A Merry Menagerie: Disney’s Live-Action Animal Extravaganzas

Originally published in the Disney special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2018.

Walt Disney Studios scored its first major hit with a cartoon animal. Steamboat Willie introduced Mickey Mouse to the world – but Mickey wasn’t Disney’s first, or last, animal character. He was predated by Julius the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and succeeded by legions of animated critters, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ menagerie to those of The Jungle Book, The Lion King, A Little Mermaid, Zootopia, and more. 

What’s even better than animated animals, though? Real animals.

It’s not as celebrated as its animated output, but the Walt Disney Company has a long history of making films starring live-action animals. Not all of them are even necessarily that good. But they are legion, and worth mentioning. And some are stone-cold classics that – in at least one case – changed the world.

Before Disney was in the business of making live-action narrative films, it was limited to animated films, live-action/animation hybrids, and oddly enough, nature documentaries. “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures” were glossy, theatrical feature documentaries, sold on the Disney name and the spectacle of seeing wild animals in their native habitats, long before the Discovery Channel became a thing. Seven features and seven shorts were produced (and later recut into classroom films) under the banner, dealing with animals like big cats, insects, and the life found in prairies and deserts. All these films mixed fact with storytelling to a degree, and in films like Jungle Cat or the “True-Life Fantasy” Perri, even shaped their subjects’ lives into fictionalised narratives. Many featured sequences that were staged for the purpose. But none featured quite so influential a lie as 1958’s White Wilderness

Ostensibly a documentary about the animals of the Arctic Circle, several scenes in White Wilderness were total fabrications. A sequence of baby polar bears playing was filmed on a soundstage, for example, with stagehands hurling the bears down “snowdrifts” from out of frame. It’s the lemming sequence, however, that’s truly notorious in its lack of ethics. Depicting, allegedly, a group of lemmings committing mass suicide by leaping into the Arctic Ocean, the sequence was in fact shot in landlocked Alberta, Canada, using a variety of filmmaking tricks – including filmmakers literally herding the poor animals off a cliff – to create the images the filmmakers wanted. The film went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

In the 1950s, the three highest authorities in the United States were God, the President, and Walt Disney, and we can see the results even today. White Wilderness’ lemming sequence is largely responsible for creating or at least perpetuating the myth of lemming mass suicides – a myth that has spawned commercials, films, video games, and more, and even changed the popular meaning of the word “lemming” itself. It’s a testament to the Walt Disney Company’s influence that sixty years on, people still believe a lie that was created for the sole purpose of telling an interesting story. 

It’s fitting, then, that from the 1950s onward, Disney moved into full-blown fictional stories for its animal movies. As part of a greater push for live-action features (beginning with 1950’s Treasure Island), the studio produced a massive number of films that featured real animals co-starring in escalatingly ridiculous situations with human counterparts. These movies tended to feature the animals in their title – they were, after all, the main attraction – and tended to be madcap, feel-good comedies about household pets. They’re fantasies about the family dog, essentially, even if the animal question isn’t a dog.

Many Disney animal films starred one man: Dean Jones, the embodiment of square, family-friendly ‘60s comedy. Best-known for playing race car driver Jim Douglas in the Love Bug films (which only featured bugs metaphorically), Jones starred in numerous animal films, usually as a hapless everyman surrounded by rascally critters. He dealt with dogs in The Ugly Dachshund and monkeys in Monkeys Go Home, not to mention That Darn Cat, The Million Dollar Duck, and The Horse In The Grey Flannel Suit. Jones even took over the crown from fellow Disney funnyman Fred MacMurray in The Shaggy D.A., the sequel to The Shaggy Dog. His contribution to the animal-film canon would later be honoured with cameos in the That Darn Cat remake and Universal’s Beethoven.

Not all of Disney’s animal films were comedies, of course. The company produced one of the greatest animal movies of all time in Old Yeller, a film whose ending is so notoriously sad that it’s become synonymous with bummer endings (as Bambi is with bummer beginnings). Likewise, 1963’s The Incredible Journey put three household pets through a brave and harrowing cross-country trek, melding the True-Life Adventure fictionalised documentary approach with some rather hokey human melodrama. Disney knew animals could get easy laughs – but that they could tug the heart-strings even easier.

Though much attention has been given to Disney’s high-profile remakes of its animated back catalogue, the studio’s no stranger to remakes. With thirty years having passed since their original release (enough time for their original target audiences to have kids of their own), many of Disney’s live-action animal films were remade in the 1990s. That Darn Cat, The Shaggy Dog, and more got remade for new audiences, while 101 Dalmatians became a forebear to the current trend of live-action remakes of animated films. The Incredible Journey was reimagined to great success as Homeward Bound, now featuring comedic talking animals (voiced by Michael J. Fox, Sally Field, and Don Ameche), and spawned a sequel, Homeward Bound: Lost In San Francisco (likely partially responsible for the box office failure of George Miller’s similar-on-the-surface, vastly-different-in-reality masterpiece Babe: Pig In The City). Of the true classics, only Old Yeller escaped being remade; apparently, some stories really are too sacred.

The ‘90s and 2000s also saw two strange canine-centric subgenres emerge amongst Disney films. Between two White Fang movies, Iron Will, Snow Dogs, and Eight Below, Disney seems weirdly obsessed with films set in the Arctic Circle that deal with wolves and/or sled dogs. But those films aren’t nearly as numerous as Disney’s Air Bud series, which has spawned an incredible fourteen features. Everyone knows there’s no rule that says a golden retriever can’t play basketball, but apparently there’s also no rule that says that dog’s movie franchise can’t spawn two sub-franchises (Air Buddies, with seven films, and Santa Paws, with two). Every one of the Air Bud movies has been directed, produced, and/or written by Robert Vince, who – with ten other, non-Disney films also centred around the dreaded pairing of animals and children – may be the bravest filmmaker alive.

Nowadays, Disney’s live-action remakes of films featuring animals tend to feature few actual animals, if any. At times nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, these films’ creatures are purely digital, which allows them to be precisely directed via animation and motion capture, while retaining a photorealistic appearance. Witness how seamlessly and emotively Baloo, Bagheera, and company interact with Mowgli in The Jungle Book. That could never be achieved with actual animals. Given the impending mass extinctions likely to be caused by climate change, these films can be read as a horrifying glimpse into a future where animals only exist as illustrations and computer simulations. Or they can be seen as cutting-edge animal entertainment that avoids running afoul of animal-rights regulations. It all depends on your worldview.

Curiously, Disney has also made a return to nature documentaries over the past decade, bookending a near-century of production that saw the aforementioned climate change become entrenched. Through its Disneynature label, the company has produced theatrical and IMAX documentaries about the oceans, birds, big cats, chimpanzees, flamingos, bears, monkeys, penguins, pandas, and snow leopards – with more set to come over the coming years. It even distributed the theatrical version of the mother of all nature documentaries, the BBC’s Planet Earth. One assumes – or at least hopes – these films were made with more rigour than the likes of White Wilderness.

The ethics of these films are often dubious – increasingly so the further back in history you go. There’s little doubt animals were mistreated in many of these movies, and perhaps the modern CGI approach is a better way to achieve certain animal performances. More likely, there’s a middle-ground combination of techniques that retains the immediacy and relatability of live-action animals, but that never places them in harm’s way. Indeed, many species may not even be around to appear in films as their habitats continue to be lost. But regardless of the methodology moving forward, it’s undeniable that animals are a major box-office draw. 

Whether in domestic comedies, epic adventures, or big-screen documentaries, audiences love watching animals. Disney understands that – it always has – and given that its upcoming slate includes documentaries Penguins and Dolphins, spinoffs from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Wind in the Willows, and remakes of Dumbo, Lady & The Tramp, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King, animals will keep marching, swimming, and flying into cinemas for years to come.

Still waiting on live-action Mickey, though.