It all began with a mouse, of course, and Walt's love and respect for animals. But reference material shot for animators working on Bambi (1942) caught his eye and he began thinking of a way to make a movie based on real animals. He contacted Alfred and Elma Milotte, who spent summer vacations in Alaska to film the animals there. Walt asked them to see what kind of footage they could get on the native seals.
As the Milottes turned in 16mm film of anything they thought might be interesting, James Algar and Winston Hibler devised a story based on the edits and Hibler recorded the narration. Oliver Wallace's musical accompaniment added the finishing touch. But Disney's then-distributor RKO hated the concept. With the help of a friend, Walt was able to show Seal Island in a theater for two weeks, qualifying it for an Academy Award nomination, and it won Best Short Film Two Reel in 1949. The next three "Adventures"--Beaver Valley, Nature's Half Acre, and Water Birds--won the same in 1951, 1952, and 1953, respectively.
True to their titles, the "True-Life Adventures" were never afraid to present the more gruesome side of animal existence. Big cats eat wildebeests, weasels eat squirrels, and eagles eat weasels. Such is life, but they also portray that "Ahhh, so cute!" stage with baby bears, squirrels, seals, wallabies, sea horses, you name it. The African Lion (1955) eventually became reference material for the animated feature The Lion King (1995 Best Original Score and Best Original Song.)
The voice of Winston Hibler, "Hibby" to friends, was a huge reason for the success of the films. His baritone never interfered with the story even though he was the storyteller. Hibler's whimsical descriptions often elicit a smile or a laugh. For example, when baby Goldeneye ducks must leap from their treetop nest without flight he merrily states "Lacking wings for things you add more bounce to the ounce!" as the ducks ricochet to the ground. This style of narration has endured through many Disney shows even to this day.
The "True-Life Adventures" won a total of eight Academy Awards and were profitable for Disney. The Living Desert (1954 Best Documentary) cost a mere $500,000, but grossed $5 million. But with the ready availability of television in the late 1950's, the theatrical series was discontinued in favor of TV shows and other ventures. In the next decades they would be relegated to elementary school classrooms or to Disney's TV hour.
But over the years, the "True-Life Adventures" have not been forgotten due to the tireless work of Roy Edward Disney, son of Roy O. Disney, Walt's brother and company co-founder. Roy E. began his career at Disney working in the shipping room after having earned a Bachelors degree in English (he would have been an aeronautical engineer if it weren't for a failure in calculus). He had just received his Union card when he was approached to be the Assistant Film Editor on The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie (1955 Best Documentary).
"It was a job!" says Roy, who never counted on working for his father's company and was thankful for the employment. "The boss came and said I've got a job as an assistant to the film editor, do you want to do it?" Mentored by Hibler, he soon fell in love with the material, especially the story of Perri (1957) the squirrel. He spent a year in Utah wielding the camera, shooting the behind the scenes story called "Adventure in Wildwood Heart." Roy was particularly blessed with patience and a memory for film and so was soon performing other tasks, eventually heading 16mm Production and then Animation.
Roy E. has been known as the Walt Disney Company's chief champion and creative defender, but the "True-Life Adventures" have always had a special place in his heart. In the early 2000's Roy, then on the Board of Directors, began pushing for the "True-Life" films to be restored and released on DVD, but CEO Michael Eisner scrapped the project, some think in retaliation for Roy's public disapproval of his management of the company.