Bambi, which premiered in New York on August 13, 1942, is an animated triumph. The fifth feature film released by Walt Disney and his team of imaginative collaborators, it represents a synthesis of everything that came before it (the formalism of Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the naturalism of Dumbo, and the gentle experimentalism of Fantasia), while pushing the medium beautifully forwards. It was the last animated feature film that would be produced by the studio for almost a decade; the fraught period of World War II would result in Walt instead releasing “package films” that were easier to manage. That it was accomplished under such hardship makes the movie even more powerful, its message of peace, understanding, and non-violence makes it one of the most purely beautiful films that the studio ever produced.
While technically the fifth animated Disney classic, it was in the running to be the first. In the early ‘30s, while Walt contemplated an Alice in Wonderland feature (initially involving a cutting-edge combination of animation and live-action), M. Lincoln Schuster of the Simon & Schuster publishing house, was imploring Walt to make a film of Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Written by Viennese author Felix Salten and first published in Europe in 1923 (it was finally published in America in 1928), it was a story of the forest where men hunted animals and predators roamed freely. It was later described by legendary animators (and two of Walt’s original Nine Old Men) Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston as “a mosaic of isolated adventures,” deemed “impossible to make into a movie” by producers at other studios that bothered to look at the material.
Sidney Franklin, a director at MGM who had successfully made the leap from silent films to “talkies,” had scooped up the rights while Walt explored other stories, but stalled on a successful approach to the material. He toiled on a live-action version of the story, featuring human actors, real animals, and a kind of heightened poeticism (even recording actors like Margaret Sullavan and Victor Jory as “the last two leaves”). Soon, he realized that “the spirit of the book could never be captured that way,” as Johnston and Thomas put it. Joseph Schenck, an executive at United Artists, offered to “broker an alliance” (as Neal Gabler says in his ace biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination).
At the time, Roy O. Disney, who handled the more pragmatic side of the business, wrote to Walt. “Schenck talked like they would finance it for distribution and a share of the profits,” Roy wrote. “Would sure like to see you attempt a feature, and I believe it is highly desirable for that feature to be handled by the same source handling our other product.” Keep in mind that before Snow White was released, Roy, Walt, and the rest of the studio, weren’t sure exactly how they were going to make a feature-length animated film. Walt evidently talked to Franklin, at Roy’s insistence, but nothing came of the conversation. Later, as Snow White was solidifying, Walt reconnected with Franklin. He hoped to have the story for Snow White locked by the spring of 1936, with the intention of then moving directly into an animated adaptation of Bambi. “When I read the book, I got excited about the possibilities with the animals, what we could do with them, not with doing the book the way it was,” Walt said. Instead of the more philosophical approach Franklin had attempted, Walt would instead utilize the unique talents of his crew to give “character traits to everything that lived in the forest,” as Thomas and Johnston would later say. The animators were nervous; going from a more structured fairy tale like Snow White to something as amorphous and elliptical as Bambi seemed daunting if not outright impossible.
He had established a group to work on the story for Bambi by the summer of 1937 a release date of Christmas 1938 was initially planned. (Walt wanted a new animated feature out every year.) But following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he found himself drawn more to the story of Pinocchio. One story artist, quoted in Gabler’s biography, said that, “Pinocchio was a picture Walt knew how to make, while Bambi still baffled him.” So Pinocchio was prioritized. (Pinocchio faced a number of hurdles but went on to become a technical and creative breakthrough and a favorite of filmmakers ranging from Stanley Kubrick to Brad Bird.)
As Walt continued to work on Pinocchio and Bambi, he plotted on what was then known as The Concert Feature (later Fantasia) and was in the early stages of both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. In fact, the Hyperion studio was so overcrowded that he moved the Bambi team to a “rented warren of tiny rooms in a building on Seward Street in Hollywood where Harman-Ising had their offices,” as Gabler said. Veteran Johnston Thomas missed the excitement of the studio but soon came to the realization that nobody was around to bother them. Another veteran animator and Imagineer, Marc Davis, guesses that Walt only visited their studio a handful of times, with most of the production duties handled by his right hand man Perce Pearce (the same man who would help Walt jumpstart his live action productions and who was described by Johnston and Thomas as “Next to Walt, the best storyteller and actor”) and Larry Morey, who had written the lyrics for Frank Churchill’s Snow White songs. The animators were worried. “None of us were ever completely confident that we would create such a truly emotional experience for the audience,” Thomas and Johnston later said.
Some animators on the Bambi team went to the woods to observe the actual animals, while other times deer were brought into the studio. A stylistic breakthrough occurred when a young artist named Ty Wong, who was an in-betweener on Pinocchio, submitted drawings for Bambi. He did this on his own accord, and when Walt saw the drawings, became the basis for the style for the film. “Suggestive rather than highly realistic, Wong’s design provided a visual breakthrough for the artists,” Gabler said. Because of the prolonged production of Pinocchio, the Bambi team was given more time to conceptualize and refine the characters and story. A year and a half later, Walt was directing them to animate the sequences quickly. He told them that the animators working on Pinocchio found that “you don’t find your character until you begin to do a little animation on them.”
All the while, Sidney Franklin was kept in the loop. It was Franklin who suggested more emotional realism. As Thomas and Johnston said, “It showed us a new dimension that was possible for animation: real drama with the communication of an idea that would move the audience. It was a sobering thought and a provocative challenge.” Franklin was pleased with the progress on the film and confident that it was the right approach (while still underlying his philosophical angle). “You have hit the spirit of the story with this. This is Bambi. There is no gag that stands out above Bambi, himself. He is part of everything,” Franklin said.
On September 1, 1939 (the same day Germany invaded Poland), after a number of false starts and animation tests that didn’t inspire much enthusiasm, Walt had assigned three animators–Milt Kahl, Fred Moore, and Frank Thomas (a week later Eric Larson had replaced Moore, but the central conceit remained the same)–to, as Gabler described, “control the entire animation of the film.” They would, in Gabler’s words, be responsible for “conceptualizing the characters, blocking the action, and then supervising the additional animators needed to finish the project.” Walt suggested that they start on a single sequence, the one where Bambi is learning to walk, and then have that serve as a guide for the rest of the animators. The process was slow but informative. “There would be a disaster here if we started rushing everybody on this picture,” Walt told the team.
Four more months were spent concentrating on drawing deer. Walt had collected thousands of feet of feel and hired a nature photographer, Maurice “Jake” Day, to shoot new footage in Maine and sent the production photos of the woods in different weather conditions and seasons. (“In summer, fall, winter, and spring … in rain, heavy snow, light snow, and sleet; on gray days and on bright, sparkling days,” according to Thomas and Johnston.)
The animators painstakingly studied dear anatomy, making sure everything was just right. The story shifted too, with animator Ham Luske suggesting that a bunny be a guide and friend to Bambi, leading to a much larger role for Thumper. And while not active on a day-to-day basis, Walt still reviewed the team’s progress. He suggested a new opening for the film, imagining the “whole woods begin[ning] to fuss and swarm” at the birth of Bambi Walt also suggested another standout sequence: Bambi on the frozen pond. “It’s like putting Pluto on ice with skates on him,” Walt said. He loved adding humor to the movie, which seemed always on the verge of being deemed too serious. “I like the screwball attitude with the characters. It keeps them from being straight,” Walt said.
During Bambi’s production, the company relocated to Burbank, and its crew was one of the first in the new Animation Building. With Pinocchio now finished Walt was able to focus more time on Bambi. He knew that the story required more subtlety and that it didn’t have as much of an arc as some of the more dramatic fairy-tale fare they had been working on (Gabler describes Bambi’s narrative, rightly so, as more of a “cycle”). At one point, Walt suggested that they make the film longer and present it as a “roadshow” feature with limited performances, reserved seating, showcased in theaters that would feature Walt’s “Fantasound” technology (brought back earlier this year for Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book), along with an immersive, ultra-widescreen format. “I wanted a special show,” Walt would later say. He theorized that Bambi would take much longer than expected.
And then: the war.
World War II marked a series of changes for the American film business, and Walt Disney and his studio were no exception. Suddenly, the studio was devoted almost entirely to war output, making features and shorts to bolster morale both at home and abroad. And the new studio in Burbank, the one Walt and Roy were so proud of, became a military base of sorts, with soldiers stationed on the lot and animators forced to show security badges (which they quickly decorated with Disney characters) to the military men. Overseas, crucial markets for distribution and exhibition dried up. It was an incredibly stressful period for Walt and for everyone who remained at the studio.
Still, a small team of 35 to 40 employees, continued work on Bambi.
While the movie neared completion, it was stalled again when Walt decided to add lyrics to the songs. When the film was finally released, some were taken aback by the realism and seriousness of the film. This wasn’t a fantasy, but existed in our world. “Life is composed of lights and shadows and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows,” Walt said later.
And, truth be told, the moment when Bambi’s mother is felled by a hunter remains one of the most stirring, emotionally resonant sequences in the history of film, not just animation. Walt worried about the sequence during production and animators suggested competing visions of how it should be staged. “Do you think it’s too sad, too gripping?” Walt wondered. He dissected each line of dialogue that the stag would say to Bambi, discussing “The philosophy of anyone who is going to survive in the forest.” Finally, a single line of dialogue was decided on. It’s one that will still choke you up just reading it: “Your mother can’t be with you any more.” Walt described the scene: “And as the stag goes off, why this little guy is going along there, trying to be brave and going on off into this blizzard, followed by this big stag … And pretty soon, they have disappeared and there is nothing but this snow falling.”
While the film wasn’t the blockbuster Walt had hoped for, possibly because the cultural temperament was so different and because audiences expected outright fantasy from a film with the words “Walt Disney” attached to it, Bambi was still a deeply moving experience for those that saw the film and Walt was optimistic about its success. He wrote to Sidney Franklin in the summer of 1943 that the film was “plugging along and it looks as though it will end up paying its own way. When the war ends and the world markets are opened up, I know it will do well.” Johnston and Thomas recall the day, in the early 1950’s, when Walt approached them, with a big grin on his face, and announced, “Bambi has just paid for itself!” In the years since, Bambi has taken its place as one of the all-time animated masterpieces, a singular emotional experience that has still reverberates through anyone who has ever seen it.