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Film / The Living Desert

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The Living Desert is a 1953 documentary feature from Disney, directed by James Algar.

It was made as part of Disney's True-Life Adventures series of nature documentaries. The Living Desert focuses on the wildlife of the American deserts of the inter-mountain west. After an opening that explains why the American desert is a desert—namely, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges block the moisture coming in from the Pacific, leaving the land east of the mountains dry—the film focuses in on the animals that live in the western deserts. Birds nest in cacti, bobcats chase wild pigs and are chased in return, tortoises battle for a mate, and flowers bloom.

The Living Desert was the first feature-length entry in the True Life Adventures series, which began with the short film Seal Island in 1948. It also led to a parting of the ways between Disney and RKO, which had been distributing all Disney films since 1937. After RKO refused to distribute The Living Desert, Walt Disney founded Buena Vista Film Distribution Co. as Disney's in-house distribution arm. The Living Desert grossed over $4,000,000 against a $300,000 budget, making it Disney's biggest profit-maker up to that point.


  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Chuckwalla lizards are described as "diminutive dinosaurs who dine on daisies."
  • All of the Other Reindeer: One sequence features the story of a skinny ground squirrel who is ostracized by his peers for being a runt until he wards off a poisonous lizard.
  • Animated Credits Opening: Starts with an animated sequence depicting the trade winds which bring rain to the Pacific coast, and how the Sierras and Cascades block the rain from the inter-mountain West, leaving it a vast desert. Then the film cuts to live-action with a shot of Mount Whitney.
  • Artistic License – History: The Salton Sea is described as the "remainder of an ancient ocean." Actually the Salton Sea, formerly the Salton Sink, was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed a canal and a dam burst, flooding the basin.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Many close-ups of flowers blooming in the desert.
  • Dramatization: As with most nature documentaries of the era, the bulk of the action was staged, with the filmmakers putting animals in studio sets made to look like the desert.
  • Eerily Out-of-Place Object: The "sailing stones" of Death Valley, which leave tracks as they sail across the salt flats, a motion that in 1953 had never been observed and wasn't understood. (It took 60 more years and time-lapse photography to reveal that high winds and temporary ice sheets caused by condensation were the cause.)
  • Invited as Dinner: Or so the narrator describes it when a tarantula comes out of its hole to catch a beetle.
    "Guests that might pop over for dinner—her dinner, of course."
  • Love Triangle: A male tortoise is making mating displays to a female when another male tortoise shows up. They fight, eventually one male flips the other male over, and the winner goes off with the female.
  • Narrator: Winston Hibler, who also co-wrote the script, narrates. The narration is drolly humorous, and serves to provide comedy, anthropomorphize the animals, and make them come off as "cute".
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: The "tarantula hawk", not actually a hawk but a wasp. It kills a tarantula with a poison sting and then moves a large rock (which, to a human, is like towing a 30-ton truck with your teeth) while digging a hole to bury its victim for her young to feast on.
  • Scenery Porn: Most of the film was obviously shot on soundstages but there are some shots of the desert Southwest in all its beauty. One scene shows Monument Valley, star of many a John Ford film.
  • Title Drop: Two for the price of one, as the narrator says that "This True Life Adventure is the story of nature's living desert."
  • Time Lapse: Used for the final, beautiful sequence of desert flowers blooming after rain.