Disney’s documentary legacy

On April 22, Disneynature (a wing of Disney devoted to nature docs) will release Earth, a companion piece to the BBC’s widely acclaimed Planet Earth TV series. What better time to examine the legacy of Disney’s previous foray into nature documentaries? Namely, one of the most persistent urban legends of the last half-century, and one that started right here in Calgary.

Without Disney’s 1958 film White Wilderness, none of us would ever have heard of the phenomena of lemmings committing mass suicide. That Academy Award-winning film was the first to ever show the poor little critters clamouring over each other to be the first to snuff it when faced with overpopulation. No one had managed to capture such a moment on film before — mostly because it never actually happens.

It’s hard to say why White Wilderness’s filmmakers decided to make up the lemming story. Most likely, it was just to make things more interesting. Documentary standards weren’t particularly stringent back then, and it wasn’t uncommon for filmmakers to rig up situations that would make for good viewing. Usually, that just meant giving a predator a helping hand — a little bit of bloodlust never hurt any film, though it did hurt more than a few innocent rabbits. White Wilderness just took things a bit farther.

According to the CBC film Cruel Camera, Disney’s filmmakers took a group of lemmings from their natural habitat in the Hudson Bay and flew them to Calgary. They placed them on a large turntable to film the migration scene, and once they were good and disoriented, they herded the confused little rodents off a cliff. With carefully chosen camera angles, they made it look like a suicide, but this was cold-blooded murder.

The myth of the suicidal lemming makes for a great metaphor (and back in the ’90s, it made for a great computer game as well). It’s the ultimate extension of groupthink; mindless conformity for conformity’s sake. But anyone who thinks that it’s grounded in reality, well, they’re just lemmings.

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