A little more than nine months ago, July 6th of 2007, we published a Screening Room article at Moviedozer.com titled "Has National Geographic Grabbed a Piece of Walt's Legacy?". The subtitle was "Arctic Tale may teach Disney that there's still a market for educational entertainment." Perhaps it has. With Disney's announcement, timed for Earth Day this past Tuesday, the Mouse will be returning to the business of presenting nature with a Disney flair, and with Disney's marketing machine in full gear behind it. The curtain has officially been opened on Disneynature.
The first new production banner to include the Disney name in some 60 years, Disneynature is a return to what was once a passion and a masterstroke of Walt himself. Almost as indelible as his artistry in presenting feature length animation, Walt also saw the potential for framing nature through the lens of a motion picture camera. The result back in 1949 was an Oscar win for Disney's first live action nature film, Seal Island. Today, thanks in part to Walt's nephew Roy Disney, Disney's classic True Life Adventures series can be experienced through four superb DVD volumes that bring many of the most famous and most unforgettable films back for repeated viewings. Roy, it seems, cut his teeth on production and writing on these films and shares the passion of his Uncle for the subject matter. The blueprint had been drawn for a genre´of filmmaking that would find an enormous resurgence decades later.
Perhaps the film that finally broke the ice on reintroducing audiences to the wonders of nature as witnessed from a cinema seat, was March of the Penguins, directed by Luc Jacquet. That film not only garnered an Oscar win for Best Documentary in 2006, but raked in some very serious box-office. Interestingly, all the major players who might potentially be interested in marketing nature movies, were already participating - including Disney who had a small piece of foreign distribution. But it would be National Geographic who would surge forward and understand best, that nature as a topic would attract movie theater audiences. When Nat-Geo (don't you hate the urbanization of names) released last year's Arctic Tale, which followed the story of a mother polar bear and her cubs along with a couple of walruses, we were compelled to write this in our article - "So why has it fallen to National Geographic to pick up on reproducing the experience of theatrical nature films? Since documentaries have found themselves back in our theaters as mainstream entertainment, it seems, pardon the pun, only natural that an old Disney expertise be in line for a dust-off." (You can click here to jump over to Moviedozer and read the full article.)
Apparently Disney was paying attention. (And, we suspect, with a keener focus than the company had while led by Robert Iger's predecessor). So, in step with one of it's proudest legacies, Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook announced Disneynature. The new division, based in France and headed by a Disney veteran, Jean-Francois Camilleri, will offer it's first feature, Earth, appropriately on Earth Day next year. And should you think that Disney is merely snatching back some of it's old creative territory, well, can you say "synergy"? With Disney theme parks like Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, animation and theatrical properties like Lion King, television interests like the Discovery Channel and conservation projects like The Nature Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve (just south of the Walt Disney World theme park complex in Orlando), Disney could not be better positioned for taking a leading role in creating the next generation of nature films. The output of these projects will propagate across Disney's many entertainment stages for decades, and generations of potential Disney devotees will be the audience.
Even the timing seems right. With a worldwide consciousness beginning to focus through the blur of global climate change, the impact of irresponsible environmental policies, the failure of international cooperation in addressing environmental and humanitarian issues, and the shocking impact of unstable economies on the world food supply, a high profile and broad effort to educate with entertainment can have and will have immense impact. This is one of the most noble and commendable purposes of entertainment and a purpose uniquely served by a world made so much smaller by modern technology and advanced communication.
At Moviedozer, we closed our piece about National Geographic's Arctic Tale with this thought - "If you're looking for a little hope, a sign that our kids can find motivation in our dreams, look no further in the past than 1960. Before that frenetic decade had even begun, our televisions, magazines, movie theaters and our kid's toys took a child's imagination to one place - space. By the end of the tumultuous sixties, a man stood on the moon and a world stood along side. If you want to change the world, fill a child's mind with excitement about what can be."
We applaud Disney's CEO Robert Iger and all of those at Disney who have and will play a part in nurturing Disney's new endeavor. And to all of those who participate in the creation of the many projects that will fall under the new banner, safe travels. We will be anxious to join in all of the adventures you bring to us.