Doc of the Day: The Living Desert Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Living Desert

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 20, 2012

Venture into the American desert, Disney-style! Day One of Oscar Winners Week.

Dir. James Algar, 1953, 69 min

In celebration/observation/ curt acknowledgement of the Oscars ceremony this coming Sunday, this week I’ll be looking at docs that the Academy has previously honored as the best of their respective years. First up is The Living Desert, the first feature-length installment in Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures series. Beginning in 1948 with the short Seal Island and running until 1960 with Islands of the Sea, Disney produced a series of educational films about nature. Despite its cancellation, the spirit of the line lives on today in the Disneynature label.

 These docs combine a sense of goofy fun with a, um, “flexible” ethos towards telling the truth that earned them some notoriety in later years. Most infamously, White Wilderness created an urban legend when it depicted lemmings as disposed to commit mass suicide, which was actually instigated by the filmmakers. So who knows what kind of shenanigans the company got up to in making this film. There’s something of a trust fall when you watch a documentary and want to honestly engage in it. Enjoy the ride, but keep your eyes sharp. And for heaven’s sakes, do some outside research about the subject!

The Living Desert takes us to the arid regions of the Southwest United States. It depicts the day-to-day life of the various flora and fauna that live there. The movie is built as a series of vignettes, each following a different plant or animal. It goes from a peccary keeping cool, to a hawk’s hunt, to a kangaroo rat nursing its young, and more. The struggle for survival is the overarching theme, and the segments often focus on the animals fighting for their lives among themselves and against the elements.

I’m a sucker for Earth porn and animal trivia, and this movie has both in abundance. Acting as narrator, Peter Ustinov talks of the desert’s “beautiful ugliness,” and he’s right. The stark landscape of un-life is foreboding in its unforgivingness, but life has evolved in response. The creatures of the desert are weird and wonderful and tough. Although I learned most of what the movie had to teach back in grade school, it’s always fun to watch animals just do what they do. There’s one sequence about the flowers of the desert, shot from a point of view within the petals, which is honestly exhilarating.

The doc is rife with painfully corny 50’s humor. When a bobcat seeks refuge from angry peccaries in a cactus, the narration cracks that he “has learned the desert is no place for a tenderfoot.” You can practically hear the rimshot. The most bizarre moment comes when the movie depicts a scorpion mating dance as a hoedown, complete with a jaunty tune and the narrator hollering dance instructions. Maybe it sent original audiences rolling in the aisles, but now I can only laugh ironically.

My first day in college biology, the professor laid down this cardinal rule of science: you never, ever anthropomorphize. I don’t know if I could have expected Disney to do anything else, but boy howdy did they ever anthropomorphize these animals. The narrator frequently frames their instinctual behavior in human terms. A group of squirrels is “hazing” an outsider. In an unintentionally funny relic of outdated sexism, he describes a female tortoise in a mating ritual “as usual, giving the  male the run-around” (Or maybe it’s not so outdated). Although the film clarifies that there are no “good” and “bad” guys in nature, that doesn’t stop it from drawing suspense out of a snake chasing a mouse, playing sinister music all the while.  The way the movie is edited, it to looks as if these animals are all neighbors to one another, and they often “cross over” into each others’ stories. I’m not an expert, but the inaccuracies are pretty glaring.

This doesn’t necessarily invalidate The Living Desert‘s overall educational value. But the movie perpetuates a lot of the misguided thinking habits that people have to unlearn later in life. I’ve always been a bit leery of such things. I mean, wouldn’t it be more helpful simply to never learn that which you must later be corrected about? I don’t know. At any rate, it’s certainly a fun little movie, and fun is its main concern. I don’t know if I’d call it worthy of an Oscar, but I haven’t seen any of its competition (It beat movies about Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and climbing Mount Everest). It’s not bad, it’s just such a, well, Disneyfied vision of nature. And I’ve never been one for Disney’s bland, safe sensibility. They make even survival of the fittest feel cartoony.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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