While there is little argument that Walt Disney’s feature length animated movies are the greatest ever produced, there is no agreement over which picture is his best work. Some people think it’s ‘Snow White’, the first cartoon movie ever made, others prefer ‘Fantasia’ and it’s pre-psychedelic atmosphere & unequalled use of classical music but my personal favourite, because of it’s superb handling of emotions, has got to be ‘Bambi’.

The rights to Felix Salten’s book were first picked up by Sidney Franklin of MGM who originally planned it as a live-action movie. After some tests and trial footage, he realised this would be impossible and contacted Walt Disney who was excited by the idea, scheduled it to be his studio’s second animated feature and the rights to the movie were transferred to him in April 1937.

The first task was to convert the book into storyboards and the two men in charge of this were Bernard Garbutt, a specialist in drawing animals and Marc Fraser Davis, who had less formal training but was a genius at bringing life and feeling into his drawings. The job proved more difficult than had been imagined, and gradually ‘Bambi’ slipped down Disney’s schedule as first ‘Pinocchio’ and then ‘Fantasia’ overtook it. This was no bad thing, as the experience gained in giving animals character was vital to ‘Bambi’.

Dave Hurd was brought in as supervising director and he turned the screws on the storyboard team, who’d otherwise probably still be polishing their ideas! He demanded more human elements in the animals, a more caricatured approach and to help the audience identify with Bambi and his friends in the later scenes, the first part became “about a group of children who happened to be animals”.

Of the supporting characters that were added, Thumper rapidly became the most well-loved – this nearly proved fatal to his health when Sidney Franklin, who’d been retained as a consultant, suggested that it might be a good move if Thumper was killed by the hunters, as the audience would feel it more. This idea was eventually dropped, though not without regret!

The section that posed most problems was the death of Bambi’s mother, without doubt the most heart-rending moment in cartoon history (I have a theory that someone’s attitudes to hunting largely depend on whether or not they saw ‘Bambi’ as a child!). In the first treatments, the writers had difficulty establishing her as a character making her death seem just like another occurence in Bambi’s life. Gradually, however, these problems were overcome, though the eventual version was toned DOWN – it was planned to go back to where she’d been shot and show the marks of her having been dragged away, but this was altered after the following conversation between Walt Disney and two story directors:

Walt Disney: He doesn’t know where she is and starts coming back, but you don’t come back to her do you?
Larry Morey: We come back to the image in the snow.
WD: Do you have to do that?
Perce Pearce: It’s powerful.
WD: I was just wondering if we even had to do that?
LM: It sounded pretty good, Walt.
WD: No blood.
LM: No, just the imprint.
WD: You know she’s dead, but the little guy just comes back…and the snow begins to pick up and he’s crying, “Mother!” and it would just tear their hearts out…this little fellow in the blizzard – and right out of the blizzard comes this stag you know. You never come back and show the imprint of the mother. It’s all by suggestion…I just wonder if coming back and seeing her form isn’t just sticking a knife in their hearts.

Despite this display of moderation the agreed sequence, where Bambi’s father tells him “Your mother can’t be with you anymore”, is still capable of reducing most people, 24-year old ‘zine editors included, to tears.

The animation work on ‘Bambi’ is superb, even more so when you realise that the drawings were done freehand, without rotoscoping (tracing live action footage), although the animators had two real live deer, named Bambi and Faline naturally, to draw from. The only exception to this was the antlers on the Great Stag – test drawings all looked fine individually but when animated the horns wobbled as if made of rubber. The solution was to make a model head, take photos of it at the appropriate angle and copy these onto animation film.

The backgrounds in ‘Bambi’ are different from most of Disney’s features, being rendered in a less hyper-realistic way, with expressionist shading to create the atmosphere of the forest. This was thanks to Tyrus Wong, who’d come up from being an in-betweener (artist who ‘fills the blanks’ between master frames), and helped give the forest a ‘magic’ feel, though it’s been argued, with some justification, that this magic was due to the reality – you feel as if you could walk into it.

Despite the wonderful sequences that were being produced, the movie had problems. Animation is expensive work and when ‘Pinocchio’ flopped on release and ‘Fantasia’ was also looking like coming up short, cuts had to be made. Entire sequences went: there was one scene with Bambi and his father finding the corpse of a hunter, killed by the forest fire but test screenings showed people didn’t like this at all! Another scene not included was one that had two leaves contemplating death and the hereafter before being swept off their branch, and overall the length of the film was reduced from over 9,000 feet to 6,259. The finished film opened on August 13th, 1942, more than five years after the project began.

It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, although it took ten years to recover all it’s costs. Thanks to infinite repetitions on ‘Disney Time’, Bambi on ice has become part of everybody’s subconscious but even beyond that, it still has to be regarded as one of the best cartoon films of all time. The video recently went on sale in the States and when it does the same over here, no prizes for guessing that I’ll be near the front of the queue!

For further information, readers are recommended “Bambi – the story and the film” – Ollie Johnston & Frank Thomas, published by Stewart, Taborin and Chang. It comes complete with an animated flip book!