1949 heralded the nature documentary's arrival with Disney's first True-Life Adventure, Seal Island. The formula was simple: craft an engaging, dramatic, visually-oriented storyline around the struggle for survival of the world's most exotic animals in the world's most picturesque and exotic locations. It worked, and it recieved the Oscar for best short subject. It also helped solidify Disney's expansion into fields beyond animation. The following year, they would release their first live action film, Treasure Island, and leftover footage from Seal Island formed the first People and Places documentary, The American Eskimo, in 1953. Then came that magic season of 1954-1955, with the Disneyland TV series, Davy Crockett, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the creation of Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club, Lady and the Tramp and the release of the second True-Life Adventure feature film, The Vanishing Prairie.
The Vanishing Prairie followed on the succcess of the first True-Life feature The Living Desert, which was itself an outgrowth of the phenomenal popularity of the True-Life short features that were placed on the same bill as Disney's feature films. That first feature film brought the cameras back to America and looked at life in the deserts nestled into the American Rockies. The second took us to the other side of them...
What The Vanishing Prairie promises is to take the viewer outwards in space and time... We follow in the wagon-ruts of the pioneers to that vast expanse of North American savannah between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. This is entirely literal, as in many places along the famed Oregon Trail, the deeply worn grooves made by Conestoga Wagons over a century ago are still visible. Eventually we leave off the trail blazed by these European invaders and go back further to the mythologically rich world of the Native Americans, visualized by a wonderfully stylized Nativesque animated sequence. We learn the names given to buffalo and pronghorn, rodent and fowl, before being taken even further back. Narrator Winston Hibler intones that we are going back before even the Native Americans, to the untouched prairie before the arrival of humans. A few of these untouched places still exist under the protective eye of National Parks and private citizens, and the lens of the naturalist-photographer will use these to take us back to that pristine era.
Journeying across time and distance, we pick up the drama of the plains with the seasonal round. It is early spring and the ducks are returning from their annual migration to the south. Some arrive a little too early and the ponds are still frozen over, resulting in slipping and sliding ducks which Disney exploits to great commedic effect. Then as we move into summer, we're introduced to the mating displays of the prairie chicken, and the youngsters of the prairie dog and bison communities. A side jaunt into the Rocky Mountain foothills introduces us to the trials of deer, cougar and bighorn sheep. The picture finally climaxes with a massive prairie wildfire and subsequent flood. The denumont takes us to winter in the Rockies as bighorns collide and bison force their way through a blizzard that sweeps us back into the present day.
There are certainly criticisms that can be levelled against this True-Life Adventure format of edutainment. Thankfully, unlike The Living Desert, the majority of The Vanishing Prairie is actual field footage. The Living Desert had a few scenic shots, but for the most part is visibly constrained by most of it being filmed in a laboratory soundstage. However, though shot out in the actual prairies, that doesn't exempt The Vanishing Prairie from its share of staged shots. Roy Disney, nephew of Walt, recollects how the scene of ducks sliding into each other on early spring ice was the product of him and his staff bowling with them.
Legitimate footage is unfortunately hampered somewhat by an excess of a musical phenomenon called "Mickey Mousing". Mickey Mousing, named for those early Mickey Mouse cartoons with synchronized sound, is the effect of scoring a film to too closely reflect the action onscreen. In the case of The Vanishing Prairie, it means that ducks are sliding into each other to Ride of the Valkyries, prairie dogs are chirping along to Home on the Range and bighorns are engaged in brutal headbutting competitions to The Anvil Chorus. Meant to be entertaining, it sometimes skirts reducing the wonder of nature to comedy.
Not to say that the score is bad. On the contrary, at least when it's not Mickey Mousing, it's actually quite good. The refrain of the buffalo's majestic leitmotif will haunt you... As it did to audiences in 1954, who demanded a reprise. The theme was given a set of lyrics and rechristened The Pioneer's Prayer for the Fess Parker film Westward Ho the Wagons! (1956), about pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
The footage that wasn't staged is phenomenal, however, and that is the real saving grace of the film. Some of the scenes are absolutely astonishing, such as the tension of a cougar stalking around a hidden fawn. The cougar knows that something is there, but doesn't know what or where, and as a viewer, you're left biting your nails wondering what might happen. The question is legitimate as well, since the True-Life Adventures hold nothing back except the final gore of the kill. At another point, a cougar successfully kills an adolescent deer, even as the camera discreetly turns away from the deathblow and rejoins the cougar's feast, while Hibler gives a speech on how all of nature's creatures are given an equal chance for survival.
The scenes of the buffalo, the mighty monarch of the plains, are especially remarkable. The Vanishing Prairie was even banned in Boston for a brief spell because of the graphic depiction of a mother buffalo giving birth. The bison go from stampeding through grasslands (in a bit of footage reused for the episode Davy Crockett at the Alamo) to pushing their way through Rocky Mountain snowdrifts. It was no mean feat to get this footage either: the behind-the-scenes program Prairie, originally aired as a promotional piece on the Disneyland television series, shows naturalist-photographers dressing up as buffalos in Native American robes and headresses or employing newfangled snowmobiles to get dangerously close to their subjects.
For those of us who are North Americans, familiarity often makes it easy to forget how exotic a landscape our continent actually is. One of the great achievments of The Vanishing Prairie is to remind us, with the help of some Disney magic and animation, of its wonder.