Of all the Disney movies made during Walt Disney’s lifetime, Bambi has always been the one I love the most. It was the first movie I ever watched (I was born March 1989, and Bambi was released on VHS in September 1989) so I have a personal soft spot for it, especially since the movie was my very first Christmas present in the world! But it also holds up so well for me as an adult that my appreciation for it has only grown stronger over time.
The film is based on the 1923 Austrian novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, which traces the life of a deer from childhood to adulthood through the seasons. It was an emotional story that was seen as an allegory for environmentalism as well as a political allegory against the treatment of Jews by Nazis at the time of its release (which caused it to be banned in Germany), and it received widespread acclaim in Europe as well as the US.
The rights to a film adaptation were actually first purchased by director and producer Sidney Franklin for MGM in 1933, but in 1937, the same year that Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released, MGM sold the film rights to Disney because animation was seen as the ideal medium for telling the story.
Walt was so enthusiastic about the film that he intended for it to be his second feature following Snow White, but the challenges of animating deer realistically, plus telling a dark adult story in a family-friendly way, meant that the production had to be stalled a little longer, until it finally went underway in 1939.
The story was shaped after a lot of trial and error that sometimes meant reigning in certain elements that ventured too far from the point of the film, including a Laurel and Hardy-like squirrel and chipmunk duo whose roles in the film were scaled back, and more distinctive personalities for the rabbits in the film, until story director Perce Pierce suggested simplifying the rabbit cast down to one distinct personality that stood out from the rest, which led to the creation of Thumper, who is the film’s biggest scene stealer.
Bambi’s mom was also originally going to be shot on screen, but the change to moving the kill off screen was seen as potentially less traumatizing, although little dramatic impact is lost the way it turned out.
The direction of the film would be supervised by David Hand (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) who led a team of sequence directors which included Fantasia’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice director and future True-Life Adventure director James Algar, Fantasia’s Toccata and Fugue and The Nutcracker Suite director Samuel Armstrong, Pinocchio assistant director Graham Heid, Fantasia’s The Rite of Spring co–directors Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield and The Nutcracker Suite story developer Norman Wright.
The animators studied the movements of deer at the Los Angeles Zoo and Disney even brought animals over to the studio for the animators to study up close. After the team figured out how to bring a deer to life, Marc Davis gave the characters their final big-eyed, baby-faced appearances to inject some child-like humanity into the realistic animal designs. Among the talented team of animators who brought this film to life were Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson, Marc Davis, Preston Blair and Retta Scott.
Originally the film’s background art was going to be rich and detailed just like in previous Disney films, but artist Tyrus Wong, who was a master of impressionism, was assigned as this film’s art director because his minimalistic dream-like approach helped keep your eyes focused on the characters in the foreground.
Among the voice cast, each of the characters who go from young to adolescent to adult over the course of the film have several voice actors. Bambi was voiced by four different people: Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright and John Sutherland. Meanwhile, young Thumper was voiced (memorably) by the distinct-sounding Peter Behn, young Flower was voiced by Stan Alexander, young Faline was voiced by Cammie King, Tim Davis voiced both Thumper and Flower as adolescents, Sam Edwards voiced young adult Thumper, Disney stalwart Sterling Holloway voiced young adult Flower, and Ann Gillis voiced young adult Faline. As for the rest of the main cast, future Jane Jetson voice actor Paula Winslowe voiced Bambi’s mother, resident curmudgeon of Hollywood Westerns Will Wright voiced Friend Owl, and Fred Shields brought gravitas to the role of the Great Prince.
All the songs in the movie were written by Frank Churchill (music) and Larry Morey (lyrics) who previously worked together on the soundtrack for Snow White. Walt Disney always understood how important music is in storytelling for conveying emotion in ways that dialogue and animation sometimes cannot, and he was adamant that the music in this film be great, but this would be tricky in some ways that were different from previous films because Bambi was less fairy tale and more drama, so any song inserted into the film ran the risk of spoiling its serious tone. This was solved mainly by avoiding having main characters jump into musical numbers and having all the songs sung in the background by operatic tenor Donald Novis and the Disney Studio Chorus.
Score composer Edward H. Plumb was creative through the whole film. Plumb even assigned specific music cues to specific characters, including Bambi, Thumper, Flower, Faline and the off-screen villain Man who gets his own suspenseful three-note cue that always builds louder and louder into a crescendo the more the animal characters are in danger.
Bambi was eventually released in theaters as Disney’s fifth animated feature in the summer of 1942, and just like with Disney’s Pinocchio and Fantasia which were both equally brilliant but also equally underappreciated upon release in 1940, Bambi failed to make enough money at the box office, largely due to World War II cutting off the European market, although with later re-issues and international releases, the film eventually became a box office success, and its initial release on home video in 1989 made it the second-highest selling home video after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Some critics and audiences disliked how different the film was from Disney’s previous fantasy-based films and did not find the animated drama escapist enough, but those ridiculous criticisms were thankfully put aside over time and the film was eventually recognized for the artistic achievement it is, with many film historians calling it elegant, moving and one of the best animated films ever made.
It is unique among Disney’s film library, one of the most unique things about it and one of the reasons why I love it so much being how little plot and dialogue is in the movie. It almost feels more like an experience than a story. Basically a fawn grows up in the forest, plays with other forest animals, learns life lessons from his mother, loses his mother after she is killed by Man, falls in love with another deer, and flees the forest from Man one last time. But some of the most memorable moments are the scenes that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot, like the scene where Thumper the rabbit is teaching Bambi how to skate on ice. You can’t say that it moves the plot forward, but you also can’t say that it’s not an entertaining scene, or that the movie would be better without it. In fact, scenes like that are important because they reflect one of the key reasons why Walt Disney was such a storytelling genius. He believed that character moments are more important than plot. You can see this in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when the comedic antics of the forest animals and the Dwarfs were given way more attention than the love story between Snow White and the Prince.
I actually think of Bambi as the perfect example of why I love Disney movies. Great characters have always been at the heart of the studio since Mickey Mouse was created, and so has great animation, great music, great artistry and experimentation, and Walt Disney loved to experiment (look at Fantasia), even if it alienated his fans who would rather watch a fantasy like Snow White or a feature-length animated film about Donald Duck than a drama about animal vs. man. Usually Walt’s adventurous spirit paid off but audiences in 1942 didn’t appreciate something as experimental as Bambi, perhaps because people were not in the mood for a film like this after Pearl Harbor got bombed and war was on everyone’s minds. But despite that initial opinion, the film is gorgeous and contains some of the studio’s best animation and most memorable characters, and even though it was my first movie, I still never get tired of watching it.