USA 1942, 70 mins
Director: David D. Hand

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

By 1942, Disney was at war. On the day of Pearl Harbor, the studio’s sound stage had been commandeered by the US army for vehicle and anti-aircraft gun maintenance, with three million rounds of ammo stored in the parking lot. Mickey and Donald were starring in public information films about chemical warfare, while propaganda shorts included a resprayed Three Little Pigs (1933) with a Nazi wolf.

Of Bambi’s cast, Friend Owl, who swoops through the softly radiant forest at the film’s start, appeared on an army-commissioned insignia… wielding a machine gun. Flower the skunk popped up on another, in a gas mask. At Bambi’s world premiere in London in August 1942, the climactic forest fire must have struck a chord with the Blitzed audience. A film with no on-screen humans was now attached to humanity’s greatest conflict, whether Walt and his audience liked it or not.

Bambi: A Life in the Woods was written in 1923 by the Jewish-Austrian novelist and playwright Siegmund Salzmann, writing as Felix Salten. Disney was introduced to the book in 1935 by MGM director-producer Sidney A. Franklin, who’d purchased the rights but was flummoxed by how to turn the deer drama into live-action. Walt announced the project days after Snow White’s triumphant premiere, by which time Salzmann’s book had been banned by the Nazis.

It was the headiest time in Disney’s history, of unbelievable creative ambition and fecundity. Not content with one feature follow-up to Snow White, Walt ploughed ahead with three: Bambi, Pinocchio and Fantasia, while he was also developing Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. But the golden period ended when war broke out in Europe. The foreign markets vanished and Pinocchio and Fantasia, released in 1940, both flopped. In 1941, a bitter strike soured the studio and coloured Walt’s reputation ever after. Bambi’s core animators were unaffected, but the strike delayed the later stages of an already sluggish production, even before Pearl Harbor.

Bambi made extensive use of the costly multiplane camera, giving depth to scenes such as the glorious opening forest reverie. Meanwhile, artists struggled to give the cartoon animals realistic anatomies (Snow White’s deer were flour sacks in comparison). The deer’s faces, they learned, did not squash and stretch; those principles were better applied to their haunches, ‘shoulders’ and toe-tips to convey a ‘massive swelling and thrusting up in the body,’ as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston put it in their book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.

While the picture men studied fawns in a purpose-built studio zoo – and a deer carcass in a noisome art class – costs rose and nerves frayed. Walt made swingeing cuts to the film, reducing the animators to tears, but the last-ditch economies weren’t enough. Bambi was yet another costly flop, and Disney entered its ‘mashed potato and gravy’ years of cheap package films.

To say that Bambi is about frolicking woodland animals is like saying The Lord of the Rings is about little men with hairy feet. Everyone knows the cute scenes: baby Bambi stuck on a fallen tree-trunk (one of the test animations that convinced Walt to make the film) or the rabbit Thumper’s seduction by a girl bunny, his libido displaced to a helplessly peddling paw. The children, led by Thumper, are all stumbles, laughter and chatter. The adults move cautiously and speak sparsely, sometimes with devastating weight: ‘Man … was in the forest’; ‘Your mother can’t be with you any more.’

The focus is squarely on the beautifully drawn animals, their surroundings pushed back into pearly mist and negative space. The backgrounds were inspired by Tyrus Wong, whose sketches encouraged his fellow artists to soften and blur the branches and grasses of Bambi’s world. Impressionism blends with expressionism in bursts of colour. The forest fire is a shivering yellow painting, towering over the trees; the screen brightens to red-orange as the deer herd flees man; Bambi’s fight with a rival stag is all struggling silhouettes, rimmed by livid golds and icy blues.

Scene flows to scene with absolute simplicity; the dance of Fall leaves as seasons pass links the film’s world briefly to Fantasia. The terrible human villain is never seen, and the death of Bambi’s mother – one of cinema’s all-time traumas – is restricted to a gunshot, the bleakest of snowscapes and a heartbreaking tear. That Walt cuts from this to the silliest of spring-themed symphonies (with twittering bluebirds modelled on a 1933 short, Birds in the Spring) shows his trust and mastery of a medium that turns on a dime in a way unthinkable in live-action. The majestic final hero shot, of a stag standing proud and his father retreating, is Disney masculinity at its most iconic.

We laugh and we grieve, but mostly we marvel, at a faun’s blinking introduction to a little April shower, to the miracles of snow and ice, to the magnificent herd representing the mystery of adulthood, bounding over Bambi’s head with the clash of cymbals. Disney’s point, admirably unspoken but transparent to a child, is that the fun and fear, the silliness and heartbreak, are all of a piece. This is a real grown-up cartoon.
Andrew Osmond, 100 Animated Feature Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Director: Alan Barillaro
USA 2016
6 mins

Supervising Director: David D. Hand
Story Direction: Perce Pearce
©: Walt Disney Productions
A Walt Disney production
Sequence Directors: James Algar, Bill Roberts, Norman Wright, Sam Armstrong, Paul Satterfield, Graham Heid
Story Adaptation: Larry Morey
From the story by: Felix Salten
Story Development: George Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright
Photography: Chuck Wheeler *
Supervising Animators: Franklin Thomas, Milton Kahl, Eric Larson, Oliver M. Johnston Jr
Animators: Fraser Davis, Preston Blair, Bill Justice, John Bradbury, Don Lusk, Bernard Garbutt, Retta Scott, Joshua Meador, Kenneth Hultgren, Phil Duncan, Kenneth O’Brien, George Rowley, Louis Schmitt, Art Palmer, Art Elliott
Backgrounds: Marle T. Cox, Tyrus Wong, W. Richard Anthony, Art Riley, Stan Spohn, Robert McIntosh, Ray Huffine, Travis Johnson, Ed Levitt, Joe Stahley
Art Direction: Thomas A. Codrick, Robert C. Cormack, Al Zinnen, McLaren Stewart, Lloyd Harting, David Hilberman, John Hubley, Dick Kelsey
Colour by: Technicolor
Music by: Frank Churchill, Edward Plumb
Conducted by: Alexander Steinert
Orchestration by: Charles Wolcott, Paul J. Smith
Choral Arrangements by: Charles Henderson
Sound System: RCA Sound System
To Sidney A. Franklin our sincere appreciation

Voice Cast
Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright, John Sutherland (Bambi) *
Peter Behn (voice of Thumper) *
Paula Winslowe (voice of Bambi’s mother) *

USA 1942©
70 mins


Wed 2 Aug 14:20; Mon 14 Aug 20:30; Sun 27 Aug 13:15
Turning Red
Wed 2 Aug 20:20; Tue 8 Aug 14:20; Sat 26 Aug 15:30
The Jungle Book
Thu 3 Aug 14:20; Sun 6 Aug 13:00; Wed 16 Aug 20:45; Wed 30 Aug 14:20
Thu 3 Aug 18:00; Sat 19 Aug 17:30
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Fri 4 Aug 18:00; Sun 13 Aug 18:10; Tue 22 Aug 14:20; Wed 23 Aug 20:20
101 Dalmatians
Sat 5 Aug 13:20; Thu 10 Aug 14:20; Sat 19 Aug 15:30; Tue 29 Aug 14:20
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Sat 5 Aug 15:40; Thu 17 Aug 14:20; Sun 27 Aug 18:20
Sister Act
Sat 5 Aug 20:40; Fri 18 Aug 18:20
Zootropolis (aka Zootopia)
Sun 6 Aug 13:10; Fri 25 Aug 18:00
Silent Cinema: Disney’s Silent Shorts + intro
Sun 6 Aug 15:30
Freaky Friday
Sun 6 Aug 18:20; Fri 18 Aug 20:30; Thu 24 Aug 20:50
The Parent Trap
Mon 7 Aug 18:00; Sun 20 Aug 15:10
Wed 9 Aug 14:20; Sat 12 Aug 11:30 (+ extended intro); Mon 14 Aug 14:20; Sun 20 Aug 19:00
Mary Poppins
Wed 9 Aug 17:50; Mon 21 Aug 14:20; Mon 28 Aug 13:00
Wed 9 Aug 20:30; Mon 28 Aug 12:30
The Love Bug
Fri 11 Aug 20:30; Sat 12 Aug 11:50; Sun 20 Aug 13:30
A Disney Day for Young Audiences
Sat 12 Aug 11:30-16:30
Sat 12 Aug 18:00; Sat 26 Aug 12:00
Sat 12 Aug 20:30; Sat 19 Aug 13:00; Thu 24 Aug 14:20
The Lion King
Sun 13 Aug 13:00 (+ Funday Sing-along); Sat 26 Aug 20:30; Thu 31 Aug 14:20
The Fiendishly Difficult Disney Quiz
Sun 13 Aug 15:30 Blue Room
Sun 13 Aug 15:50; Wed 16 Aug 14:20; Sat 26 Aug 12:20; Mon 28 Aug 16:20
Finding Nemo
Sun 13 Aug 18:30; Sun 27 Aug 13:30
The Rescuers
Mon 14 Aug 18:30; Sat 19 Aug 15:50
Sat 19 Aug 12:00; Tue 29 Aug 20:30
Dick Tracy
Fri 25 Aug 20:40; Tue 29 Aug 18:10 (+ intro by Ben Roberts, BFI CEO)
The Little Mermaid
Sun 27 Aug 16:00; Mon 28 Aug 16:40

With thanks to The Walt Disney Company

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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