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The Living Desert

For the zoo called the same, see the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.
The Living Desert
File:Living Prairie.jpg
Film poster for the double-feature release of The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie
Directed by James Algar
Produced by Ben Sharpsteen
Written by James Algar
Winston Hibler
Narrated by Winston Hibler
Music by Paul J. Smith
Cinematography Robert H. Crandall
N. Paul Kenworthy Jr.
Edited by Norman R. Palmer
Distributed by Buena Vista Distribution
Release dates
November 10, 1953
Running time
69 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $300,000
Box office $2.6 million (US)[1]

The Living Desert is a 1953 American nature documentary film that shows the everyday lives of the animals of the desert of the southwestern United States. The movie was written by James Algar, Winston Hibler, Jack Moffitt (uncredited) and Ted Sears. It was directed by Algar, with Hibler as the narrator and was filmed in Tucson, Arizona. The film won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.[2]

It is featured in the 2006 DVD Walt Disney Legacy Collection Volume 2: Lands of Exploration.


The Living Desert was the first feature-length film in Disney’s True-Life Adventures series of documentaries focusing on zoological studies; the previous films in the series, including the Academy Award-winning Seal Island, were short subjects.[3]

The documentary was filmed in Tucson, Arizona. Most of the wildlife shown in the film was donated to what would soon become the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The film was inspired by 10 minutes of footage shot by N. Paul Kenworthy Jr., a doctoral student at the University of California at Los Angeles. Kenworthy’s footage of a battle between a tarantula and a wasp intrigued Disney, who funded a feature-length production following the lives of diverse desert species. Disney was highly supportive of Kenworthy’s work and its impact on nonfiction filmmaking, stating, “This is where we can tell a real, sustained story for the first time in these nature pictures.”[3]


Prior to the production of The Living Desert, Disney was releasing his films through RKO Radio Pictures. But due to a long-frayed relation with the studio, which had little enthusiasm for the producer's documentary releases, Disney opted to sever his relation with RKO and create his own distribution subsidiary – Buena Vista Distribution, which he named after the street where his office was located.[3]

The Living Desert received some criticism for bringing unsubtle humor to its scenes of desert life – Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Disney to task for adding jokey musical effects to several of the film’s scenes, including hoedown music for a sequence involving a scorpion battle.[4] Nonetheless, the film was a commercial success: the US$300,000 production grossed US$4,000,000 at the box office.[3]


The Academy Award that Disney earned for The Living Desert helped the producer make history as the individual with the most Oscar wins in a single year. At the 26th Academy Awards, in addition to winning the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Disney also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for The Alaskan Eskimo and the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) for Bear Country.[5]

In addition to its Oscar, the film also won the International Prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival,[6] an award at the Berlin Film Festival[7] and a special achievement award from the Golden Globe Awards.[8][9] In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[10]


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  2. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "NY Times: The Living Desert". NY Times. Retrieved November 8, 2008. 
  3. ^ a b c d Bob Thomas (1976). Walt Disney: An American Original. Pocket Books. pp. 248–9. ISBN 0-671-66232-5. 
  4. ^ Bosley Crowther (November 10, 1953). "The Living Desert". The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2009. 
  5. ^ "1953 Academy Awards Winners and History". Retrieved October 13, 2009. 
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Living Desert". Retrieved January 25, 2009. 
  7. ^ "4th Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners". Retrieved December 24, 2009. 
  8. ^ "True-Life Adventures: The Living Desert". British Film Institute. Retrieved October 13, 2009. 
  9. ^ "The Living Desert". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved October 13, 2009. 
  10. ^ "Films Selected to the National Film Registry". U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved October 13, 2009. 

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