Bambi Fun Fawn Factsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
For more than seven decades, many Disney fans have been "twitterpated" by the Disney animated classic Bambi. In June, in celebration of its 75th anniversary, the film was released in a special Blu-Ray edition with a host of extras.
Bambi opened in August 1942 at Radio City Music Hall, accompanied by a live stage show, and is based upon Felix Salten's 1923 novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods. There had been a previous "world premiere" in London on August 9, 1942, making it the first Disney full-length animated feature to hold its world premiere outside the United States.
Because of the concerns about World War II and the fact that the film was not the usual brightly colored Disney movie filled with slapstick comedy, but instead a more realistic, poetic, and somewhat grim, narrative, Bambi did not immediately find an audience and underperformed at the box office, not making back its original costs on its first run and receiving mixed reviews.
However, the film eventually became a beloved classic and was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in December 2011, as worthy of preservation and protection, because it is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." At the time of its induction, the Registry said that the film was one of Walt Disney's favorites and that it has been "recognized for its eloquent message of nature conservation."
The film follows the life of a deer named Bambi from his birth to learning how to balance on wobbly legs on an icy lake to discovering the forest and making new friends, like Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk, and, finally, assuming his inherited role as the new Great Prince of the Forest.
Bambi was originally intended to be the second Disney animated feature film, but ended up being the fifth. Walt had not anticipated how much work it would take to capture a realistic approach to the forest and its inhabitants or how much work it would take to find a good solid story.
Early attempts had talking raindrops, extended arguments among a family of grasshoppers and Bambi's leg destroying an ant colony resulting in chaos. In addition, there were many other suggestions that kept steering the story away from the little deer himself.
While doing the film had been in discussions fairly early, story men were not assigned to the picture until fall 1938, the first animation was done until January 1940, and the first scene was not sent to the camera until September 1940. Final animation was done in May 1941, which was not sent to the camera until February 1942.
Easily three-fourths of the Disney Studios at the time did some work on the film, producing 6,259 feet of final film after Walt eliminated 12 minutes of proposed animation that was never completed because of rising costs.
It was intensive work to do a mixture of cartoon and realism to capture the animals. Each spot on Bambi's back had to be replicated perfectly in every frame, so there was no vibration from one drawing to the next in the days before computers.
"I wouldn't hurry. I wanted it right. I wanted those animal characters in Bambi to be actors, not just cute things. I wanted acting on a plane with the highest acting in the finest live-action pictures," Walt later explained to an interviewer.
"In Bambi, (the cartoon animals) had to be a little closer to the real animal—it's a caricature with a certain little humanized touch, but still believable as deer as animals in the forest. we put in an intensive series of training on animal anatomy. I brought in the best instructor on animal anatomy, name of Rico Lebrun. Rico was teaching around—he was in Santa Barbara then when I brought him down for a six-week course."
Here is some background information you might not find on the latest Blu-Ray but might amuse, educate, and help you better appreciate the film.
Sidney Franklin was an American film director and producer. He had purchased the film rights to the original book in 1933 for $1,000 in hopes of creating a live-action film with voice-overs. He had even invested in recording the voices of actors Margaret Sullivan and Victory Jory as the voices of the two falling leaves at the end of the story. Franklin realized that the undertaking was much more difficult than he realized.
After seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he contacted Walt Disney with the offer of working together on the project. Franklin remained an active consultant on the project for many years and his contributions significantly helped shape the final film, including veering it away from the usual Disney cartoonish-ness. That is why there is a dedication in the film's opening credits: "To Sidney A. Franklin – our sincere appreciation for the inspiring collaboration."
Salten's book was banned and burned in Nazi Germany, and he was driven out of Austria. In exile in Switzerland, Salten even wrote a sequel on the adventures of Bambi's twin children, Geno and Gurri, that was published in 1939. By the way, the name "Bambi" came from the fact that during a trip to Italy Salten became fascinated with the Italian word "bambino."
While the sequel novel Bambi's Children, The Story of a Forest Family (1939) never received a film adaptation (although if the film had been a success Walt had considered doing a sequel), it received a 56-pages long comic book adaptation by Dell Comics in 1943 drawn by Disney artist Ken Hultgren who had worked on the original film.
Disney has the copyright of the comic book adaptation, which brings up an interesting situation. Salten copyrighted the original novel and the characters. He only sold the film rights to Sidney Franklin who sold those rights to Walt Disney. Salten retained all other rights.
Disney, of course, developed characters that were not in the book, like Thumper and Flower, and eliminated some, including Gobo. Disney also created merchandise such as comic books and strips.
Salten, and later his daughter, continued to hold the copyrights to the original novel and characters, but never challenged Disney on any of these other uses that were not explicitly covered in the original sale. With her death, Salten's daughter's husband sold the rights in 1993 to a publishing house called Twin Books. The new owners immediately sued Disney for copyright infringement.
Several trials have resulted with both Disney and Twin Books currently maintaining rights to different versions of the same story and characters.
No matter how skilled the animator, the Disney artists simply could not draw Bambi's father's antlers accurately. They looked fine in the individual drawings, but when the drawings were put together to create an animated movement, they twisted and turned like rubber, according to animator Frank Thomas, because the complicated perspectives couldn't be duplicated.
Bob Jones, who had created three-dimensional models for Pinocchio (1940) that had proven so effective in helping the animators, built a set of plaster antlers and then filmed them so they could be rotoscoped (live-action traced frame by frame onto animation sheets) at various angles to match the head of the Old Stag.
Walt sent avid outdoorsman, nature photographer, and artist Maurice "Jake" Day on a several-month-long trip to the Maine woods to photograph and sketch animals, bushes, trees, cloud formations, bark patterns, snowdrifts, dew-covered spider webs, and fire-ravaged forests.
Day also arranged for the purchase of two four-month-old fawns to model for Bambi and Faline, thanks to the Maine Development Commission. They took a four-day train ride from the Maine woods to the Hyperion Disney Studio in Hollywood in June 1938.
During the time they were being sketched, they lost their spots and grew into adulthood, and were eventually donated to the Griffith Park Zoo in 1942. They lived in a big pen built behind one of the buildings on the Hyperion lot. Other animals, such as skunks Herman and Petunia, squirrels, birds, rabbits and chipmunks, shared that little homemade zoo, as well.
One misty October 1938 morning, animators were surprised to see a wild young buck who lived in Griffith Park had come to visit Faline, responding to his instinctual urges. As the animators approached the visitor, it lowered its young sharp antlers defiantly.
Cars raced along Hyperion Avenue and curious people came outside to watch this real life drama. The ASPCA was called, but things escalated as the buck began to panic, desperately looking to find a way out of the crowd.
Larry Lansburgh, assistant director on the film, had once been a rodeo stunt rider. He came out of the studio with a lariat in his hand.
Disney Legend Frank Thomas recalled the event in later years: "As the buck bolted across a vacant lot, a carefully thrown loop from Larry's lasso settled around his neck, halting his flight. Quickly, Larry had him down and hogtied, rodeo style, before the buck could hurt himself or any of the spectators."
"Larry kept the buck under control until the ASPCA crew arrived while we studied the defiant animal, impressed by his intensity and vitality," Thomas said. "Faline looked wistfully after him in the departing truck and the rest of us returned to the studio with a new understanding of the animals we were trying to draw."
In striving for realism, the Disney artists heard lectures from animal experts and made field trips to the Los Angeles Zoo. At one point, animators observed a deer corpse that had been donated for study in various stages of decomposition for several evenings to see how the muscles and tendons really worked.
"Unfortunately, each time he contracted or extended any part of the cadaver a rich aroma was pumped into the air," Thomas recalled.
Human live action was also used as reference. According to the film's pressbook, the models for Bambi and Thumper's ice skating antics were actress Jane Randolph, who had never skated before, and Ice Capades star Donna Atwood.
The world premiere was originally scheduled to be in the tiny Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta, Maine, Maurice Day's hometown. However, the State of Maine objected, fearing that hunters would be offended by the film.
The Death of Bambi's Mother
America's hunters have always felt they were given a bad rap as the killers of Bambi's mother and the ones who started the fire that destroyed the forest.
In a 1942 edition of Outdoor Life magazine, editor Raymond Brown denounced the film as "the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen."
It is important to realize that Walt never intended to condemn all hunters, only those who were irresponsible and who did not adhere to a code of conduct that respected nature and its creatures.
In 1956, Walt wrote:
"To protect birds and animals from onslaught by thoughtless elements of the population is not a matter of soft sentiment. Their careful preservation is now recognized as vital in the balance of nature under which our cultivated fields and gardens thrive and our healthful existence often depends.
"Native wildlife, to me, is part of the American land and scene. It is closely associated with our history and traditions. To observe our wild creatures in their natural habitat, I regard as a privilege of the American citizen.
"There are very few responsible citizens, I am sure, who do not agree with this viewpoint. Even the majority of hunters recognize it in their sportsman's code of the limited bag and the measures being taken to keep endangered species alive."
Legendary singer-songwriter Paul McCartney credits seeing the shooting death of Bambi's mother for his interest in animal rights and influencing him to become a vegetarian.
The death of the mother in the original storyboard was going to be even more detailed. Escaping the hunters, Bambi and his mother are blocked by a fallen tree. Bambi is small enough to go under it but his mother leaps over it and there is a shot.
She slumps down to the ground framed through the opening of the log as Bambi continues to run. Later returning to the location, Bambi would have seen the imprint (but no blood at the insistence of Walt) of his mother's body that had been dragged away).
Six year old Donnie Dunagan performed the voice for Bambi. He sat in a sound booth while a female voice coach would read him a line with the proper inflection and he would repeat it. He remembers that during the recording for this scene, she never mentioned the word "dead."
Instead she said, "your mother's been injured. She did not say 'shot'. You have to find your mother." That was the impetus for his interpretation of the haunting "mother, mother" line.
However, for writer Pete Martin, in 1956, Walt recalled his strongest critic of that particular scene:
"My daughter Diane was quite a reader. When I was making Bambi (1942) she was about 10 I guess. She had read the book. When I finished the picture and brought it home and ran it, she cried and cried when Bambi's mother was killed. She said to me, 'Daddy, why did you have to kill Bambi's mother?' And I said, 'Well, it was in the book, dear." She said, 'There were plenty of things in the book that you changed. Why couldn't you have changed that? You're Walt Disney'. She had me there," Walt laughed.
Bambi's Mother Lives
It was not unusual for the Disney Studio to reuse animation in other films not only to save costs but also in the training of young animators who would trace the drawings pulled from the Animation Morgue. Bambi's mother appears in the very first shot of Beauty and the Beast, is the quarry of both Kay in The Sword in the Stone and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, and appears with Bambi in The Rescuers and the 1955 Donald Duck short No Hunting.
In 1952, Walt Disney was confronted at a dinner party at his vacation home at the Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, California, by a woman who he described as having an "overpowering knowledge of American wildlife". With no introduction, she approached Walt and proceeded in great detail to tell him what was wrong in the movie Bambi.
Her main point was that wildlife would not act they way that Walt had depicted them.
"Why in Bambi," she asserted, "the buck steps into the clearing ahead of the doe and fawn to be sure there are no hunters there. Actually, bucks hang back and have even been seen kicking the does out of the brush ahead of them. And the picture wasn't true to life in so many other respects, either."
"How right you are," Walt agreed, "And do you know something else wrong with it? Deers don't talk."
Walt had intended to have a scene where Bambi and his father discover the charred corpse of the hunter who had carelessly set the forest fire. Walt was insistent not to show gruesome detail but perhaps some type of silhouette to reinforce that actions have serious consequences. At a story meeting, animator Frank Thomas had joked to Walt, "How should we draw him? Medium rare or well done?"
One night a screening of the rough cut was done for an audience made up of people who did not work at the studio. As animator Frank Thomas recalled, "The audience had been enjoying the show, but as the charred forest sequence came on the screen, they seemed to be nervous and unsure. Suddenly Dave's [director Dave Hand] concept picture of the dead hunter appeared on the screen and 400 people shot straight up in the air. Walt cut that whole sequence."
Here are a final few quick facts:
- "Man is in the forest" was the same phrase that some of the Disney animators used to alert others that Walt Disney was wandering the Disney Studio.
- None of the songs in the film are sung by any of the characters but by an unseen forty voice chorus. The song "Love is a Song" and the score were both nominated for Oscars. Composer Frank Churchill, just before he died, asked that the film's song, "Love Is a Song", be dedicated to his wife, Carolyn, who was Walt's personal secretary from 1930 to 1934.
- Bambi and his friends were used for the original poster for the "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" campaign in 1944, a copy of which can be seen in Disney California Adventure Park. The Forest Service was so pleased at the results that on August 9, 1944, they authorized the creation of Smokey Bear. The first poster was delivered by October 10 by artist Albert Stahle.
- Walt and his staff attended a preview of the film in a Pomona theater on February 28, 1942 and during the screening when Bambi started to search for his mother, a smart aleck teenager called out from the audience "Here I am, Bambi," causing everyone else except Walt and his staff in the audience to howl with laughter. Walt did not cut the scene and assumed it was just one insensitive kid and that an audience would find the scene tragic and heartbreaking.
- Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong, who recently died at the age of 106, created the impressionist water color backgrounds for the film emphasizing the ethereal beauty and mystery of the forest that eliminated the busy detail. He created grass with just a few streaks of actual blades and allowed patches of light to bring out necessary details like the trunk of a tree or a log. Walt was enthusiastic and said, "I like that indefinite effect in the background—it's effective. I like it better than a bunch of junk behind them."
- While the multiplane camera had been used before in other Disney animated productions, this was the first time it was used so extensively with as many as nine separate levels being photographed at one time
- Bambi contains roughly 950 spoken words in the entire film. "Dialogue was kept to a minimum. We are striving for fewer words because we wanted the action and the music to carry it," Walt recalled.
- Reissued in the spring of 1966, Bambi was the last Disney animated film to be reissued in Walt Disney's lifetime.