Sunday, 17 February 2008

White Wilderness (1958)

Like 1955's The Vanishing Prairie, Disney's True Life Adventure feature White Wilderness begins by taking the viewer back in time... This time, beyond the white settlers of North America, and beyond the arrival of Native Americans. Then beyond even the development of modern North American ecosystems, all the way back to the Ice Age.

Through the art of Disney animation, we are shown the vast glacial sheet that stretched its frozen limbs across Europe, Asia and North America. Narrator Winston Hibler tells us of the great, forgotten legends of this time, immortalized on the painted cave walls of Europe: the mammoth and mastodon, the woolly rhinoceros and long-horned bison. This Ice Age drama still plays out, and like the national parks of the grasslands in The Vanishing Prairie, the vast arctic domain of the Canadian high north stand in for this ancient landscape of ice and snow.

Like most other True Life Adventures, White Wilderness follows the seasonal round. The north is introduced to us at the spring thaw, when the ice pack is cracking and straining against the increasing light and warmth of the sun. Here are unparalleled scenes of nature in its sublime might, as ice collapses off mountains, uplifts against strain and cascades into the sea, all to very fine and dramatic music from Disney's soundtrack department. This wilderness is one of desolation splintering and exploding in preparation for the life that will unfold before the cameras.

The first arrivals are the walrus, to whom not much time is actually given. Scenes of their lumbering and fighting on land soon make way for the second arrival: the polar bear. Hibler impresses the majesty of the great white bear upon the viewer as panic-stricken Walrus surge into the protective waters of the frigid sea. Not left to ego-inflating compliments on its legendary status, the cameras turn from adult polar bears to a pair of cubs discovering the world for the first time... With all the slapstick antics, play fighting, sliding (sometimes painfully) down embankments and all the generally cute moments expected of baby animals.

We're next introduced to another cute baby animal in the seal. Of greatest interest to the True Life cameras, however, are the lemmings. Disney spares no footage or time in exploring this fascinating, legendary creature of the north renowned for its suicidal mass migrations. Unfortunately, these legends are false, and White Wilderness did its painful share to compound the error with tragedy.

In nature, the lemming suffers one of the most variable population fluctuations of any known animal. Its numbers can vary wildly from year to year, which in years of extreme pressure can cause large numbers to strike off in all directions in search of greener pastures. Unfortunately, in these migrations, accidents can happen and missteps can occur, resulting in untimely deaths. There is nothing deliberately suicidal about these voyages, however.

The Disney photographers, no doubt acting under the mistaken impression that the legends were true, decided that it couldn't hurt to stage a lemming migration for the cameras. Contrary to the preface of every True Life Adventure film - which states that the films are unstaged and unrehearsed - they are well-known for staging dramatic scenes for the benefit of good footage. The amount varies from film to film, with some being almost entire staged in artificial enclosures to others having natural phenomena "helped along" by the hand of man. White Wilderness' camerapeople probably assumed they were doing the latter, but sadly were literally throwing hapless Lemmings to their watery graves.

This isn't the only incident of death and destruction in White Wilderness. Indeed, Disney seems to have gotten over their shyness about Nature Red in Tooth and Claw... Even modern documentaries are rarely so red and toothy. The rocky shores of the North Pole transition to the barren tundra where the caribou are migrating through the narrow valleys under the watchful eye, then high-speed pursuit, of wolves. Rather than turn the camera discreetly away from the kill, we see it in graphic detail. Caribou after caribou goes down beneath the fangs of the wolf, gored in a bloody feast.

When the scene transitions again to the northern boreal forest, we see the exploits of the vicious wolverine as it pursues any and everything. After a few failed attempts and a few skirmishes with other wolverines, this foul-tempered member of the weasel family finally succeeds in pulling a young osprey down from its nest despite the impassioned attempts of the mother to dissuade it. This is an almost shocking amount of violence for a Disney film, proving that a Disney film often surprisingly dashes expectations.

The end draws nigh. Some denizens of the arctic stay, but others make for the south. The seasonal round circles back and winter sets back in over the majestic, inhospitable waste of the White Wilderness.

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