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Straight To Hell Returns

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Alex Cox returns... Straight to Hell

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Before Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, or even Wild Kingdom, there was True Life Adventures, a series of nature documentaries made by the Walt Disney company in the 1950s. Disney capitalized on the public’s fascination with wild animals with these movies (seven features and ten shorts in all), which could be made cheaply and turned into an entertaining product through creative editing and scoring.

These films have been restored and are now available on DVD on four two-disc sets, part of new line of DVDs, called the Legacy Collection. The more interesting of the bonus features illuminate the story behind the making of the movies, while other extras plug Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

Wild Kingdom

Establishing shots set the scene, then the animal action takes over
Establishing shots set the scene, then the animal action takes over

The movies mostly follow the same formula: an animated map is followed by establishing shots that set the scene, then the animal action takes over. Winston Hibler’s narration is sometimes factual, sometimes fanciful (“Mrs. Bumblebee is busily gathering food for her family”), and indicates that these movies were intended more for entertainment than for education.

The animal action comes with conspicuous mood-setting music to fit their activities: they eat, sleep, play, fly, swim, court, fight and search for food. It’s these last two activities that preoccupy the filmmakers the most. There are intra-species territorial squabbles, but the major tension in these films comes from the predator-prey conflicts: jaguar vs. boa! wasp v. tarantula! owl vs. prairie dog vs. rattlesnake! Narrow escapes abound, but because this is a True Life Adventure, the predators occasionally get a win.

Some of the movies were shot by photographers employed by Disney; others were assembled from footage bought from freelancers. As a result, some films have very broad subject matter, especially the shorts. Islands of the Sea begins with the line, “scattered over the broad expanse of the ocean on our globe, are countless islands.” Secrets of Life, which was mostly about plants and insects, ends with footage of an erupting volcano. Why? Because it was dramatic footage and they wanted to use it, according to Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew). While the quality of some films is quite good, it’s uneven in others. Sometimes the action is fuzzy, due to the limitations of the cameras, other times, the resolution is poor, as if the images had been blown up from smaller film.

“Nature in the Raw”

Though the movies have no humans in them, the people behind the camera sometimes manipulated the action. In interviews on the bonus features, photographers talk about catching wild animals and putting them in areas where they could be more easily filmed. In The Vanishing Prairie, a trained falcon was used to swoop at a prairie dog. The most infamous incident, not acknowledged on any of these discs, occurred in White Wilderness (which is available on these discs) in which the lemmings were deliberately herded off of a cliff to simulate the dangers of migration.

Wildlife photography can be tedious and difficult. The cameras that were used at the time were hard to focus, which meant that much of what was shot was unusable. Animals spend a lot of time sleeping. Some of them prefer to come out at night, and when they do something worth filming, the photographers weren’t always able to capture all of the action. It isn’t so troubling to find out that the insects and time-lapse photography of plants was filmed indoors. But knowing that the falcon-prairie dog conflict was planned makes it harder to enjoy the film. Apparently, the claim at the beginning of the movies that the action was “unstaged and unrehearsed,” is sometimes a lie.

Despite these qualms, you can enjoy these films, which do show entertaining and interesting moments that most of us will never see live. The Vanishing Prairie captures the dance of endangered whooping cranes. In Beaver Valley, a hawk transfers a mouse to his mate in midair. The time-lapse photography in Secrets of Life is mesmerizing. That it’s sometimes a little out of focus doesn’t take away the thrill. These films aren’t as sophisticated as what came later, but in small doses, they are fun to watch.

DVD Extras

All four volumes (sold separately) are two-disc sets with one or two feature-length movies (around 70 minutes long) and two or three shorts (15-30 minutes long). The second disc of each set has similar bonus features. Each volume has two segments from various incarnations of Disney’s television show, promising to tell the stories behind the making of the films. Some of these segments are more like extended advertisements for the movies, and show in black and white what you can watch in color over on the first disc. An exception is “Cameras in Africa” on Volume 3, in which photographer Alfred Milotte tells about the experiences he and his and wife Elma had while filming The African Lion. The segment includes still photographs of them helping to rescue a rhinoceros trapped in a mud hole.

“Filmmakers’ Journal” is the most interesting feature on all of the discs. This section has interviews (some of them old) with some of the filmmakers and others who worked on the movies. They talk about challenges of shooting wildlife in out-of-the-way places, and a little bit about the staged action. In another entertaining part of this section, Jimmy MacDonald demonstrates how he recreated wild animal and other nature sounds for the movies. Each volume also includes tributes to individuals who worked on these movies.

“Backstage with Roy Disney at Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” has Roy with animal specialists who bring out wild animals and talk about them a little. It’s kind of like a talk-show segment but without the jokes. It’s an easy way for Disney’s marketers to promote the theme park. “Collector’s Corner,” is a short segment about the original marketing and merchandising of the films. Each volume also has original theatrical trailers for some of the films.

Picture and Sound

All of the feature-length movies have been restored and look great, with no scratches or dirt. Some of the shorts appear to have been restored, while others were not. Sometimes the action on the screen has a low resolution. This is no doubt due to the technological limitations of the time. Overall, the sound is good, but unremarkable. The movies are in mono; some of the newer bonus features have stereo sound.

How to Use this DVD

Despite the different settings and animals, all of the movies start to seem the same after awhile, so these are best viewed in multiple sittings, over the course of a week or two. Of the bonus features, Filmmakers’ Journal is the one worth watching. Take a look at the Disney TV segments, but when they start showing more of the movies than camera crews, move on to the next feature.