The Disney Version: Fooled Me
Reasoned civility is suggested in these troubled times, but decisions affecting millions of lives continue to boggle the mind. More and more again. How much outrage do I have left? How high can my blood pressure go? How much muck could a muck raker muck if a muckraker could rake mud? I’m trying to stay away from provocation, but the universe keeps dropping incendiary objects in my lap, and if that isn’t a troubling image, I don’t know what is.
Now, even now as I seek mindful unattachment, a story arrives with implications that are simply too hefty to leave unattended.Apparently the bold lie is nothing new in the American story. I thought I knew something about betrayal. What a fool! What a patsy! But the truth will out and duplicity must be revealed for the perfidy it is.
Speaking of a partisan issue that will not be shared in this screed, my wife suggested that an unmentioned unfortunate propensity in human beings was analogous to that of lemmings, willfully seeking extinction by following each other over the edge of a cliff. She’s not wrong about the human analog, but the allusion to lemmings reminded me that I’d heard someone suggest that lemmings do not, in fact, leap to their death. My memory was that the story grew from a misunderstood segment of one of the nature films pumped out by the Disney studios in the 1950’s.
I remembered the film, one of the many in the True Life Adventure series, some of which remain highly regarded. In fact, as I stumbled upon a description of the series, three in the series won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. Two of the three probably deserved to be highly regarded — The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. Both left me with greater appreciation of the world around me, and both inspired something like a rudimentary sensitivity to environmental issues. The third, however, White Wilderness, was a fraud.
98% of the film presented a highly edited but essentially accurate picture of a wilderness most of us would never see. Climate change has guaranteed that the film remains one of the few opportunities to see the Arctic as it was, so much of the film has value. Later, nosy purists discovered that one of the most entertaining sequences, that of a polar bear cub sliding down an Arctic ice mountain, was actually filmed in a studio in Calgary. Disappointing, perhaps, but bottom line, as it were, the bear was an actual bear, and it actually slid. The image had sustained appeal, however, and perhaps was among the inspirations for the brilliant advertising campaign designed for Coca Cola by my friend, Ken Stewart. Polar bear cubs have been sliding down holiday setting since 1993 and I, for one, never tire of bear cubs, or Clydesdale horses, for that matter. There is not time enough today to address the bizarre rumor that the bears have been pulled from the shelves because they were “too white”. Let’s leave that one alone and return to the Lemmings.
By now you’ve jumped to the obvious observation that the mass extinction of lemmings was staged. It was, and I thought that was the extent of the polar lie, but, no, mes amis, it gets much darker.
Let’s start with the notion that contrary to every instinct in nature, an entire species decides to just give it all up, take the leap, and leave all worries behind. Unlikely at best, and problematical. Let’s say that lemmings do just as the Disney team alleges. Ok, where does the next generation of lemmings come from? Do they keep a spare set somewhere on ice? Is there a lottery? Do only male lemmings over the age of procreative power gather annually for the rite of final passage?
Then too, does virtual extinction happen at the same time of year in the same location? How does it happen that a camera crew is on hand just as the lemmings get the itch?
Well, clearly the lemming myth is piffle, and I have to wonder why it has had such staying power as an urban or polar legend? I bought it until I didn’t… because pictures don’t lie. I saw the critters in the air. I saw the heaps of extinguished lemmings. Man, what more did I need to tuck that reality away in the box of things not to be questioned?
Naturalists among us already know that the lemmings don’t even naturally exist where the scene was filmed. Want dark? In order to film in Alberta, a province without a coast, the Disney team had to import lemmings, buying the little cuties from Inuit children in Manitoba who gladly scooped them up for sale. Want darker? You can get lemmings to move, but if you want the off-the-cliff shot, you have to throw them over the edge, which is exactly what some sure-fingered Disney minions did.
Do lemmings move in large groups? They do, and some do not survive immersion in cold water if they have to ford a river. I’m pretty sure, however, that “goodbye cruel world” is not their anthem as they scurry in search of food and shelter.
I’m grateful to my wife for using a phrase that pushed me into digging up some dirt on the Disney version. Some stories take on a life of their own, it seems, even when they are most unlikely to be true. Good to be reminded, and good to take a moment to honor the fuzzy little rodents, uprooted from their Manitoban home, and flung from a cliff in Alberta.