Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney's Nine Old Men, died on Monday. Link to Wikipedia.
The Nine Old Men worked on the Disney features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Rescuers. If I had to pick one of these classic films as the best, I'd struggle not to say Snow White or Fantasia or the delightful Lady and the Tramp, or the ever-enduring 101 Dalmatians; or acknowledged frontrunners: Dumbo and Pinocchio.
However, I think the single best of the classic Disney films is Bambi.
Ollie Johnston was a supervising animator on Bambi (he and Frank Thomas were the main animators for the Thumper character).
Bambi is the supreme achievement of Walt Disney’s classic feature-length animated films. The fabric of Bambi is woven into a seamless whole by Disney’s top talent and you could argue the film is also the first to take the technique of animation seriously as a melding (that is beyond Snow White and Fantasia) of stylistic animation technique and traditional narrative.
The movie tells the simple story of the experiences from birth to adulthood of a male fawn in the forest. When Bambi is born there is a flutter among the animals that the new “prince” is born. It turns out that Bambi is the offspring of the most respected buck in the forest, the oldest and most revered of all the deer.
Bambi goes through his first moments as a human child would. In a very curious sequence he even learns how to talk! In fact, Disney animators based Bambi’s facial expressions on a human baby’s expressions. If you parallel Bambi’s experience with the human experience, the viewer might wonder, whom does “man” represent in the movie? It’s not that much of a stretch to consider the outside threat a reference to the then Nazi menace: that “man" in the film is also, in some way, a 1942 reflection of the threat to democracy of the Axis powers on the democratic ideal.
Putting 1942 aside, the movie exists in any time and the old-fashioned animation style, although it became inevitably dated, retains a mystical quality. This is greatly enhanced by the choral songs that accompany many scenes, such as the early “April Showers” sequence. The score has a definite orchestral quality, and there are some mini-Fantasia-like moments throughout. The impressionistic backgrounds, credited to Disney artist Tyrus Wong, are breathtaking at times (Wong left Disney studios following an animator’s strike and Bambi represents his only major work for the studio).
Disney’s established sense of character is also strong in Bambi. As Bambi grows up he gets to know some of the creatures in the forest and bonds particularly with Flower (a skunk) and Thumper (a bunny). The characterization of Thumper is particularly memorable. Unknown beginner Peter Behn voiced the young Thumper and the childlike innocence (with a dash of elder knowledge) that he imparts, captures truth.
As the animals grow to adults, we see that although the filmmakers have painted the Bambi story as an “ideal,” particularly the characterization of his parents, the rest of the animals fill-in the more realistic relationships of everyday life. And if the courtships of the main trio with their female counterparts are a bit simplistic, the choice of song and the approach to the animation for Bambi and Faline sequence shows a much more mature romance. Plus, Friend Owl’s explanation of love (“twitterpatted”) is an animated comedy tour-de-force.
The daring use of lighting, particularly the use of silhouette also marks Bambi. The forest is very rarely just a bright, happy place. It is indeed the deep forest: it’s dense, and there is danger, and it turns out not just from hunters but by other man-made threats, which result in the film’s climax.
The drama of the film is expressed in the animation technique, but also by cinematic means. The fluid camera movement, the multi-plane depth of focus (pioneered in Disney’s 1937 short The Old Mill), and one very notable silence in the musical score are examples of these devices.
I doubt very many people who see Bambi as an adult, whether they saw the movie as a child or not, are unaware of the fate of a certain character, but I’d still rather not give it away. I will say that the various foreshadowing from the “You must never rush out on the meadow” warning to Bambi, onward are timed perfectly. In fact, the movie is timed perfectly. Bambi makes his last childhood discovery— he sees snow for the first time— and we’re halfway through… it’s a lean 69-and-a-half-minutes, and there isn’t a frame of waste.
In addition to the film as entertainment, Bambi is an acknowledged inspiration to latter 20th Century animators. It was a direct influence on Disney Studio’s own The Lion King. And animators point out the strides made by Disney in just five years when you compare the animation of the deer in Snow White to the deer in Bambi (less than five— since production began on Bambi simultaneous with Snow White’s release).
There isn’t one fault in the film; it’s one of the true masterpieces, not just of animation, but of cinema.
Bambi (1942): A moving and memorable story expressed by the top talent of Walt Disney’s classic animation team that is simply told, but dramatically rich and visually stunning.