Barring the majestic Fantasia (1940), delicate, heartfelt Bambi (1942) is the best film Disney has ever made – a classic among many classics. But the movie presented difficulties for the animators, and production was a slog.
Bambi, which tells the story of a young deer’s attempts to survive in a forest that’s threatened by the destructive nature of mankind, was the first Disney film to include adult issues such as death. This caused problems for the storytellers as they were trying to reflect mature themes in the context of a children’s film – something that had never been done before.
An additional challenge resulted from Walt Disney’s decision to base the movement of the characters on real animals – again, something that had not been tried before. This meant many hours of detailed nature study, and more complex animations than had been previously attempted. It was worth the hard work – the result is a work of pure cinema that transcends entertainment to stand as a bona fide work of art.
Bambi is still unusually thoughtful for an animated film. Based on Felix Salten’s book Bambi: A Walk in the Woods, but heavily adapted by Disney, it relates the maturation of a young deer to the changing of the seasons – it’s a poetic essay on birth, death and rebirth. There’s also a deftly handled ecological theme about man’s contempt for nature that is strikingly modern.
The storyline is simple without being simplistic. A young deer, Bambi, is born into what seems like an idyllic world but, as he gets older, he realises that danger and destruction are never far away. As Bambi grows into a powerful stag he meets the challenges of life, takes on responsibilities and claims his birthright as king of the forest.
With Bambi, Disney continued to explore the possibilities of the innovative multiplane camera it had developed for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and this led to some incredibly fluid animation. The bodily movements of the deer are especially natural. Animators consulted nature specialists and wildlife photographers, and a small zoo, containing fawns, rabbits, owls, ducks and skunks, was established in the studio for observation purposes.
There are no people in the film, but a sequence based on a performance by figure skating champions was done to dazzling effect. The scenery is painterly, and owed a lot to the gentle, vibrant pastel landscapes of Chinese artist Tyrus Wong, who worked as lead illustrator. Wong based the scenes on classical works from the Song dynasty.
The animation was so complex that animators produced less than one second of film a day. Bambi was finally finished in 1942, and lost money because the war made its release in European markets impossible.
Bambi will be screened on July 29 at the Emperor Cinema’s Entertainment Building cinema (English version), in Central, and its Tuen Mun cinema (Cantonese version) as part of the Disney Film Festival programme.