In 1948, Walt Disney released the first in a series of nature documentaries called True-Life Adventures. Walt hired photographers around the world to shoot live footage of animals in their natural habitat and his filmmakers would edit them into films. Most of the True-Life Adventures were short subjects, but a few feature films resulted from the series, the first of which was The Living Desert. Walt Disney's nephew, Roy E. Disney, got his start in Hollywood as a producer on the True Life Adventures. He would later play a major role at the studio after Walt and his father Roy died.
The Living Desert was the first Disney feature film distributed by Disney. Prior to this, Walt had mostly relied on RKO to distribute his films. But RKO had been reluctant about releasing the True-Life Adventures series and Walt was tired of trying to please a distributor. He and his brother Roy, who was in charge of the financial side of the company, created the Buena Vista Distribution Company, named after one of the streets that the Disney Studio was on.
The film opens like all True-Life Adventure films. A paintbrush paints a globe to illustrate wind patterns, which turns into an animated sequence about how natural wind barriers, like mountains, create deserts. The film picks up with live action footage of Death Valley in North America. The phenomenon of moving boulders, mud bubbles, and sand storms are shown to highlight the miracle that creatures actually live in this wasteland. Among the animals featured are roadrunners, tortoises, bobcats, rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, guila monsters and many insects, including tarantulas and scorpions. Many confrontations are shown between predator and prey, but the film never displays anything graphic or disturbing. The film ends with some beautiful time-lapse photography of desert flowers blooming.
The Living Desert premiered on November 10th, 1953, and was a huge success. The film only cost $300,000 to make, but grossed $4 million at the box office. Critics mostly praised the film, but some had concerns over the way that Disney had edited jokes in, such as scorpions dancing a hoedown, which was done by simply switching the direction of the film repeatedly. At any rate, the Academy took notice of the film and gave it an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This was the sixth of eight Academy Awards that the True-Life Adventures won.
Walt Disney has been credited with the creation of the nature documentary genre with his True-Life Adventures series. While this may not be true, I can't find anything to contradict that claim. As a nature documentary, The Living Desert is a fine film. The pace is great and it never gets tired. The U.S. government has even deemed the film historically and culturally relevant. Since 1953 many great nature documentaries have been made on the same subject and since camera technology has improved so much, more recent documentaries are able to provide a more thorough and real glimpse of desert life. The main fault of this film, and many other True-Life Adventures, is that many of the sequences were staged. Animals in captivity were shot on a set made to look like the desert and the desired action was forced. However, these scenes are still entertaining. What's really incredible about The Living Desert is the format, which nature documentaries are still using today. If you are a fan of nature documentaries, you are sure to enjoy this film. Disney recently got back into the business of making nature films. They co-funded the Planet Earth series and started up Disney Nature, a film division set to release a new film to theaters every Earth Day for the foreseeable future.
All of the True-Life Adventures were made available on DVD in 2006 through the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. The Living Desert is featured on Volume 2: Lands of Exploration. All of the films have been fully restored and are accompanied by great bonus features. Unfortunately, the DVDs are now out of print. It is available on iTunes where it is available in HD.