reclaim a now largely forgotten part of the company’s filmmaking tradition. The name reminds us that family entertainment onscreen — and, more specifically, Disney’s association with it — consists of more than just cartoons and comedy. Disneynature isn’t the company’s first film subsidiary. Unlike Touchstone or Hollywood, though, it’s been deemed worthy to include the founder’s surname — a sign of the significance Disney places on the association.

Walt Disney, the man, is most commonly identified with two things: Walt Disney, the company, and what was for many decades that company’s most famous product, animation. For a long time, it was Disney’s only product. Walt Disney didn’t invent animation, not hardly. But he did invent something else, or at least he invented it within the film industry, and that invention continues to drive the enormous ongoing success of his namesake company. He was Hollywood’s first real demographer.

During the Studio Era, at its height in the ’30s and ’40s, movies were a true mass medium, appealing equally to every segment of the population. Disney recognized that there was a niche to be carved out by focusing on a particular portion of the audience: children and their parents. Other studios did this, too, of course: Hal Roach, with his “Little Rascals’’ shorts; 20th Century Fox with its Shirley Temple features; and so on. And at a time when the Production Code ruled Hollywood, there was little distinction between “family’’ and “adult’’ fare. Yes, Clark Gable got to say “damn’’ at the end of “Gone With the Wind,’’ and Lana Turner wore tight sweaters. But that was about it.

Disney focused exclusively on “kid stuff’’ — animation — giving the world the likes of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Dumbo, and Bambi. You might notice that all those characters have something in common: They’re animals.

Starting in 1948, the animals became real. That’s when Disney released “Seal Island,’’ the first of 13 True-Life Adventures. The series would win a total of eight Academy Awards. The Disney family brand was getting extended.

The formula was simple. Take a specific natural location (“The Living Desert,’’ “The Vanishing Prairie’’) or creature (“The Olympic Elk,’’ “Water Birds’’). Film extensively. Add a strong dose of anthropomorphism, courtesy of the folksy-familiar narration of Winston Hibler (an unfamiliar name, a very familiar voice). Keep the budget to six figures. Count on ticket sales being in seven figures.

“Walt Disney, having captivated the world as the Master of Fantasy, now has become, by the greatest contradiction of the age, the Master of Reality,’’ a Los Angeles Times critic wrote in 1954. There was nothing contradictory about it. True-Life Adventures was a natural extension of Disney animation: two forms of family-oriented entertainment. The nature documentaries, Disney wrote in 1953, showed animals’ “family devotion and parental care.’’ They testified to the company’s family devotion, too.

That was half a century ago. By the time “Jungle Cat,’’ the last True-Life Adventure, came out, in 1960, the Disney company had moved well along in adding additional elements in its dominance of the budding family market — a market that Disney effectively defined. There were live-action features, the Disneyland theme park, and such television programming as “The Mickey Mouse Club.’’ With the emergence of these other elements — and their great profitability — the nature documentaries fell by the wayside.

Just as Disney revitalized its tradition of feature-length animation in the ’90s, so it now hopes to do the same for nature documentaries. “Disneynature is a concept we look forward to building across the country and across the globe for years to come,’’ Disney CEO Robert Iger said in a 2008 statement.

The idea is to keep budgets between $5 million and $10 million. Generate books and theme-park attractions from the films. Use well-known narrators, like James Earl Jones (for “Earth’’) and Pierce Brosnan (for “Oceans’’), instead of a Hibler type. And release a new Disneynature documentary annually. “Oceans’’ is scheduled to be followed next year by “Hidden Beauty,’’ about bees and other pollinators, then “African Cats’’ in 2012, and “Chimpanzees’’ in 2013.

“Nature calls the shots’’ in True-Life Adventures, Disney liked to say. It’s now starting to do so at Walt Disney Studios more than at any time in five decades.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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