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Episode 8

Nature in films

In this episode we explore how nature is depicted in films and share ideas for using film to explore themes in ecology and conservation.

As more people move to urban areas, and our lives get more technology focused, our experiences of nature increasingly come from media sources rather than first-hand experience. Research from marketing and advertising has shown that media depictions of a place can have a big impact on our image of a place and our desire to visit (Kim and Richardson, 2003). It seems likely that how nature is depicted in film could influence our desire to get outdoors and shape our expectations for what nature and wildlife are like. In Disney films, natural environments have become visually simpler and wildlife less diverse (Prevot, Julliard, and Clayton, 2014).

Spoiler alert for The Lion King, Avatar, and all three How to Train Your Dragon films

Ecology and realism in The Lion King

The circle of life theme, in both the 1994 and 2019, films is an excellent link to concepts of relationships between parts of an ecosystem.

  • Food chains make a good introduction to the topic.

Lions > Antelope > Grass.

  • Circle of Life is a richer picture, following the flow of energy/nutrients.

Lions eat antelope. When lions die their bodies are broken down and become part of the soil. Grass grows in the soil. Antelope eat the grass.

The 2019 film includes an excellent pair of scenes which can lead to deeper discussions. In the first Timon describes his view of life as a series of parallel lines; our lives are lived until the end of that line and the balance is to not impact anyone else’s line. Soon after, a tuft of Simba’s fur blows away on the wind and touches on the lives of other creatures before finally making its way to Rafiki.

Simba’s return to a desolated Pridelands illustrates an extreme potential result of disruption to an ecosystem. Over-hunting of large herbivores can lead to dramatic changes in vegetation. Loss of large herbivores in particular may have impacts on the whole landscapes.

A few related articles:

The 2020 Lion King also has remarkable CGI. While it lacks the brightness and vibrancy of the original movie, the realism of the animals and habitats may facilitate sustained engagement with nature. Pumba is the most stark example of the difference. The original animated pumba is an incredibly lovable character but he is only recognizable as a warthog from his general shape. The unrealistic, ‘Disneyfied’ image of what a warthog may set people up for a negative shock when they see a real one. A realistic looking, yet still endearing, warthog may be a first impression which petter prepares people for the real thing.

Humans and the environment in Avatar

Avatar presents a fairly clear cut story of humans exploiting natural resources and harming local populations and ecosystems. This can be used as a starting point to a deeper discussion around why people are seeking to exploit those resources, and what the potential consequences are for those people if they do not.

Deforestation on Borneo acts as a real-life example of the complex issues behind what on the surface appears to be simple resources extraction for profit. Communities on Borneo often resort to logging as a way of generating extra income to pay for large or unexpected medical expenses.

For more details about work tackling this kind of deforestation see:

How to train your Dragon and live sustainably with wildlife

The How to Train Your Dragon series of films is another excellent series for exploring the different ways humans and animals can interact. Initially we see the Birkians fearing and killing the dragons. They do not see a way to live with the dragons, only the threats that they pose. Eventually Hiccup discovers ways to avoid conflict with the Dragons, eventually showing the others that they can live together with the dragons.

Real world connections

  • Images of sharks as dangerous killers
  • Farmer conflicts with predators like big cats or wolves.
  • Rural community conflicts with large animals like elephants or bears

The second film explores the nature of the human-dragon relationship. We see the Birkians develop willing partnerships with the dragons and confronting an enemy who has dominated them; using dragons for his own ends against their will.

Real world connections

  • Animals as pets. Is there a difference between ‘domestic’ animals and ‘wild’ animals as pets?
  • Animals in zoos vs. circuses

In the third installment we see the Birkians rescuing dragons from poachers and protecting them in their village. The situation is at once awe inspiring and clearly unsustainable. Just as we could protect all elephants by them in a giant zoo, but it would be wildly impractical and impossible for us to sustain. We are left with a bittersweet ending where dragons must live in a place totally inaccessible to people. Discussions could be had here around the pros/cons/feasibility of totally segregating people and wildlife.

  • Real world connections
  • Conservation in-situ (in the wild) vs. ex-situ (in captivity)
  • Pros and cons of conservation areas which allow access to people.

Papers discussed

Kim, Hyounggon & Richardson, Sarah. (2003). Motion Picture Impacts on Destination Images. Annals of Tourism Research. 30. 216-237. 10.1016/S0160-7383(02)00062-2.

Prevot, Anne-Caroline & Julliard, Romain & Clayton, Susan. (2014). Historical evidence for nature disconnection in a 70-year time series of Disney animated films. Public understanding of science (Bristol, England). 24. 10.1177/0963662513519042.

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