Historical facts for this essay were drawn from the bonus features of the Walt Disney Signature Collection release of the film, as well as this fantastic article written by Johnathan North of the Rotoscopers.
The final film in Walt Disney Animation’s Golden Age lineup is none other than Bambi. Bambi was originally released in 1942, but Walt Disney had actually planned for the film to be the follow up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Bambi turned out to have quite the arduous production however, so the project was put on the backburner so that the team could focus on Pinocchio and Fantasia.
Unlike the other Disney films of this era, the original story of Bambi was not a children’s book. Written by Austrian author Felix Salten, Bambi, A Life in the Woods was a distinctly adult novel, making it much harder to adapt into a story that is more in line with the rest of Disney’s catalogue.
Bambi also presented Walt and his team of animators the challenge of accurately representing realistic animal movement patterns. Up to this point, Disney was known primarily for their cuddly and cartoony animals, and not so much for realism. As such, Bambi became the first film to utilize a practice that is still employed at the company to this day, and that is detailed research.
The animation team was given the opportunity to get up close and personal with many of the woodland creatures that are featured in the film. Walt had them study various elements of animal anatomy so that they could better understand their movements. Disney is quite famous for this level of authenticity, as they did the exact same thing with animal walk cycles and fur patterns for The Lion King, as well as the Swedish structures featured in Frozen.
Watching Bambi’s movements in the film really drives home just how dedicated they were to being as realistic as possible. Bambi is just as lanky as any other newly born fawn, and way that the deer leap and bound across the meadows is very impressive.
Bambi was one of Disney’s greatest breakthroughs in what is known as effects animation. Elements like raindrops and lightning were of great importance to the film’s aesthetic. The animation team would spend hours watching water drip and breaking glass, all in an effort to better render these moments in animation.
Another challenging task for the film were the backgrounds. Forests in real life are thick and obtrusive, making them a poor match for Bambi’s more cheerful moments. As such, the team opted for softer, painterly style backgrounds.
Walt himself wanted to the film to have a greater sense of depth than Disney’s previous efforts, and he used the 1937 short film, The Old Mill, as a test bed of sorts for new camera techniques (not unlike what was done during the Silly Symphonies), giving the film a much more realistic framework.
The story begins with the birth of a young fawn named Bambi. Almost the entire forest shows up to witness the first moments of the soon to be prince of the forest, and Bambi quickly makes friends with a young bunny named Thumper (and later, an absolutely adorable skunk named Flower).
The major narrative themes of Bambi are growth and discovery. Bambi doesn’t embark on some grand quest across the land, he is simply a young fawn learning his place in the world, and of the responsibilities that will one day be his.
Eventually, Bambi is forced to learn the harsh realities of the world beyond his comfy little thicket. Humans are the primary antagonist in Bambi, and hunting season is an especially harrowing time for the residents of the forest. The hunting element is an important footnote in this film’s history, as it was actually disparaged by real world hunting organizations for its portrayal of the sport.
One of the most famous scenes in the film is the death of Bambi’s mother. As she is enjoying spending time in the meadows with her son, she notices the presence of humans. Without hesitation, she instructs Bambi to race towards their thicket, but she is unable to join him.
Disney’s history has no shortage of tragic moments, and this was perhaps the start of them. What I find really interesting about her death is the way in which Bambi reacts to it. As humans, we typically go through a period of mourning for our loved ones. But as an animal, and one with great responsibility, Bambi is forced to continue his growth without the aid of his mother.
Bambi is somewhat of an oddball in Disney’s Golden Age, as it was not as critically lauded as its predecessors. Disney’s audience was conditioned to expect whimsical fantasy stories from the company, but Bambi, although still upbeat at times, was much more grounded than say, Pinocchio or Dumbo.
Bambi was also not financially successful. World War II prevented the film from being released in European territories, cutting off a significant area of profit for the company. And again, many critics did not like that the film was not a fantasy, even Walt’s own daughter!
But Bambi has proved itself to be a film that earned the respect it rightfully deserved. Subsequent re-releases of the film allowed it to become profitable, and in 2011 it was inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for its resonant message of nature conservation.
I feel that Bambi was a great film to cap off Disney’s Golden Age. As a fan of animation and Disney history, I really appreciate just how different it was compared to its sibling films, with its greater emphasis on realism. Bambi is a great film, and I’m certain that it paved the way for more mature storytelling and theming in animated films.