Opening the Disney Vault: Bambi

As we’ve seen in the last month, the early 40s was a weird, messy time for the Disney Studios. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hadn’t provided a solid template they could work from to create an animated feature, and the lack of structure combined with the difficult realities of making an animated film was damaging to morale at the studio. Though the films were generally well-received by critics, returns were minimal, and the films barely broke even, if they did make any money at all. Due to the Second World War, the European market was cut off, and the zeitgeist of American culture had shifted dramatically. Animated films, a boon during the Depression Era, were escapist and even frivolous to Americans during the War, when the culture was asking difficult questions about national identity and and whether to be involved in another world war when the last one still loomed large.

Before America’s entry into the war in December 1941, the studio itself was largely unaffected. That’s not to say that everything was rosy. In 1940, the studio transitioned from the Hyperion Lot to the brand new Burbank Studios, where Disney is still housed to this day. Built with money gained from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio was a multi-million-dollar undertaking that Walt hoped would foster the familial, collegiate atmosphere he coveted.

He could not have been more mistaken. The move to the Burbank Studio exasperated stratification between staff members, particularly between Walt and his employees. He and Roy may have diplomatically taken lunch in the cafeteria with everyone else, but the physical separation of their offices up several floors increased a feeling of disconnection between the Disneys and their employees. The studio had been designed to be streamlined, but streamlining any process means imposing some kind of structure and order. Some employees reported feeling that the new studio was far more formal and a lot less collegial than the old Hyperion lot, and again, the distance between offices came into play. This the studio may well have survived – there will always be teething issues with change – but for the way Walt himself treated employees.

The distance of his office from others may have been surmounted, except Walt was now Walt Disney. He was withdrawing from the hands-on approach that had driven the production of Snow White, and trusting an increasing amount of work to the judgment of directors and animators. Despite insisting that everyone at the studio take a pay cut to deal with financial strain, Roy became the easier of the Disney brothers for the staff to talk to. Walt kept people at arm’s length, distrusted their motives, and made little effort to engage with newer staff.

Walt had sneakily introduced pay increases for employees under Roy’s nose before Roy instituted pay cuts. But for all he wanted to reward employees who worked hard, he was quick to fire people whom he didn’t perceive as pulling their weight. He called it “weeding out marginal people” and no-one was safe. He was blunt and brusque with employees who asked for an increase in compensation for their long service. When one person asked why he had not been promoted, Walt wrote back that, “If you consider the quality of your work, I believe you will understand why you have not advance further.” He might have been revered by the younger, newer animators as a cultural icon, but his dismissive attitude rankled people. He saw no issue with the seemingly random bonus system that no-one could figure out how to play, nor did he see why lower ranking employees should be afforded the same privileges as those of higher ranking.

Walt totally refused the Screen Cartoonits’ Guild, the animators’ union that was quickly gaining traction across the country, when they demanded to be allowed into the studio. Instead he tried to rally the troops, giving a speech in February 1941 to the staff that concluded with, “If you’re not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it.” It did not endear him to people.

One of the longest-standing and highest-paid animators at the studio, Art Babbit, was a driving force behind unionizing the animators. When he became one of the union leaders, Walt threatened him with termination, and on the 28th May 1941 he followed through. Babbit was fired for orchestrating “union activities,” and on the 29th of May, more than 200 employees walked out on strike.

The strike lasted five weeks, and the changes it made to the studio were numerous. Staff numbers were almost halved after the strike, and some of the most prominent animators of the previous decade, people like Art Babbit, Bill Tytla, and Walt Kelly, resigned. It cannot be understated how important the strike itself was in pushing for better treatment of studio employees. While it isn’t the largest or strongest union in Hollywood, the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild remains today the best option for working artists to ensure they are treated with basic dignity by industry employers; employers who as of 2016 are being investigated for industry wage fixing.

This is the climate in which Bambi was made. Begun in the late 30s, the production of Bambi spanned pre-Snow White brainstorming, post-Snow White euphoria, a physical move for the studio, major financial setbacks, a strike that ravaged the morale of remaining employees, and, by the time it was released on the 9th of August 1942, the conscription of studio space by the American government to aid in the war effort.

From 1933, MGM producer-director Sidney Franklin held the film rights to the Austrian novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten. Though he originally planned to make a live-action film, he soon realized this would be too challenging and sold the rights on to the Disney company in 1937. The original plan for the schedule was to begin animation on the 1st of December that year and finish the entire picture within a year. Those of you who have been reading along with us will realize that this was a hilariously optimistic goal. To try to expedite the process Walt suggested they get all the voice work and songs recorded first, thus pinning down the script before animation began.

Sidney Franklin stayed on to help with the project, and with his experience in live-action directing, he was able to help them bring a more deft hand to the drama of the script. But a similarly deft hand would be needed to bring realism to the world of the forest, and it was obvious to Walt that animation just wasn’t there yet. The film was postponed in favor of Pinocchio, and the crew was left to draw and animate and do tests until they got the right “feel” of the characters. The crew were left for a year and a half to ruminate on how to realistically animate the deer and other creatures of the forest. When Walt did re-engage with them, it was to rush them into getting reels done to start revisions. But it was still clear more time was needed to develop realism. By 1940 there was a new plan: release Fantasia, do a feature composed of three shorts, then another feature film, then maybe Bambi would be ready.

This plan turned out to be more realistic. While the studio went through shakeups from the move to Burbank and then the 1941 strike, production on Bambi chugged away in the background, becoming more and more a relic of the Hyperion Snow White days. When costs had to be cut, over 2000 feet of film was dropped from the final film. By the time the film was released on the 12th of August, 1942, it was treated as an afterthought. Some critics disliked the realism that had been a keystone of the entire project, while others thought it was insulting to hunters (seriously). Walt’s own daughter was upset that Bambi’s mother died, complaining that he was Walt Disney so he could do whatever he wanted. Bambi, like Pinocchio, lost money on its first release.

Nowadays, though, the film is considered a bone fide classic. Rather than a later film like The Lion King, for which creators used Bambi as a touchstone, the film is less about a conventional story and more about showing the rhythms and cycle of a life. It’s more of a mood piece, and really it’s a good thing they did cut the film by over 2000 feet of film, because any longer than its run time of 71 minutes would start to really drag. The songs are very of their time, and date the film, particularly “Love Is a Song,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for that year. It’s a croony, soppy kind of song that places the film as firmly in the 40s as Elton John’s rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” cements The Lion King in the early 90s.

But the use of background music is crucial to the film. Music plays an integral part in driving the tone of the film, and often instruments like cymbals and drums are used for sound effects rather than more traditional methods. There are very few moments of actual silence in the film, meaning that when silences do happen they are used to carry dramatic weight. Sometimes this is used for a more comic underscore, like Thumper struggling to remember his lines. But two of the most emotionally critical moments – Bambi’s mother announcing the appearance of Man, and Bambi’s father announcing the death of his mother – are delivered against a resounding silence. It makes the moments heavy and affecting, and it’s a clever way of getting the audience to feel that heaviness without being overt about it.

But there’s also some moments of severe mood whiplash. After Bambi and his father walk off into the snow, there’s what feels like a smash cut to springtime in the forest, brought on by cheerful singing, birds twittering about, and bright colors. It’s jarring when it’s right up against a moment of quiet grief, and throws you out of the film. And the scene itself is silly and flippant. While some silliness might be needed at that moment, it’s all a bit twee, even sickening, and easily one of the low points of the film.

Yet there’s a lot to like about Bambi, honestly. The multi-plane tracking shot of the expanse of the forest that opens the film is nothing short of astonishing. Multi-plane shots used a massive machine to film several plates of backgrounds at once, moving them at different rates relative to one another to create the effect of moving through an environment. They were incredibly time consuming and costly to make, but multi-plane shots are some of the best stuff in the Disney films and shorts of this period. The animation itself is no less striking, particularly when you compare the “wheat sack” deer of Snow White to Bambi and his mother picking delicately through the undergrowth.

Then there’s the look of the forest itself. Tyrus Wong, a new inbetweener at the time, submitted some of his artwork to the higher ups, and the crew of Bambi almost immediately decided that his work had the effect they were looking for in creating the forest. He was made lead artist on the project. His minimalist approach with soft pastels creates a sense of depth and warmth, giving the impression of a teeming forest without cluttering the frame. When the film reaches dramatic moments, it takes on this minimalist approach more and more, opting for more abstract color palettes and lighting that heighten intensity.

Despite some pretty glaring flaws, Bambi succeeds in what it sets out to do. Unlike Pinocchio which struggles with telling a cohesive narrative, Bambi opts for a more slice-of-life, mood piece style that fits well with the content and is largely successful. The rhythms of the film feel natural and the world is engrossing, and the shorter length works very well for this style of film. It’s a subtle film for a quiet afternoon, and worth making time to revisit.

Information and quotations for this article have been taken from Neal Gabler’s 2006 biography of Walt Disney and Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’ 1981 book The Illusion of Life.



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