The White Wilderness Controversy Is Explained As A Disney Documentary Reappears

Users on TikTok are debating if the movie studio caused lemmings to die prematurely because of a 1950s Disney nature program; it’s as crazy as it sounds, we assure you. 

Walt Disney Productions produced several wildlife documentaries in the 1950s, exploiting the popularity of Technicolor in movies. The 1948–1960 True-Life Adventures series used many of those documentaries. Disney achieved global popularity through the animation sector, but the True-Life Adventure series, which the firm earned eight Academy Awards for, was just as successful in the documentary field.

However, a few scenes—notably White Wilderness and one specific lemmings-related scene—have recently been scrutinized.

White Wilderness Premieres In 1958

Seal Island (1948), Beaver Valley (1950), and Nature’s Half Acre were the first three nature documentaries produced by Walt Disney Productions (1951). The studio produced 19 wildlife documentaries between 1948 and 1960, some of which were feature-length and others brief.

The Disney nature documentary wave peaked around the time White Wilderness was released. It was released in 1958, the same year Grand Canyon and Ama Girls received the Documentary Short Subject Oscar at the 31st Academy Awards (1959). At the 31st Academy Awards, White Wilderness would also be successful, winning Best Documentary Feature. Winston Hibler served as the movie’s narrator under the direction of James Algar.

The White Wilderness Controversy
The White Wilderness Controversy

New York Times Trumpets White Wilderness And That Lemming’s Scene

The New York Times published a story about White Wilderness’s debut in US theatres on August 13, 1958. Howard Thompson, a Times journalist, discussed some of the documentary’s most memorable scenes while describing how the film was made.

Thompson said of the now-infamous lemming’s scene: “One eerie, hypnotic sequence shows a colony of lemmings making their traditional, mysterious ‘death march to the sea, where the jittery little mammals sail off a cliff like tiny parachutes.”

Controversy Resurfaces On TikTok

Since it was published, White Wilderness has come under fire for spreading the notion that lemmings jump from cliffs to their deaths. Cruel Camera, a documentary aired on CBC Television’s The Fifth Estate more than 20 years after White Wilderness was first produced (1982). White Wilderness was one of the main targets of the show Cruel Camera, which examined animal cruelty in Hollywood.

According to Bob McKeown’s book Cruel Camera, the lemming sequence wasn’t shot in the Arctic as the documentary claimed, but rather at Bow River in Canada, close to Calgary. McKeown also spoke with a lemming specialist who refuted many of the assertions made in the program, such as the notion that they would jump from cliffs. Additionally, he asserted that the lemming species depicted in White Wilderness did not migrate.

The Walt Disney Company has been contacted by The Focus for comment. Deep-dives and conspiracy theories are popular on TikTok, so when users gained wind of the White Wilderness debate, it rapidly went viral. TikTok user-made videos regarding the White Wilderness dispute by The Suit Historian’s moniker have since been picked up and replayed.

The Lemmings Seen Are ‘The Wrong Species’

Since the 1958 broadcast of the White Wilderness movie, it has been commonly accepted that lemmings jump to their deaths off cliffs. Since then, anthropologists, scientists, and others have debunked the theory.

Henry Nicholls, a specialist, stated to the BBC (via Smithsonian Magazine): “White Wilderness, which was shot in Canada rather than Scandinavia, represents the wrong species. The tales of mass movements were based on observations of Norwegian lemmings, not the brown lemmings that Disney utilized, even though all lemmings experience population peaks and valleys.

The voiceover says, “This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, hurling themselves bodily out into space,” as lemmings approach the brink of a cliff in the notorious scene. Nils Christian Stenseth, a professor at the University of Oslo, is quoted in the Smithsonian article as saying: “They didn’t march to the sea. From a truck, they were tipped into it.

A Britannia Article Entitled Do Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide

“This myth is founded on real lemming behavior,” it says. Every three to four years, lemming populations experience huge increases. A large group will depart searching for a new habitat when the concentration is too great in one place. Lemmings can swim, so if they come across the water—like a river or lake—they might try to cross it. Some people will inevitably drown. It’s hardly suicide, though.

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