It turns out to be harder than you might imagine to find stills from this movie online that aren’t this one. I didn’t want to use it; I thought maybe one of the nice, pleasant ones of the mother lemming nursing her young could be a good header. But almost all not-plummeting images on Google image search are from other sources, and the ones that aren’t are hopelessly blurry or have text over them or both. So here. Have lemmings plummeting, and we’ll talk about this in a minute.
Elephant in the room aside, this is one of the entries in Disney’s True-Life Adventure series. After a brief introduction telling us about the Ice Age, we launch into an examination of the lives of various Arctic creatures. Polar bears, wolves, caribou, wolverines, walruses, seals—and, yes, lemmings. We’ll get to them. While there are interludes like the common goldeneye’s ducklings having to get down from their tree homes for the first time, the film is for the most part fairly open about the difficulties of staying alive in such a harsh environment. Seal cubs and polar bear cubs are both cute, but the film is frank that the former would be a tasty meal for the latter.
In general, the film focuses on animal families. There are some adorable sequences with a wolf pack; I watched this with Simon, and he was enraptured. He did declare the wolf father to be mean for biting the misbehaving cubs, and I asked if he’d rather we bit him than sending him to his room or what have you. He declined. He doesn’t like dogs, and in fact reiterated his desire for a cat, but he definitely thought the wolf cubs were cute enough to mention in his own review.
However, when we aren’t looking at adorable cubs and ducks and so forth, there’s some pretty serious attention paid to eating. The lemmings (we’re getting there) are vegetarians, but not most of the others. These animals eat each other, and the movie’s open about that. The star of one segment is the intended meal of another, and indeed the lemmings are intended meals during their own segment. This isn’t lighthearted anthropomorphization; this is at least approaching a realistic examination of the lives of Arctic creatures.
Yes, yes—except the lemmings. Okay. Here are the facts about the lemmings.
Most of this movie, presumably excepting the bits with the seals and walruses and so forth, was filmed in landlocked Alberta, Canada. That’s fine; parts of Alberta are tundra, so it’s not unreasonable. Except the part where they filmed at least some of this in studios and the lemming stuff on the banks of the Bow River, not far from Calgary. (That’s not the Arctic Sea in the lemming sequence, it turns out.) Now, there are lemmings in Alberta, but they don’t migrate. So the makers of the movie had the right species of lemming brought in from Manitoba, apparently paying Inuit children to capture them.
Well. You start to see the problem there. But it’s deeper than that; the movie sanctimoniously informs us that “It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.” Only they then go on to say it’s this population pressure thing that happens ever like seven years or so, and the lemmings travel en masse to find new feeding grounds, and they mistake the Arctic for just a really big lake, get exhausted, and drown. And this isn’t true, either. When the food availability increases, lemmings spread out in territory. Sometimes, they accidentally drown because of unfamiliarity with their new area. And that’s it.
It’s actually kind of common behaviour in animals—they disperse for reasons to do with population pressure and food availability, and not all of them survive. Why lemmings have caught the popular imagination on the subject, I have no idea. But rather than talk about it, someone—and no one seems to know who anymore—made the decision to fake it. So you get a few dozen Manitoban immigrant lemmings cleverly filmed to seem like hundreds of them, running on a revolving platform to make it look like they’re in a frenzy, and then hucked off a cliff into a river that is a tributary of the Saskatchewan River and eventually makes its way to Hudson Bay by way of Lake Winnipeg.
It’s disappointing, really, because a lot of the rest of the documentary is, to my knowledge, pretty accurate. Maybe that baby polar bear sliding down the hill was also filmed in a studio outside Calgary, but other than that, the movie seems mostly to have been pretty decent nature shooting. I don’t know for sure, because I’m not an expert on the subject, but there it is. And you get pretty decent information about what these animals eat, and a bird using the wind to actually hover over the fake lemming migration (we don’t see what’s actually below it, so who knows?), and some really great footage of icebergs falling into rivers in the spring thaw.
All in all, it’s a shame that it’s so well known for lemming-faking, because other than that, it’s really worth watching. And, for the curious, Simon did not really understand what they were saying was going on with the lemmings. When they showed a few survivors—the whole “and then the species goes on, because not all lemmings” thing—he just took it for granted that the lemmings we were watching now were the ones that had been swimming, and they were done with their swimming and were now back on the land. I did not dissuade him of this belief; it’s no faker than the rest of the scene, right?