Of the "big five" Disney films (the first five animated features that Walt Disney oversaw and largely considered, by fans and historians, to be the pinnacle of the studio's output), "Bambi" is the one that is, for some reason, often overlooked. Maybe it's the simplicity of the story (it clocks in at a barely-feature-length 70 minutes), the fact that it didn't have the same cultural impact as the other films due to its release during World War II (when much of the foreign market was cut off and the Disney studio itself had become a de facto army base), or because all anyone can talk about is how traumatizing the death of Bambi's mother was (therapy helps), but for whatever reason, it often doesn't get the attention and respect it deserves. Hopefully, the new Signature Edition of "Bambi," timed to its 75th anniversary (out on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere on May 23rd, and Blu-ray June 6th), will help restore its luster because really this movie was quietly groundbreaking and inspired countless Disney productions in the years to follow.
The idea for "Bambi" came to Walt while he was still plotting his first animated feature. Rights to Austrian author Felix Salten's "Bambi: A Life in the Woods" had first been attempted as an ambitious live-action feature, before it even got on Disney's radar. (M. Lincoln Schuster of the Simon & Schuster publishing house first brought the book to him.) But Walt, ever the visionary, knew that the technology and artistry at his disposal couldn't properly bring the story to life. But by the time production on the film began in 1939 (on the same day Germany invaded Poland), Walt felt confidant that his animators and artisans could knock it out of the park. After all, the studio had just completed work on "Fantasia" and "Dumbo," two of the most jaw-dropping animated features ever. They were at the top of their game.
It was so groundbreaking because the characters weren't cute and cuddly cartoons. They had to register as actual animals. And their environments had to be suitably realistic as well. Walt took this very seriously and had animators study animals in the wild and also brought in animals to the studio, where they could be observed close-up. It would go on to inspire virtually every future film that featured naturalistic animal characters (most notably "The Lion King") and the interactions with animals led Walt to create the nature documentary with his True-Life Adventures (something that carries on with the Disneynature films like "Born in China"). "Bambi" served as a benchmark in the medium; animated movies had felt alive but never like this. It was also a breakthrough for tone and structure. "Bambi" was a series of elliptical, philosophical endeavors loosely built around the changing of the seasons. As emotional as it was it was also deeply spiritual.This exclusive bonus clip (above), which features the animators and is narrated by Walt Disney himself (taken from a series of interviews conducted in 1956), underlines the technological and artistic accomplishments of the film. The footage, of animators hard at work on what become an immortal classic, is staggering by itself, but when paired with Walt's narration, well, it's really something. Walt can be heard saying that he had laid out a plan for what he wanted to accomplish with the medium (you'd be tempted to say "animation," but it's more accurate to say "film"). "We were self taught," Walt said. "And the teachers were the students." (This makes me think of a more recent example, Pixar, who was founded by computer wonks, animators, and technological wizards and would become a storytelling powerhouse for decades to come.)
Then Walt talked about how realistic and natural the film looked, which came about through canny management. "I picked certain artists who were not good at character animation and I put them into effects," Walt said. "How we can make a raindrop look better. How we can make storm clouds effective and move. The effects men would experiment with anything." Walt summed it up proudly: "I gave them things in my school that they never got in art school." And it shows.
The "Bambi" Signature Edition will make you appreciate just what it took to bring this masterpiece to life. And could you please stop crying about Bambi's mother? It's been 75 years.