When ‘Bambi’ premiered 75 years ago in 1942, the Walt Disney Studios was at a major turning point. ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ had been a legendary success, but despite the critical acclaim, neither ‘Pinocchio’ nor ‘Fantasia’ had been financially successful. Disney had pushed his artists further with each film in his pursuit of perfection, with each new project taking longer and costing more. ‘Bambi’ was their most ambitious undertaking yet, an almost impressionistic coming-of-age fable set in the animal world, with a standard of animation that to this day is still some of the finest ever captured on film. Like all the pictures from this first act in the history of Walt Disney Animation, it is unquestionably a masterpiece, but it also represents the end of that act with both the failure of the film and the impending Second World War causing a tectonic shift in the studio.
I can’t really remember the first time I saw ‘Bambi’. I was part of that lucky generation who was able to see many of the great Disney classics on the big screen before home entertainment really took over, so I have memories of seeing ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Peter Pan’. I don’t think ‘Bambi’ ever made much of an impression on me though. It’s more a series of moments than a traditional narrative, and doesn’t have the bawdy humour of the later Disney films that would appeal to a kid’s attention. It’s also at points quite slow and melancholy, and even at 70 minutes asks a lot of a young audience to pay attention. When I revisited it as an adult though, I was struck heavily by what an enormously beautiful film it is. Where its emotional punch might have gone over my head as a young child, now it hit me square in the face.
When animation is talked about as being an art form, ‘Bambi’ is one of the examples that always comes up, not just for its incredible technical accomplishment but for its unexpected humanity. The film is essentially a coming-of-age story about a young fawn named Bambi. The first half has Bambi growing up and exploring the world of the forest, accompanied by his best friends, a plucky little rabbit named Thumper and a gentle young skunk whom Bambi names Flower. When Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter, he is taken under his wing by the Great Stag, his father and the King of the Forest. The film then moves to Bambi’s return to the forest and his move into adulthood, falling in love with beautiful fawn Feline, fighting for his dominance in the forest and protecting it from the encroaching reach of man. There’s barely a thousand words of dialogue in the film, much of it made up of vignettes where we see Bambi and his friends navigating the world around them. The gags that had been such a staple of the early Disney shorts fall away, replaced by intricate and carefully observed character studies about those key moments, both wonderful and terrible, that happen in the process of growing up.
Based on the novel by Felix Salten, ‘Bambi’ was one of the first major projects developed by Disney and his team as a feature film that would follow ‘Snow White’, but the enormous artistic demands of the film, coupled with those of ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’, delayed its completion until 1942. This process involved distilling Salten’s adult novel to something more aimed at children, and a push for a new level of realism in the depiction of animals in animation. The lead animators were given the opportunity to study the animals featured in the film intimately, both in zoos and in the studio itself. We might dismiss the representation of the animals now as cartoonish but if you compare Thumper to the rabbits in ‘Snow White’ only five years earlier, the difference is staggering – in ‘Bambi’, the character animation is far more sophisticated and emotional, with many animators today still studying the work done in the early 40s for the film. It’s in the finer details that their research proved vital, so rather than capturing the anthropomorphic accuracy of a fawn, the animators studied how they move, where their centre of gravity was and the energy these animals gave.
The other important aspect of the character design was understanding the age of these characters, and much of the actions and reactions were based on observing the behaviour of children. Many of the voice actors informed the personalities of the characters, mainly young children, and their spontaneity in the recording studio (especially from Peter Behn who voiced Young Thumper) led to a remarkable level of authenticity. Perhaps one of the reasons ‘Bambi’ elicits such an emotional reaction as an adult is in how perfectly it captures the spirit of childhood and the transition into adulthood in its exuberance, pathos and heartbreak.
Which brings us to the most iconic aspect of ‘Bambi’ – the death of his mother. It’s a startling, horrifying moment, but one devoid of exploitation or excess. For us now, it’s a devastating moment, but in 1942 no one had seen such a moment in a film deemed for children’s entertainment. Disney believed in presenting the honesty of life, particularly in those early films. All of the pre-war Disney films feature shocking or confronting moments, but the death of Bambi’s mother is still the most potent. For many children, it was and is their introduction to the concept of death and their parents’ mortality. Many audiences swear her death is shown on-screen, swear they can remember seeing her shot, but the film has no such moment. It’s a stroke of genius that her death happens off-screen, a leap and a cut-away with the echo of a shot gun, one often imitated in animation but never bettered. Instead, we have Bambi lost in the snow, small and alone, and when told "Your mother can’t be with you anymore", he doesn’t yell or protest, but hangs his head and sheds a single tear. It still takes my breath away that an image so simple can be so devastating.
When animation is talked about as being an art form, ‘Bambi’ is one of the examples that always comes up, not just for its incredible technical accomplishment but for its unexpected humanity.
There is another key aspect to what still makes ‘Bambi’ a shockingly beautiful visual feast, and that was the contribution of Chinese artist Tyrus Wong. An animator at the studio since the late 30s, he had shown his impressionist paintings inspired by Song dynasty classical Chinese art to chief background artist Maurice Day, who as a consequence appointed Wong as art director of a film. This meant that Wong would set the overall visual look of the film, combining the research Day had done in the woods in the east United States with his own remarkable style. The most technically remarkable choice Wong made though was to construct the perspective of the backgrounds so that there was more detail in the centre of the frame than on the edges, drawing the audience’s eyes to the centre and to the characters. It sounds so simple, but combined with further advancements with the multiplane camera, gave the film a startling sense of visual depth. Wong’s contribution to ‘Bambi’ and consequentially the history of animation is immense, the principles he had established influencing animated films to this day. As a Chinese immigrant though, his contribution remained largely unknown for many decades and only later in his life was it rightly acknowledged and his place as a major artist in the history of animation established, of which ‘Bambi’ is his crowning achievement.
Every time I rewatch ‘Bambi’, I’m still awed by the endless magic of it. I haven’t even covered the vocal performances or the extraordinary score, but you could go on and on for pages about the endless innovations and achievements in this film. ‘Bambi’ is a genuine work of art, the final masterpiece from a time where the ambitions of Disney Animation were at their peak. It may have cost the studio dearly at the time, but it is a testament to the artists of that period who, pushed by Disney himself, strived to prove the legitimacy of animation as an art form. Many animators from around the world acknowledge it as a masterpiece and a major influence, and audiences still thrill at its humour and humanity, giggle with glee at its antics and sob at its heartbreak. There’s such an extraordinary gentleness to this film, the kind we rarely see in animation anymore.
The financial losses and the Second World War crippled the Walt Disney Studios for many years, their output consisting of (now uncomfortable) propaganda films and package features that tried to continue the experiment of ‘Fantasia’. When they returned triumphantly to feature animation with ‘Cinderella’, they left behind the visual opulence of ‘Bambi’ and went with the storybook visual simplicity of ‘Dumbo’, their modest 1941 film that had been a rare box office success in that period. In many ways, the studio would never match those masterpieces of the late 30s and early 40s, but the effect of all four of them would resonate through animation till this day.