The Bambi Blues

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New on Blue Ray, Walt Disney’s beloved animated classic Bambi was a controversial failure when it was first released.

“You’re concerned about what you are losing from the picture and I’m worried about losing my shirt!” Walt Disney, explaining to a director why the studio had to cut sequences from Bambi.

In 1937, full of confidence and pioneering spirit as to what could be accomplished in the cartoon medium, thirty-six-year-old Walt Disney acquired the film rights to the children’s book Bambi, A Life in the Woods. Written by the Hungarian born Siegmund Salzmann, under the pen name Felix Salten in 1923, Bambi was amongst the many books banned in Adolph Hitler’s Germany in 1936 (reportedly, the usually animal loving Nazis, saw the Jewish Salten’s story of woodland creatures trying to survive the menace of man as an allegory for Jewish persecution). Despite warnings from his artists that it lacked a sufficient story, and his great dependence on the German market, Walt Disney saw Bambi as a great opportunity to animate animals with human characteristics.

Typically, Walt Disney laughed off any political meanings in his films. The Three Little Pigs, made in 1933, was seen by many as an ode to the Great Depression; The happy swine danced like the carefree people in the 1920s until the big bad wolf wiped them out with the force of the 1929 stock market crash. The usually Republican Walt never intended that the hard-working pig that lived in the brick house be seen as an endorsement of President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. Seven years later, a columnist fumed over Fantasia. In her mind, the film’s climactic scene, where the devil damned human souls into a volcano, meant Disney was saying we were all helpless against Nazi demons. Perhaps the wildest accusation had been made three years earlier when a left-wing newspaper writer had written that in Snow White, when the seven dwarfs had taken down the wicked queen, it was a clear triumph for a miniature communist society. Disney no doubt would have been taken aback to find out that many people in the modern green movement would later cite watching Bambi as the beginning of their interest in environmentalism.

The making of Bambi proved to be as laborious as some at the studio feared. More idea man than animator himself, Walt had neglected Bambi leaving his artists to get a handle on the story. Two fawns, one male, one female, were flown in from Maine for the cartoonists to study, after a time they began to act more like pets than the wild creatures Walt wanted to depict on screen. A breakthrough took place when one morning a large buck came down from nearby Griffith Park to visit the girl deer at the Hollywood studio and frightened the human spectators by lowering his head and pointing his antlers at them. After animal control took the stag away the relieved cartoonists had a better idea of how to proceed. Walt, began to show up to story meetings and made some of his trademark suggestions: Young Bambi could have a comic adventure stumbling on a frozen lake; Thumper, a character not mentioned in Salten’s book, could become, like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, the main character for the audience to identify with. Still the picture dragged on and was finally completed in 1942.

From the time Walt had put Bambi into production, both of Disney’s parent’s had died, Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) had flopped plunging Walt into debt, the studio had been ripped apart by a labor strike, and the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Walt, who no longer had access to the lucrative European market, was in desperate need of a hit. But Bambi got a lukewarm reception from the critics, many of them finding the life of animated talking animals too realistic. (Writing about Bambi in 1988 critic Roger Ebert stated that the film was sexist pointing to the father deer going off to live on his own, leaving the mother with all the child rearing responsibility.) Some hunters, who found themselves after the release of Bambi, seen as murderers, rather than sportsman, deeply resented the film. The movie lost 200,000 in its initial release and Walt was stung when his daughter Diane came down on him for the death of Bambi’s mother (Disney later resurrected her; the famous doe mom made cameos in both The Sword and the Stone (1963) and The Jungle Book four years later).

From then on Walt never had the same enthusiasm for animation, his desire to break new ground was aimed more towards television, amusement parks, and city planning. Yet despite the bad box office results Walt remained proud of Bambi. He insisted that it was meant as entertainment, not a disparagement against hunters, and often said in interviews that it was favorite film. It took fifteen years before the public at large shared his appreciation.

“I think back to 1942 when we released that picture and there was a war on and nobody cared about the love life of a deer, and the bankers were on my back. It’s pretty gratifying to know that Bambi finally made it.” — Walt Disney in 1957.

write by Clitus

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