King, M.  (1996)  'The Audience in the Wilderness', in Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol 24, No 2: 60 - 8

[NB volume 24 is a special on Disney]

The wilderness is an especially important symbol of America, once seen as a competitor and now a realm of recreation, a nostalgic symbol of the frontier. Disney has played a major role in popularising this notion, through a series of films and  'nature dramas', especially the True-Life Adventure series of the 1940s. These films did much to develop an empathy with animals, to see animals as having personalities. Strong storylines were developed in natural settings of great beauty. The films did much to develop modern conceptions of the wilderness and the modern distaste for zoo cages. Nature was personalised, and animals were seen as having rights and homes. Disney was one of the first to develop the modern idea of a nature reserve too -- Discovery Island. The films represent an  'exported  "cultural logic"' (61).

The films were strongly anthropomorphic, but human beings were still seen as right to dominate nature. The films offered a very subjective account of nature and wildlife, but this was the secret of their popularity. They had a strong educational function and played a major part in forming beliefs about nature and wilderness. They are also responsible for the growth of the pet industry in the USA, and have influenced many of the current museum techniques which combine education and entertainment. 

(a) They represented new forms of relations between humans and animals, rather than one of simple domination. There were anti-hunting themes, best of all in Bambi, but The Living Desert also showed animals as hunters.
(b) Disney films represented  'mixed motifs'-- pet animals and wild animals were mixed, as was cuteness and violence.
(c) The films were realist and also nostalgic, depicting a mystical bond between human beings, the landscape, and the animals in it
(d) These themes were incorporated into the theme parks and into subsequent animated movies.

The films led to the formation of a  'vast, nationally shared ecological ethic' (62), and played a far more important part than, say, Silent Spring. They also spawned many additional nature documentaries. Walt Disney was a pioneer in this field, despite considerable opposition inside the Company at the time. The films were very profitable and successful  [Bryman says that this was partly because Disney was able to acquire expertise and equipment very cheaply during a slump in the movie business]. The actual filmic techniques are clearly based on earlier animation, with its close direction, but there is also relation back to famous documentaries like those of Flaherty. Disney added comedy and melodrama, of course. The films are paternalist and voyeurist, and have led to demands for censorship in their depiction of birth or death: they also pioneered  'animal pornography' (64), the realistic depiction of killing, sex and birth. The technical effects were also imported from earlier work, especially the use of stop motion and time-lapse.

The animal world was rendered as human, animals were given names and personalities. The category that emerged is an odd one -- the  'true-life fantasy' (64). Heavy moral judgments are apparent. The films developed particularly effective  'musical cueing', setting classical or tango tracks behind the action. These characteristics have been much criticised since. Narratives have been reduced to a series of spectacles, the  '"headlines" of ordinary animal life', or  'tabloid naturalism' (65). The commentary was designed deliberately to be  'respectable', though. The impressive and effortless editing was responsible for most of the scenes, not animal training, but this gives the impression that the study of nature is easy. Disney films seem better than the real thing as a result.

[King goes on to discuss some elements of artificiality, though, such as the notorious lemming suicide sequence. This is almost certainly an urban myth rather than natural behaviour, and there was evidence that Disney technicians actually assisted some of the lemmings in their suicidal leap -- 66].

Other themes include nature as a mystery, a part of God's purpose. Species are ranked, usually, so that spiders appear as villains, while chipmunks are lovable and so on. These are examples of how Disney extends human hegemony to the animal world. They offer a kind of species imperialism. The cute/violent couple is at the heart of this process. Disney films can have beneficial effects  [as in ecological ethics above], but they can also lead to a view of nature as sentimentally caring, or as in need of management. Nature has become civilised. The techniques are extremely involving and have had widespread effects. They have encouraged anti-hunting and anti-gun sentiments, especially in suburban America. Overall, the films are '"humanistically correct", projecting a vision and voice that will speak with authority to our cultural eye and ear' (68).

[This is characteristic of the work on Disney in drawing upon some really old ideas about the media and how they work. Disney films are popular, and clearly contemptibly sentimental, and therefore they must be responsible for the sentimental views of lots of other people. No actual evidence of any of these major effects is provided, and nor is the audience seen as capable in any way of resisting Disney ideology. Most glaringly, no other films depicting nature are mentioned at all: Deliverance is actually cited, but seen as realistically depicting the naive view of suburbanites who get into trouble on encountering real rurality. It seems to me equally possible to cite a number of films that take a very pessimistic view of nature and of rurality -- loads of films that depict country dwellers as rednecks, the country as a dangerous place. Has King never seen Easy Rider, Jaws, Night of the Living Dead? What's more important is that she assumes that no Disney viewers have ever seen any of these potentially contradictory texts either -- OK these specific examples were not actually around in the 1940s so perhaps she has a point for that generation?]

back to key concepts