Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek
Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don't look back!
Keep running! Keep running!
All of the animals in the forest gather to greet the newly-born prince, a fawn named Bambi (Donnie Dunagan). Under the watchful eye of his mother (Paula Winslowe), he begins to explore the forest and learn its ways, often joined by rambunctious young rabbit Thumper (Peter Behn) and sensitive young skunk Flower (Stan Alexander). Bambi’s life is shattered though when, in the depths of winter, his mother is killed by Man, a hunter in the forest. He is taken under the wing of his father, the Great Prince of the Forest (Fred Shields), and later returns as an adolescent (Hardie Albright). He reconnects with Thumper and Flower, and with Faline (Ann Gills), a doe he had known as a child and now falls in love with. The return of Man to the forest puts all the animals in danger, and a rogue forest fire destroys their homes. Bambi rescues Faline, and as spring returns, they welcome their own set of twin fauns, the cycle of nature beginning again.
While 'Bambi' is the fifth film in the Disney animated canon, it was the second to enter production after 'Snow White'. The film is based on German author Felix Salten’s novel 'Bambi: A Life in the Woods', published in serialised form in Vienna in 1922, in book form in 1923 and in english translation in 1928. The book, which follows the life of a male roe deer from birth to becoming a parent, was widely considered an instant classic and is one of the first environmental novels.
The U.S. publishers had initially approached Disney with the film rights in the early 1930s, but in 1933, MGM producer and director Sidney Franklin purchased them and began developing it as a live-action project. Joseph Schenck at United Artists, who was Walt Disney’s distributor at the time, tried to broker a deal for Disney and Franklin to produce the project together as a feature film, an idea even Roy Disney was enthusiastic about, suggesting a 1934 release. After years of work though, it became clear that live-action would be too difficult, and Franklin himself approached Walt Disney to take sole ownership of the project in 1935. He became intrigued by the possibilities, and bought the rights from Franklin in April 1937, beginning work on the film immediately.
Disney intended 'Bambi' to be the studio’s follow-up to 'Snow White', but quickly realised that, even with the shift to animation, adapting Salten’s novel would be a challenge. The novel was aimed at adults, at times grim and violent, and it would take a considerable amount of story work to make it fit the mould of a Disney animated film. Disney also wanted to push for greater realism than had been achieved in animation before, but the animation staff did not yet have the skills to achieve this, especially when it came to the complex anatomy of deer.
Following the release of 'Snow White', it was decided that 'Pinocchio' would be their follow-up, but work still continued on 'Bambi'. Rather than rush the process, Disney allowed the team to take their time, perfect their skills and develop the story. Their work would advance the artform in every single department, now given the time and resources to experiment. In the end, Bambi took four and a half years to complete, the longest of any of the early feature films.
We can’t make them straight animals, we want to caricature animals as animals, not as humans, not as though some human was dressed up in a deer suit. A straight anatomical study of animals won’t work, but if we go too far on the human side, well, that won’t work. What we have to try to do is make the audience feel, for the duration of the picture, these are real animals.
In the early development stages, the animators found it hard to reconcile the anatomy of a deer with the dramatic action in the story. Their eyes were positioned far apart, on either side of their heads, and the shape of their mouths were not ideal for articulate speech. Production on the film began in August 1939, but rather than rush the process, Disney allowed the artists to take their time, to refine the designs and solve these enormous problems. Without effective solutions, he knew the film would simply not work.
The artists began an intricate study of the natural world. Italian-American painter and sculptor Rico LeBrun was invited to the studio to lecture on his studies and work on animals, focusing on their anatomy, structure and movement. They began by making live study of animals at the Los Angeles Zoo, and later at a smaller zoo set up by Disney at the studio. Ducks, skunks, rabbits and other small creatures were part of the on-site zoo, as well as two fauns which they named Bambi and Feline.
The problem was, as accurate as these studies were, they lacked discernible personality.
You’re seeing a rabbit, anatomically, beautifully drawn rabbit, and you’re seeing a caricature of probably a kid that you knew next door, and you relate to it because of that, you relate to it because it looks like the next door neighbour or like your son or daughter or niece or nephew.
Animator Marc Davis eventually cracked this riddle, taking the anatomical faun studies done with LeBrun and exaggerating the facial features to emulate those of a human baby, shortening the snout, bringing the eyes close together and making them bigger. Much as Bill Tytla had done with 'Dumbo', Bambi’s personality was based more on that of a young child than a faun, and the careful combination of the two elements made for a character with tremendous personality and empathy without sacrificing too much of the realism.
It was an enormous breakthrough for the production, guiding the narrative as well as the visuals, and the same principles were applied to Thumper and Flower. The personalities of the young characters were also influenced by the voice casting. For example, when four-year old Peter Behn was auditioned with a group of other young boys for the role of Thumper, his open and loud personality was so distinctive and rambunctious that his voice informed the character itself, including his inability to remember long sentences.
There were still challenges though. While Bambi’s mouth could accommodate speech, animating the mouth of his mother proved difficult. For this reason, she often speaks off-screen, the image instead focusing on Bambi’s reaction to her. Another issue arose during the inking and painting process. The legs of the deer needed to remain rigid, but the women in Ink & Paint found that they couldn’t trace the in-betweener animation without it resulting in the animation wobbling when in action. To solve this, they suggested that, rather than the in-betweener work being done on paper as was tradition, the in-betweener artists should draw directly onto the cels themselves. This meant much more work, but the results were breathtaking.
We must capture the spirit of reality, interpreted through fantasy.
Early development had already begun on 'Bambi', and as well as studies into animal anatomy, a team of photographers took a photographic study of the woods around Maine, shooting hundreds of images. Initially, the background work on the film attempted to emulate the intricate natural detail of the forest, but the results were intense and overwhelming, and much like the character designs, the art direction team were struggling to solve this visual issue.
When Wong heard about the work being done on 'Bambi', he read the book, created a series of watercolour landscapes using an impressionistic style informed by Song dynasty classical Chinese paintings, and submitted them to art director Tom Codrick for consideration. Codrick immediately recognised that there was something special in Wong’s work, and showed them to Disney, who agreed.
Wong was appointed an art director and conceptual artist on 'Bambi', and his work established the entire visual approach to the film. He created a series of small watercolour and pastel studies that were expanded into full background layouts. They were simple, striking, dramatic and highly emotional, and captured the atmosphere of the forest without overwhelming the image with detail. In a revolutionary turn, he emphasised detail in the centre of the image, where the characters usually would be, and decreased detail towards the edges of the image, drawing the eye towards the centre and the characters. This simple choice would become an industry standard for decades to come.
‘Bambi’ is the Rosetta Stone of animation backgrounds. Its aesthetic is so overwhelming and yet so subtle that it influenced every other animated film since.
Wong was laid-off from the studio in 1941 following the strike, and despite his landmark work, inherent racism towards Chinese-Americans meant that his contribution went unknown for decades. He went on to work for both Warner Bros Animation and for Hallmark, and later in life, a series of retrospective exhibitions of his work brought him the recognition he deserved. In 2013, the Walt Disney Family Museum honoured him with an exhibition, bringing his remarkable work in Bambi to greater public attention.
Tyrus Wong died in 2016 at the age of 106, finally counted as one of the most important artists in the history of animation.
Retta Scott was born in Washington state in 1916, and after graduating in 1934, received two scholarships to further her art studies. Her second scholarship allowed her to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and much of her practice was focused on studying and sketching animals.
The Disney studio had a strong connection with Chouinard, their faculty staff regularly lecturing and teaching at the studio, and as she was graduating, Scott was encouraged to apply for a job there. She was initially uninterested, but the institute’s director, Vern Caldwell, recommended her for work on 'Bambi'.
Scott joined the studio’s story department in 1938, developing storyboards of sequences involving young Bambi and his mother. She also worked on the sequence where Faline is attacked by a group of hunting dogs, and it was these drawings that caught the attention of Disney and the animation team. They were shocked that she had captured animalistic ferocity with such skill, and Disney assigned her to animate the sequence herself.
I developed the hunting dogs into vicious, snarling, really mean beasts. I spent weeks on the dogs and almost every day Rico LeBrun came to my room to give me much advice and support… I finished all three sequences and they were ready for the layout men and the animators. It was then that animator David Hand and Walt felt that I should animate the dogs and the deer in these sequences.
No woman had ever worked as an animator at the studio before, and Scott had very little experience in the form, but under the guidance of director David Hand and the mentorship of Eric Larson, she began work on the sequence. Many of the male animators did not expect Scott to last long, but not only did she complete the sequence on time, it was remarkable work, better than some of her peers’.
Retta was strong, had boundless energy, and drew powerful animals of all kinds from almost any perspective and in any action. No one could match her ability.
Scott became the first woman credited as an animator on a Disney production, but despite this remarkable achievement, this did not shift perceptions in the industry about the role of women. As well as 'Bambi', she contributed to story development on 'Fantasia', 'Dumbo' and 'The Wind in the Willows', but was momentarily laid off following the strike. She retired from the studio in 1946 after getting married, and later did freelance work as an illustrator, as well as a brief return to animation for Martin Rosen’s 'The Plague Dogs' (1982).
Retta Scott died in 1990, and in 2000, the Walt Disney Company posthumously recognised her as a Disney Legend. Her work as an animator was a pioneering moment in the history of the medium, opening the doors for the women to follow her, but she is one of only a few women to be frequently acknowledged in the story of Walt Disney animation.
Churchill was born in October 1901 in Rumford, Maine, and his family moved to California when he was four. He developed a love and aptitude for music at a young age, even playing piano for silent films in cinemas when he was 15, but his parents pushed him to study medicine. He quickly dropped his medical studies to pursue a music career, which included work in Mexico, Arizona and Hollywood.
He joined the Disney studio in 1930 and began composing for the Silly Symphony shorts. It was during one such assignment on Three Little Pigs that he composed "Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?', which became an enormous commercial success and an unexpected anthem during the Depression. Churchill would compose music for nearly 65 shorts, before being given the daunting assignment of composing the songs and score for 'Snow White', along with Paul Smith and Leigh Harline.
The success of 'Snow White' extended to the songs, many of which also became commercial hits, and they were collected in the first-ever commercially released film soundtrack. Churchill was appointed music supervisor at the studio. In 1942, he and Oscar Wallace won an Academy Award for their remarkable score for 'Dumbo', as well as a nomination for 'Baby Mine'. His work would also feature in later films such as 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad' (1949) and 'Peter Pan' (1953), including the deleted but still hugely popular song for the latter, 'Never Smile at a Crocodile'.
Wallace’s score for 'Bambi' though is his triumph, a complex and breathtaking composition, capturing the sweeping emotional scope of the film. The songs, which he co-wrote with Edward Plumb, follow in the same vein as those in 'Dumbo', commenting on the action rather than advancing it and not sung by characters in the film, but in much the same way Tyrus Wong’s artwork captured the impressionistic visual look of the forest, the music in 'Bambi' acts as its voice. Perhaps the most breathtaking example of this is the song 'April Showers', a deceptively complex and thrilling choral work that perfectly captures the sound, movement and electricity of rain drops. Churchill’s score itself amplifies the epic nature of 'Bambi', from the running of the deer to the forest fire to the simple, chilling and iconic theme for Man, coming to a crescendo in the gentle, almost spiritual beauty of 'Love is a Song That Never Ends'.
The score for 'Bambi' is one of the finest ever composed, and would earn Churchill an Oscar nomination, but it would be a posthumous nomination. Frank Churchill committed suicide on the 14th of May 1942, three months before the film was released. He had suffered from severe depression and heavy drinking, and in recent months had suffered the loss of a number of close friends in a short space of time. He was found at his piano.
Churchill’s work is now regarded as a benchmark in the development of film music, and nowhere is that contribution clearer and more ecstatic than in 'Bambi', his crowning achievement. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2001.
Your mother can’t be with you anymore.
The death scene was part of Salten’s original novel, but while many of the darker elements were removed in the adaptation, there was no question that the scene needed to be included in the film. Much thought was put into how the sequence should be visualised, as well as how best to represent Man in the film.
Early concepts included seeing Bambi’s mother actually being shot as she jumped over a log, but screenwriter Larry Morey, who had been given the task of adapting the novel, felt that to show the death would be too dramatic. Instead, her death is implied - we see a series of shots where Bambi is dashing across the meadow, followed by his mother. These shots are repeated, with his mother calling for him to run faster, when suddenly we hear a gunshot. In the following shot, we see Bambi running out of the meadow, but his mother never follows. No major protagonist had ever died in a Disney film before, and the impact was enormous. In the decades since, most audiences have become convinced that they saw the bullet hit Bambi’s mother, even though we never see it in the film, so affecting was the sequence.
It’s going to be quite an impression we’re going to make.
There were also early plans to show Man in the film, mostly as a shadow. They had even considered showing Man’s death at the end of the film, with a shot of his body burnt at the campsite following the forest fire, but just as with the death of Bambi’s mother, it was decided a simpler option would have more impact. “If we can do without showing Man at all”, story director Perce Pearce said in a story meeting, “It makes a much broader menace, it overcasts the whole forest. The minute you start showing a guy, you reduce the whole thing. To them, he should almost be an element.” In the end, it was Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb who offered the most effective solution, a three-note ascending musical phrase that would represent Man’s presence in the forest. It offered a chilling counterpoint to the pastoral beauty of the rest of the score, and its effectiveness has led many to suspect that the theme for Man in Bambi was a major influence on John Williams’ two-note ascending musical phrase for the shark in 'Jaws' (1975).
The death of Bambi’s mother is yet another landmark aspect of Bambi, and is now a foundational example when discussing devastating moments in cinema. Decades later, it would be a reference point for the death of Littlefoot’s mother in Don Bluth’s 'The Land Before Time' (1988) and the death of Mufasa in 'The Lion King' (1994).
- STORY: During development of the ‘twitterpated’ sequence, some of the male staff protested against the idea of the female characters being the more proactive in the courtship. Walt told them to think about their own marriages and how they courted their wives, and the men realised that it had been their wives leading the courtship and proposal.
- ANIMATION: Live action reference of rain was shot for the film on a soundstage against a black background. The footage was still being used as reference into the 1990’s.
- INK & PAINT: Early experiments in photocopying animation to cels rather than inking were explored during the making of Bambi, but the paper stock used by the animators had a tendency to crack, preventing them from effectively being able to photocopy them. Two decades later, they would finally perfect the idea with the xerox process.
- INK & PAINT: 400, 576 cels were inked and painted for the film.
- SOUND: The various bird calls integrated into the sound design of Bambi were provided by professional voice artist and whistler Marion Darlington, known as the ‘Bird Voice of the Movies’.
- SPECIAL EFFECTS: Water effects were achieved with ripple glass, which was optically ground glass that has a distinctive pattern. When it was moved under the camera lens over animation, it created a ripple effect. It was also used for some of the fire effects in the forest fire sequence.
Walt was convinced that 'Bambi' would be the major hit the studio desperately needed. By the summer of 1942, feature film production funding had been completely exhausted, and the studio was surviving almost entirely on their US government contracts they had secured with America entering the Second World War. Walt did go back to Bank of America for a further loan to finish the film, which he only secured after charming them with a personal pitch of the story.
‘Bambi’ is a triumph for Disney in the sense that it probably extends realistic animation as far as it had gone up to that point. But by the time the film came out, it was almost as if Disney, in the course of a couple of years, had become passe.
'Bambi' premiered on the 13th of August 1942 to mostly mixed reviews. After such an enormous push towards realism, it was that very realism that many critics took issue with, put off by the lack of fantasy elements that had, for them, become the Disney feature trademark. “Mr. Disney seems intent on moving from art to artiness,” wrote the New York Times the day following the premiere. “For in trying to achieve a real-life naturalism as the camera does, Mr. Disney is faced with the necessity of meeting those standards, and if he does, why have cartoons at all? One cannot combine naturalism with cartoon fantasy. Because Bambi and his mother are naturalistically conceived, the fact that they speak like people becomes widely incongruous; because the stags are similarly drawn their stiff leaps across the meadow merely throw into relief the failure of pen and brush to catch the fluent movement of real photography. A waterfall that does not ripple with complete realism tears apart the illusion of a naturalistically contrived forest.” There were also protests against the film from hunters in the United States. In the 1942 edition of Outdoor Life, editor Raymond Brown wrote that the film was "...the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen."
The film also followed in the footsteps of 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia' by underperforming at the box office. Blame was once again placed on restricted access to European markets, but there were also mutterings that audiences had started to lose interest in Disney animation, dismissing the film as "same as usual". The magic spark that Disney had captured in 1937 appeared to be fading.
In time though, the fortunes of the film began to shift. With each subsequent re-release, it grew in popularity, both critically and financially. Today, 'Bambi' is regarded as one of the greatest animated films ever made, and a high benchmark for the medium. When the American Film Institute released their 10 Top 10, the best ten films in the ten classic American genres, 'Bambi' placed third in the animation top ten, behind 'Pinocchio' (#2) and 'Snow White' (#1). Perhaps its most unusual honour was being included by Time in their list of the Top 25 Horror Movies of All Time, writing that it "has a primal shock that still haunts oldsters who saw it 40, 50, 65 years ago."
In the pursuit of realism in animation, few films have matched the remarkable artistic brilliance of 'Bambi'. It endures though as a powerful coming-of-age story, one that grappes with the complexities of life and death through the eyes of a child, a story that has lost none of its magic or power.
One of the things that was lost was the great period of Disney experimentation... if you look at those (first five) films individually, they don’t look anything like one another. When you talk about the Disney style, there was no Disney style back then. ‘Pinocchio’ looks nothing like ‘Bambi’. ‘Bambi’ looks nothing like ‘Dumbo’.
It was a period of intense experimentation, daring and instinct, great artists on every level pushing themselves further than they could have imagined, led by a mad genius so hell-bent on perfection and adoration that he was willing to do anything to attain them, regardless of the personal or financial cost. Walt Disney was delivering these classics concurrently with some of the most important American films - 'Gone with the Wind', 'The Wizard of Oz', 'Casablanca', 'The Great Dictator', 'Mr Smith Goes To Washington', 'Citizen Kane' - and yet they feel like films beyond time, beyond place, primal and personal and epic.
By the time 'Bambi' was released though, that golden age had come to a crashing end. The financial struggles of the studio had become too great, and feature film animation was no longer viable. They couldn’t afford the same excess of time or resources, not without putting the company and its employees at a financial risk they may never recover from. “The paradise that Disney had at Hyperion and into the early days of the Burbank studio were gone,” said biographer Neal Gabler in the 2015 PBS documentary on Disney, “and with that paradise lost, the sense of the animations and the greatness of the animations is also lost. It’s never going to be the same again.”
When faced with adversity though, art evolves, and amongst the box office failures, 'Dumbo' was an anomaly - a cost-effective film that had made a significant profit. In order to recover, Walt Disney Productions would have to once again go back to basics, streamline their films and respond more directly to their country and the world at large. What followed 'Bambi' was perhaps the most unusual period in the history of Disney animation - a series of films mostly forgotten by the general public but charting a new evolution in what Disney animation could be, moving towards a new era of beloved classic films. The next six films, six "package films", would be a kind of reset, and their release from 1943 to 1949 would be known as the Wartime Era of Disney animation.
- Bambi made its home video debut on VHS in 1989, and initial orders placed in the US and Canada totalled 9.8 million units, one of the largest at the time. It was subsequently released in 1997 as part of the Masterpiece Collection, and was the first Disney VHS to receive THX certification.
- The film had its first DVD release in 2005 with the two-disc Platinum Edition, as well as a new VHS release. The DVD featured a 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theatre Mix, as well as a number of extras, including Inside Walt’s Story Meetings, a dramatisation of various story meetings during the development of Bambi. The film was returned to the vault in January 2007.
- In 2011, Bambi received its first Blu-ray release as part of the Diamond Edition line. This release included an enhanced version of Inside Walt’s Story Meetings, featuring new archival and visual material and playing as a sort-of Picture-in-Picture track with the film, and Second Screen connectivity. It maintained most of the extras from the Platinum release.
- Bambi entered the Signature Collection in 2017, featuring the same digital restoration as the Diamond Edition, adding a number of new features (including more deleted scenes and a recently discovered Oswald short) and many of the classic features. It coincided with the film’s first Digital HD release.
- Bambi is available on Disney+.
- Wikipedia on Bambi, Bambi: A Life in the Woods, Tyrus Wong, Retta Scott, Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb
- Bambi: Diamond Edition, Blu-ray, 2011
- The Disney Studio Story, Richard Hollis and Brian Sibley, 1988
- Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Mindy Johnson, 2017
- American Experience: Walt Disney, dir. Sarah Colt, PBS, 2015
- Disney Wiki on Tyrus Wong
- D23 profile on Frank Churchill
- New York Times review of 'Bambi', August 14 1942
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler, 2006
- ‘Main Title (Love is a Song)’ (Frank Churchill & Larry Morey, performed by Donald Novis and the Disney Chorus), Bambi, 1942 (Disney)
- ‘The Meadow/Bambi Sees Faline/Bambi Gets Annoyed’ (Frank Churchill & Edward Plumb), Bambi, 1942 (Disney)
- ‘Exploring/Say Bird/Flower’ (Frank Churchill & Edward Plumb), Bambi, 1942
- ‘Wintery Winds’ (Frank Churchill & Edward Plumb), Bambi, 1942 (Disney)
- ‘Sleepy Mornings in the Woods/The Young Prince/Learning To Walk’ (Frank Churchill & Edward Plumb), Bambi, 1942 (Disney)
- ‘Autumn/The First Snow/Fun on the Ice’ (Frank Churchill & Edward Plumb), Bambi, 1942 (Disney)
- ‘Fire/Reunion/Finale’ (Frank Churchill & Edward Plumb), Bambi, 1942 (Disney)
- ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ (The Dave Brubeck Quartet), Dave Digs Disney, 1957 (Sony Music Entertainment)
75th anniversary of a Disney animated classic