Page last updated at 14:37 GMT, Friday, 25 September 2009 15:37 UK

Disney gets back to nature films

The Crimson Wing
Lake Natron is home to East Africa's largest flocks of Lesser Flamingos

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Sixty years on from the release of Walt Disney's first True-Life Adventure, a documentary about flamingos in East Africa sees the studio return to wildlife films.

In tone, style and message, however, The Crimson Wing could not be further removed from such 1950s classics as The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie.

The Crimson Wing
The bird has a dark red bill and bright crimson feathers and legs

Back then audiences warmed to the films' lively, humorous vision of a natural world many were encountering for the first time.

By having a narrator assign human characteristics to their subjects, meanwhile, the likes of Seal Island and Beaver Valley encouraged viewers to identify and empathise with the various creatures on display.

Disney's True-Life Adventures were groundbreaking for their time and were rewarded with a string of Academy Awards.

By today's standards, though, they may seem sentimental, cloying and manipulative - at least as far as The Crimson Wing's British co-directors are concerned.

"If you watch a True-Life Adventure now, you quickly realise wildlife programming has evolved in the past 60 years," says Dulwich-born Matthew Aeberhard.

'Honest story'

"But Disney were the originators of wildlife cinema, so it makes sense for them to be involved.

"People equate Disney with the cutesy and the fluffy," continues the 41-year-old, whose movie is being released under the studio's newly launched Disneynature label.

The Crimson Wing
The birds get their distinctive plumage from the lake's spirulina algae

"What I hope we've done, though, is tell an honest story that doesn't shy away from the realities of life."

Set on the shores of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania, The Crimson Wing records what co-director Leander Ward calls "one of the most beautiful sights in nature".

The 36-year-old is talking about the extraordinary gathering of 1.5 million Lesser Flamingos that turns this isolated spot into a vision of primordial pink.

Narrated by broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, the film records how these alien-looking birds raise their young by the shallow salt lake whose blue-green algae gives them their distinctive plumage.

It also shows how their grey chicks can fall prey to the marauding Marabou storks who patiently wait at the fringes of the flock to pick off the unwary.

'Hope and renewal'

"We made a conscious effort to keep elements of reality, because it provides drama and meaning," Aeberhard explains.

"One of the lessons nature tells us is that life is not always great and it's a struggle at times.

The Crimson Wing
Baby flamingos are born grey and do not fly until they are around 10 weeks

"You can't expect anyone to get emotionally involved with the story if you strip that out and fail to be true to the subject.

"But the other side to that is it's also full of beauty and bounty, hope and renewal."

One of the film's most poignant sights is that of small flamingo chicks rendered helpless by salt shackles encrusted on their ankles.

Once separated from the pack, they make an easy meal for a peckish stork or an opportunistic hyena.

Ward admits it was hard to stay detached. "Nature's cruelty can be heartbreaking to watch," he told the BBC News website.

"But if we'd jumped out of the hide where we were filming to save a chick, it could have caused the entire colony to be abandoned."

'Mission statement'

When the impact was negligible, though, Ward says he and his crew did occasionally step in.

"We broke a number of anklets off these chicks, and we felt pretty good about it," he reveals.

March of the Penguins
The film follows 2005's Oscar-winning documentary March of the Penguins

Part of the True-Life Adventures' original appeal was the way they introduced audiences to the wider world around them.

These days, though, nature documentaries can not sidestep the fact that the environments and wildlife they depict are under threat.

"I think a film like The Crimson Wing has to come with some sort of mission statement," agrees Matthew Aeberhard.

"It would have been lazy of us not to allude to the fact that these places are endangered.

"Cinema can encourage people to form an emotional connection to nature - to take note of what a beautiful world we still have and do something about it before it's too late.

"Hopefully, at least a few people will do that through watching our film."

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos is out in the UK on 25 September.

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