Plus or Minus #020: The Vanishing Prairie

Plus or Minus is a series detailing and analyzing every feature film now streaming on Disney+. It combines the unique history all these films share, their cultural impacts, and their qualities, or lack thereof. From timeless classics, to acquired hits, to DCOMs, no stone will be left unturned.

Last time on Plus or Minus, we watched The Living Desert, the first feature-length True-Life Adventure. A prototype to the now typical nature documentary, the critical and financial success of this movie, as well as these movies being super cheap to make, meant more were on the way. And just one year later, we have The Vanishing Prairie, our next Plus or Minus feature. This time, director James Algar and writer/narrator Winston Hibler give a viewers a guide of the prairie. Vast grasslands, few trees, and fertile soil. Its inhabitants include the buffalo, the mountain lion, the pronghorn antelope, the prairie dog, the bighorn sheep, and many more.

As you may recall, I was not a fan of The Living Desert. It was revolutionary for its time, but the presentation was dry, the attempts at comedy were cheesy, and it sometimes didn’t feel like the movie was actually showing True Life. Coming out a year later, I expect little to change. If anything, it could be worse, as I feel the prairie location won’t leave much to the imagination. So is this another Minus?

Surprisingly Better?

To my own surprise, I actually kind of enjoyed this at points. Still far from perfect and plagued with some of the same issues as The Living Desert. Yet this one was more engaging and excelled at its craft a lot better. Like The Living Desert, the cinematography is really strong and captivating. And this time, the editing, while still clearly manipulated for a joke at times, feels a lot more tighter and relaxed. There’s a lot of scenes of the animals living their lives and walking through the prairie that are very pretty and enthralling. Sometimes all you need for documentaries is just showing life.

Image from "The Vanishing Prairie". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

Even some of the comedy bits, while eye-rolling at points, is a lot more entertaining. There’s an entire scene where a group of ducks are sliding on an icy pond. That’s already cute enough as is, but for whatever reason, the filmmakers put on “Ride of the Valkyries”. And there’s cartoony sound effects when the ducks slip and fall and bump into each other. Why was that the song used? Why were all these effects added into the film? I don’t know. But it made me laugh and brought in some needed charm.

Still Has the Same Problems

Sadly, not everything has improved here. The presentation is certainly stronger visually and editing-wise, but a lot of the trappings The Living Desert fell into are still seen here. The movie has to go through tons of different animals in the span of one hour, so it makes it hard to absorb all the information given. You see one animal do its thing for a few minutes, then the narrator goes over to the next one. Maybe if there was a greater focus on one or two animals or the movie was longer, this would be fine. But with so much fauna to learn about in an hour, I just feel kind of lost in the end.

Plus there’s still the big issue of authenticity. Again, like Living Desert, I can’t prove what the filmmakers did. But the film has a left-field forest fire climax and I’m sure a few conflicts were staged to get some money shots. The next True-Life Adventure, The African Lion, seems to be more focused, which should hopefully be better. Though I’m still a little shaky on how accurate it really is.

Image from "The Vanishing Prairie". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

Plus or Minus?

I know this review was pretty short, but there’s really not much to this. It’s a nature documentary about the prairie and prairie animals. Charming at points while pretty dry in others. It’s about as middle-of-the-road as you can get to be quite honest. So…is it Plus or Minus for The Vanishing Prairie? It’s certainly an improvement in many regards, but there’s still a lot of annoying trappings. And honestly, by the time the film reached the halfway point, I was growing restless and annoyed, even with a short runtime. There’s far worse to watch, but there’s plenty better documentaries out there. In fact, there’s probably some engaging prairie-themed content in the National Geographic tab on Disney+ right now. So yeah, it’s a marginal Minus, but a Minus all the same.

NEXT TIME: Disney goes all out in the underwater epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. With big stars and massive production values, is this Richard Fleischer tale a Plus or Minus?