February 19, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: The Vanishing Prairie (1954)

The Vanishing Prairie, released in 1954

A lesser-known part of Disney’s history is its nature documentaries, which mostly appeared during the 1950s. Called the True-Life Adventures, the 14 films received eight Oscars and created today's landscape. For the “Treasures from the Disney Vault” special, TCM selected The Vanishing Prairie to exemplify this type of movie. This 1954 release won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was the series' ninth release. In the introduction, Leonard Maltin explains how it was a tough sell for Walt Disney to make these pictures. Creating propaganda films during the war revealed the possibilities of documentaries and pushed Walt into this realm. Disney has continued this tradition recently with Disneynature films like Chimpanzee and the upcoming Monkey Kingdom.

The Vanishing Prairie begins on an animated map of North America as a paint brush reveals the different natural features of the country, particularly grassland in the middle. Narrator Winston Hiller gives a matter-of-fact description of the natural features and sets the stage. His delivery resembles a guy like Peter Coyote, who’s distinctive but fails to distract from the action. The tone may feel slow to modern audiences accustomed to fast-paced narratives. One reason is less wonder today in the close views of animals; we’re spoiled by cable networks and sophisticated zoos. Even so, it’s hard not to find solace in getting an intimate view of hundreds of birds migrating towards the Arctic tundra.

A key factor in selling the charms of the prairie is Paul Smith’s music, which sells the idea that everything is a magical event. Ducks walking in slow motion? That’s amazing! There’s an operatic feeling to the presentation, especially when animals graze as a group. It feels like they’re dancing to the music, aided by the frequent use of slow motion. The choices are designed to evoke strong emotions. Ominous music plays when a rattlesnake arrives, while a happy tune shows the cuddly prairie dogs. There’s a danger in making the natural world feel too sentimental, and more cynical viewers won’t enjoy the simplified connections to school and recess designed to engage kids.

Prairie dogs in The Vanishing Prairie, released by Disney.
Prairie dogs are everywhere in this film and epitomize the cute side of The Vanishing Prairie.

The challenge with The Vanishing Prairie is how much the animals are viewed through an anthropomorphic lens. Hiller calls the ducks “mother” and “father” and makes countless quips like this one: “I declare these husbands, always leaving things for someone else to pick up.” This approach makes total sense, yet it feels like too much by the end. The constant references to mothers taking care of their babies cheapen the striking images. There’s a remarkable moment where a buffalo must immediately act to save her suffocating baby after its birth. This scene works on its own and doesn’t need an obvious reference to our lives. This style is still used frequently today, so it isn’t confined to Disney in the ‘50s. March of the Penguins earned huge crowds in 2005 by employing similar tactics.

Despite those problematic moments, there’s enough memorable footage to make it worthwhile. Long shots of the buffalo as dots in the distance are gorgeous and sell the beauty of the prairie. Watching the pronghorn antelope sprint across the plain is thrilling; the camera can barely keep up with them. There are also tense moments of hunting, especially with the mountain lion. The matter-of-fact look at hunting a deer is respectful and shows the importance of the circle of life. Another incredible shot reveals a fawn hiding within the brush while a lion walks across the log above it. These scenes don’t pander and offer interesting details about how both predator and prey thrive in the wild.

The title The Vanishing Prairie implies a greater focus on what we’re losing in our natural world. It mentions some examples, including decreases for the whooping crane and buffalo. Even so, the attention stays on the wildlife and not a more serious message. There’s considerable time spent with the prairie dogs and their underground cities. There are impressive shots from within those tunnels while predators try to grab them. One conflict between a coyote and small prairie dog is ridiculous and resembles a Chaplin comedy. It’s easy to see why the prairie dogs received so much attention. The film’s climax is a brutal lightning storm, which creates a fire and floods the prairie. These moments reveal the imposing side of nature as the wall of fire moves towards the unsuspecting animals. This type of sequence delivers more than a cute little documentary and explains its continued resonance.

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