THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Bambi’

The one that broke hearts around the world.

It may not have been known at the time but Walt Disney’s fifth animated feature film would stand as the end of an era. With World War II escalating and America joining war efforts after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Bambi would be the final feature-length animated film produced by Disney for almost a decade. Of the five films Walt would oversee in Disney’s early days, Bambi is one of his most unique productions.

The team at Disney took the lessons they’d learned from their first four productions to create Bambi. It represented a synthesis of everything which preceded it; the technique of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, the experimentalism of Fantasia, and the naturalism of Dumbo. Bambi would stand as the first Disney film to exclusively star animal characters, which created a daunting task for Walt’s animators.

The birth of Bambi began back in 1937 when Walt purchased the film rights to Felix Salten’s 1923 novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods, which MGM had originally intended to adapt as a live-action film in 1933. After years of attempting to get the project off the ground, MGM relinquished the rights to Walt after seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and accepting the novel would work best as an animated film.

Walt immediately began adapting Salten’s novel with the intention of Bambi being Disney’s second feature-length animated film. But it soon became apparent the original novel was far darker (at one point, Bambi is shot by a hunter and almost bleeds to death) and sombre (he also spends a large portion of the novel on his own) than the family-friendly film Walt had in mind.

Adding to the production’s woes, the animators soon discovered how difficult it would be to realistically animate the dozens of animals within the film’s cast, particularly Bambi and his deer cohorts, given the face of a deer hardly lends itself to the expressive animation Disney was known for. To allow the team further time to authentically create Walt’s vision, production on Bambi was put on hold and moved further down the list of releases on Disney’s schedule.

It wouldn’t be until August 1939 that production on Bambi would again commence, with animators returning to the task of bringing the animals to life and the story team attempting to adapt Salten’s novel into something more befitting of Disney’s image. Under the direction of Perce Pearce, the writing team expanded on Bambi’s relationship with his mother, introduced two devoted best friends for the titular character, and focused more heavily on a burgeoning love story for Bambi with a female fawn named Faline.

The screenplay was finalised in July 1940 and ultimately contained just over 1,000 words of dialogue. In the history of Disney movies, Bambi still stands as the one film with the least dialogue. It was also decided all the songs within the film would not be sung by the characters themselves; a first for Disney and the only example in Disney history where this occurs.

But the most arduous task during the production of Bambi was the animation process, which took close to three years to complete. While the animators had crafted deer as background characters in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they were far from authentic creations. To assist with the authentic creation of the animal characters, the animators studied creatures at the Los Angeles Zoo and Walt even set up a small zoo inside the studio, filled with rabbits, ducks, skunks, owls, and a pair of young fawns, appropriately named Bambi and Faline.

While the initial designs were perfectly realistic, Walt felt the characters ultimately lacked personality, particularly Bambi, who he feared audiences wouldn’t connect or empathise with. It was Disney Legend Marc Davis who cracked the key to Bambi’s final designs. Davis took the original authentic drawings and exaggerated Bambi’s face to appear more child-like with large eyes, a shorter snout, and gangly legs. A new Disney icon was born.

For the film’s lush and evocative background designs, the production team were inspired by the woodlands of eastern America, particularly the forests of Maine and Vermont. Walt felt the initial background work was too busy and distracted from the characters and action of the film. Chinese-American animator Tyrus Wong submitted more suggestive, impressionistic paintings of forests and was soon appointed art director of the entire film. His work was ultimately rather groundbreaking, as it contained higher detail towards the centre of the background and less around the edges, thus ensuring the audience’s eye was naturally drawn to the characters on screen.

The film utilised the multiplane camera technique more than Disney’s four previous films, particularly in its gorgeous opening sequence, where we take a sweeping journey through the forest before meeting the film’s characters. While production was nearing its halfway point, America suddenly joined World War II and Disney shifted focus to making animated shorts to boost morale both home and abroad. This meant the production team of Bambi was reduced to just 35 employees, who somehow kept the film on schedule and completed in time for its 1942 release date.

Bambi was released on August 21, 1942, to surprisingly mixed reviews. Many critics took exception with Disney’s departure from the fantasy themes found in its first four films, while the hunting industry called the film “the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen.” Once again, the box office of a Disney film was damaged by the inability to stage a release in Europe due to the war. Without Disney’s usual escapist fantasy themes, Bambi wasn’t quite the film American audiences were clambering for either, and it wouldn’t be until the film’s re-release in 1947 that it finally started to see a profit.

For all its gorgeous animation and delightful cast of animal characters, Bambi is perhaps most remembered for one of the most devastating and emotionally resonant sequences in Disney history. The death of Bambi’s mother is a moment that broke the heart of every audience member. A moment so shocking, it’s still rather incredible Disney had the courage to craft it. The death of a supporting character (particularly a family member of the protagonist) would soon become a staple of Disney animated films and it all began with Bambi.

Initially, the sequence was planned to be far more horrifying, with the audience actually witnessing Bambi’s mother being shot and the sight of her lifeless body laying by a log. Walt was concerned the scene was too traumatising for younger audiences. Thankfully, story supervisor Larry Morey agreed and the writing team changed the death to occur off-screen, leaving it to Bambi’s father to simply explain, “Your mother can’t be with you any more.” It’s a simple line of dialogue, yet one that’s powerfully emotional, as young Bambi (and we the audience) realises what has occurred.

Bambi was one of the earliest examples of a Disney film containing a vitally important social message, daring to shine a light on the destructive nature of man and our impact on the ecology and structure of the animal world. It’s no wonder the hunting world denounced the film, given the cruel hunter is the film’s only villain who senselessly murders Bambi’s mother and inadvertently causes a massive fire that envelopes the entire forest. The film also keenly explored the notion of loss and how all grief heals with time. But tell that to the thousands of people who still feel personalised traumatised by a death scene that now lives in film infamy.

While it may have been a divisive departure from the fantasy films of Disney’s earlier works, Bambi was the culmination of the work Disney’s animators had created over the studio’s first five years. It stands as a progression of the skills of the animation team, highlighting just how far Disney had come in just half a decade. Bambi was the fusion of everything the studio had learned with its first four films and rightfully now takes its place as one of their greatest masterpieces.

Is Bambi a Disney Classic? While it may not have been cherished at the time, Bambi has earned its place as a Disney Classic. As the final feature film before Disney took a much-needed break, it stands as the swan song to a moment in film history never to be repeated.

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