Some people regard Walt Disney's multiple-Academy-Award-winning True-Life Adventures series with warm nostalgia, remembering when some science teacher killed an hour of class time by threading up the projector. Others respond with disgust, pointing out how Disney's shaping of nature footage into simplistic, family-friendly stories was an affront both to the documentary form and to the mysteries of animal life. Both cases have merit: The pompous tones of TLA narrator-writer Winston Hibler—and his insistence on instilling the local fauna with traits like "intellect" and "humor"—arguably cemented the western tendency to view animals as a cast of characters put here to entertain us. Still, films like 1957's feature-length Perri remain remarkable cinematic achievements, assembled via a painstaking process that involved years of waiting to get intimate shots of creatures in peril.
Disney's new "Legacy Collection" promises anthologies of ephemera akin to the limited-edition "Treasures" sets, and it kicks off with four double-disc collections of True-Life Adventures, ranging from 1948 to 1960, and subdivided into not-quite-intuitive categories like "Creatures Of The Wild" and "Lands Of Exploration." As always, it's a gift to students of American popular culture to have access to films that were ubiquitous for decades before disappearing into the Disney vaults. And as with the Disney Treasures, the Legacy Collection is more valuable as archival reference then as sit-down-with-the-kids-and-while-away-a-weekend entertainment. Some of the individual films are stunning, like White Wilderness, a Canadian travelogue legendary in anti-Disney circles as the one where cameramen pushed a bunch of lemmings off a cliff. (Though it should be just as famous for the close-up images of white whales, caribou, and crashing ice floes.) But after a while, no matter how great the photography, it's hard to distinguish one cute tumbling baby animal from another.
The major exception is Perri, a squirrel's tale based on a novel by Bambi author Felix Salten. Here, the narrative was in place before shooting began, which makes the footage of hawks and weasels chasing squirrels all the more amazing, because they had to be staged. The film goes deep into woodland habitats, and breaks for almost-abstract sequences of snowballs rolling down hills and a half-animated nighttime fantasy. Perri also features the sickly sweet song "Together Time," a paean to mating season so coy that it justifies every complaint ever directed toward True-Life Adventures. Such is the dichotomy of Disney.
Key features: Bonus segments of vintage TV specials promoting the TLA feature films, and heartfelt tributes to Disney craftsmen like Hibler, who worked on these films as labors of love between animation projects.