Disney Film History: Bambi

Bambi Poster

Bambi is the last of it’s breed. (Get it? It’s because he’s a deer!) After the success of Snow White, several films were put into production. We’ve already discussed Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Reluctant Dragon, and Dumbo. Bambi is the last of those films that were immediately drawn up for storyboards after the money started rolling in the late 1930s. Many things changed over the course of just a few years though and a studio with the pedal to the metal came to a sudden halt and projects scheduled for the coming years were shelved but we will get to that in a minute. Right now, let’s talk about Bambi and it’s forward thinking animation.

The rights to Bambi were purchased by Walt Disney in April of 1937, just a few months before the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as it was to be his second full length animated feature. Disney bought the rights from MGM as he wanted a modern story to go off of as opposed to the classic fairy tale. MGM had planned to make a live action version with the rights to Felix Salten’s most famous novel. When the rights were sold to Disney, Salten actually flew out to Burbank from Austria to meet with Walt Disney (and to escape Nazi invasion due to his Jewish background.) Story development started on Bambi but it would come as a serious battle for the team. The novel was originally for adults so storymen and Disney tried to take far too many liberties with the story, which at times got out of hand. Some forest scenes were pitched that had nothing to do with the title character or his friends, and characters were pitched that were far too off beat from the original story, such as making Thumper one of many rabbits with personalities. (Maybe a fallback on the success of the Dwarfs?) Other problems with story development included the debate to show Bambi’s mother die or the man that starts the fire and shoots her. Luckily for viewers, those scenes were nixed as it was eventually agreed upon that even without showing the antagonist or Bambi’s mother the scene was still emotional and somber.

Young Bambi

Due to complications with developing a clear focus on story, Bambi was sidelined by Pinocchio which beat it to theaters, becoming Disney’s second theatrical film. Then Walt Disney got a crazy idea to do a film all about music and Fantasia put Bambi’s story development on the low end of the priority list. After Fantasia started it’s run in 1940, Bambi finally got it’s go ahead and animation began, but again it became a battle.

Walt Disney wanted to portray his anthropomorphic characters as real animals. Animators had an issue with Walt’s dire need for realism. Forest animals were drawn into the Snow White film, but they were animated harshly and with little movement. Animators didn’t have a sense for animal movements. Trips to the Los Angeles Zoo were used as guidance before animals were eventually brought to the studio. (You can see a live elephant being animated in The Reluctant Dragon film.) Rico LeBrun, a teacher at Chouinard Art Institute and an accomplished painter of animals, was brought in to teach animators about the weight and movement of the forest animals. With all of these tools, animators could finally get things really moving and it was Disney Legend Marc Davis who took Walt’s realistic needs and made it work as he came up with the design for the Bambi character. Keeping his snout shorter and eyes bigger made him friendlier and more puppy like, while keeping the rest of the deer proportionate and his movements natural.

Backgrounds were a big concern for animators as well because they didn’t want forest scenes that would overwhelm the audience. Maurice “Jake” Day spent several weeks on a research trip in the North Eastern United States, taking in some of the natural forests of the region, but even with the research, he found his sketches to be a bit too busy. Tyrus Wong, another animator at the studio would showcase a sense of impressionism giving the center area of the backdrop more detail while the outer areas were blurred. This worked well for animators and allowed the audience to focus on the animals in the film. This revolutionary technique by Wong also gave the film a style as if it were a painting. If you look at a still frame (Just Google a picture from the film.) it looks much more like a work of art than it does an animated film.

Voice acting was provided by a mix of stars and studio hands. Sterling Holloway, who started with the studio on Dumbo as the voice of the Stork, returned as the voice of Flower, the lovable skunk, when he becomes an adult. Sam Edwards, Ann Gillis, Will Wright, and Cammie King are probably the most famous of the stars who voiced characters in Bambi, however none are names that scream out as long lasting stars. King is probably the most famous as she played Bonnie Blue Butler in the 1939 film Gone With The Wind and the young version of Faline in this film, but after Bambi she quit the movie business. (Fun fact: When Cammie King grew up and got married to her second and eventually widowed husband, her father-in-law was a musical arranger at the Walt Disney Studios, keeping King within the Disney circle.)

Bambi and Faline

Bambi would eventually be released on August 13, 1942 as the fifth Disney full length animated feature after 5 intense years of story development and animation. (The Reluctant Dragon isn’t considered part of the collection of animated films due to it being more live action than animation.) The films budget over the course of 5 years grew from $858,000 to $1.7 million so it had expectations at a Snow White level when it was released. In the films original run, it only garnered $1.64 million, due to the market in Europe not being available because of World War II. It was less of a flop than Fantasia or Pinocchio were financially, but critically it was seen as a mixed bag. Critics felt Disney had gotten too far away from the magic and fairy tales we all loved from the earlier releases. They also thought the film got quite dark without giving the family audience anything lighthearted. Game hunters thought the film put them in a negative light. Better critical response would come later, in hind sight, as the American Film Institute would name it as the third greatest animated film of all time, right behind Snow White and Pinocchio. Time Magazine would name it as one of it’s Top 25 Horror Films noting that the film has “primal shock” that sticks with you, even years later. In December 2011, Bambi was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry recognizing it for it’s statement on nature conservation.

Bambi is also the end of an era at the Walt Disney studios. (See, I said we would get back to that.) When Snow White was a success, films were pitched left and right and many of them were put into production at once. As noted earlier, Bambi was to be the second film, but ended up being the sixth. Other films such as Peter Pan and Cinderella were also in development but were shelved due to several things all colliding at once. A strike by the animators at the studio put several of the artists out of a job and would eventually ruin the “family” feeling amongst everyone working at the studio. The strike also put a damper on and slowed down production on The Reluctant Dragon, Dumbo, and Bambi. The biggest blow to the studio however, was World War II and eventual American involvement in the war. Military took over the studio, Walt and crew were sent on a mission to be good will ambassadors in South America, and propaganda films were put into production instead of theatrical releases. Disney started making money through government funding and films that bundled several shorts together, making them cheaper and easier to make, unlike the more artistic and realistic Bambi. After the war, Disney did return to feature length animation and Bambi’s legacy of impressionistic background designs, realistic animals in animation, and social messages would become a big part of future films, not just from Disney, but several other animation studios.

What are your thoughts on Bambi? Love it? Hate it? Do you have a favorite character or scene in the film? Leave your comments below.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: Dumbo
Next Film: Saludos Amigos

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Posted on April 3, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Bambi’s….watchable! I enjoy it when I see it, but it’s not a film I would say, “Hey, let’s watch Bambi!”

  2. Bambi is a true work of art. The soundtrack is beautiful, characters are well developed and lovable, and the animation is truly something. Like you mentioned, I would be perfectly happy with choosing a random still and framing it for my wall! Watching the classic Disney movies makes me wish that Disney still made hand-drawn animation movies, instead of CGI. The painted backgrounds take my breath away and make me appreciate the hard work and dedication that went into the classics. Bambi is one of those movies that I couldn’t look away from when I was younger and still holds my attention today. I also love how subtle the scene where Bambi’s mother died was because I didn’t truly understand what happened until I was mature enough for it to really move me. In case you couldn’t tell, I loved the article, keep up the good work!

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