“Hiya, Bambi. Watch what I can do!” Thumper’s excited boast as he launches himself across the frozen pond might as well have come from Walt himself in reference to the calibre of animation his fifth feature film achieved. The film is, quite simply, an artistic masterpiece.
I’ve said it before: Animation and high definition were made for each other. Thanks to a stocking stuffer this Christmas, we were lucky enough to watch this film on Blu-Ray. And if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear the film came out yesterday. The animation and attention to detail is just exquisite.
Indeed, Walt was obsessed with accuracy when it came to animating Bambi. He was determined his animators capture the movements of deer and other forest animals with as much realism as possible, while adding vaguely human facial expressions to show emotions. Disney bought the rights to the film in 1937, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. The animation challenges proved too ambitious at the time and animators were soon pulled off the project in favour of the studio’s other projects, including Fantasia. By 1939, production resumed in earnest, but animation difficulties drew out the production process by several years.
Walt went to great lengths to ensure his animators maintained accuracy in their drawings. He invited Italian-American painter Rico LeBrun to the studio to teach his animators about realism. He sent his animators to the Los Angeles Zoo to study animal movement. And a small zoo was established at the studio so animators could study the animals up close — two fawns were even sent from Maine to the studio for the animators to study. Though it cost time and money, the gamble paid off and the realism in the animators’ work is really something to watch, even 70 years later. (Its lifetime gross of over $100-million is certainly proof of that.) A lot of the secondary animal animation was even reused many times throughout the coming decades.
The story is simple, like most of Disney’s. It’s based on the 1923 Austrian novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, which chronicles the life of a young deer who loses his mother and the lessons he learns from his father. It was translated and republished in North America in 1928.
In a lot of ways, Bambi has the look and feel of a ballet. The story is infused with music — each character, event, season has a distinct sound. Movement is punctuated with melody (just think “drip, drip, drop little April showers“). And even the dangers of the forest are amplified by song. The presence of hunters, signified by a three progressive of deep notes, is enough to make the viewer experience anxiety over what seems a very real danger to our woodland friends. And man doesn’t even once appear on screen. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards — all of which were sound- or music-related.
The feat was repeated years later, and a note shorter, as Richard Dreyfuss hunted a man-eating shark in Jaws. But in 1988, as Bambi once again graced North American theatres, Man frightened a four-year-old Will enough that he made his parents leave the cinema when Bambi’s mother was killed.
(Reportedly, “Man is in the forest” was code around the Disney studios that indicated Walt was nearby.)
Besides all of the film’s artistic achievements, the story has an incredibly endearing element to it as well. It’s about childhood, life lessons, the power of family and the journey of growing up. Many of those seeming cliches we heard countless times as children are re-enforced (mainly through the character of Thumper, whose father has apparently and repeatedly told him to eat his vegetables and that if he couldn’t say anything nice to not say anything at all). But Bambi learns lessons as well. Most importantly, his mother teaches him to be aware of dangers he may encounter when he tries to run out on the meadow without realizing the potential that come along with it.
Public reception of the film was predictably high as the fantasy shook movie-goers from the tension of a country at war. But the New York Times review questioned Walt’s attention to animation and said that while children would “no doubt they even will forgive Mr. Disney for putting false eyelashes on his enticing female bunnies,” he could not accept that a waterfall without ripples is a far cry from the real thing. The reviewer longed for cartoon fantasy and argued that if he had wanted a realistic deer, Disney should have simply shot the film in live-action.
More contemporary audiences, though, have learned to appreciate the artistic craft of the animators as well as the story-tellers. Bambi will always remain one of my favourite Disney films. It’s visually stunning and its story tugs at your heartstrings in all the right places. Walt did a lot of things right with this one.