Bambi Remembered by Hollywood Artists
Among those in Hollywood who remember seeing the animated classic in movie theaters during Disney’s re-releases, the DVD release of Bambi elicits excitement. Animation artist Alex Dilts, who attended the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia—founded by Walt and Roy Disney—is looking forward to watching the digitally restored special edition.
“I’m really interested in seeing what Walt [Disney] has to say,” Dilts said, adding that the improved print and colors are also a factor. “I saw Bambi in the theater in the early 1970’s and I thought Thumper was very funny. We had seen nature films, and Bambi was very convincing but it was also stylized. Bambi as a fawn moved like a fawn.”
Illustrator Dilts, a lead background designer for animation studio Klasky-Csupo, worked on the three Rugrats feature movies, and is currently creating Rugrats: All Grown Up for Nickelodeon. He’s been drawing by hand for 15 years. But he remembers that Bambi made an impression early in his career.
“While attending Cal Arts, I was reading [Disney Animation:] The Illusion of Life and I was impressed by [Bambi background artist] Tyrus Wong’s watercolors—it was beautiful stuff,” Dilts said. “His sense of light and shadows were amazing. I remember just staring at his pre-production paintings. It was very instructive.”
Screenwriter and producer Bob Gale agrees. “When I was in film school, I started to appreciate Bambi again for the spectacular use of the multiplane camera,” Gale said. “Just the detail and all that animation. How the birds move, the shadows, and the humor – Bambi has great character development. It’s a celebration of life. I don’t know how you can not get sucked in because the movie celebrates everything about life. It’s not just jokes. It is the wonderful humor you get out of just enjoying the fun things that happen in life.”
Gale, who created and wrote the Back to the Future movies, credits Walt Disney with explaining the process of making a motion picture. “One of the reasons it’s so memorable is Walt Disney’s television program,” Gale said. “He would take a show and go behind the scenes and he would highlight one sequence – and he did that with Bambi and Thumper on the ice.”
Though Walt Disney’s movie studio under Michael Eisner has been criticized lately, Gale is a fan of the company’s Treasures series on DVD. “Disney has been doing such a good job with their classic animation,” he explained. “They do respect it. Those old Mickey Mouse series are great. My daughter just gave me the Pluto series for Christmas.”
Benji creator Joe Camp—whose popular dog-themed pictures were inspired by his admiration for Disney’s Song of the South and Lady and the Tramp—told me he’s planning to watch Bambi on DVD with his family.
“The story is very character and conflict driven,” Camp said. “Some of the negative comments we’ve had about Benji Off the Leash, almost without exception, complain that it deals with serious issues. But look at those old [childrens’] movies, like Bambi, which killed off the mother and left Bambi alone—Finding Nemo killed off the whole family—in order to show life lessons. Life lessons don’t happen without conflict.”
“I can remember sleeping with the light on for a week because of the evil queen [in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs],” Camp said, “but I don’t think it harmed me. It stretches your emotions and your ability to deal with life. I take strong exception to these parents who want to keep their kids away from hard issues.”
For animator Dilts, Bambi’s sense of loss and bewilderment is part of Walt Disney’s genius. After all, he points out, it’s about the life of a deer, an animal not known for being especially perceptive. “Bambi showed that animals can be more than just cartoon comedians—it showed that they can be empathetic, too,” he suggested. “You can have serious drama in anthropomorphic characters.”
In fact, the drama of Bambi’s dilemma is what some remember most vividly. The writer and director of Saved!, Brian Dannelly, recalls being horrified that Bambi’s mother was shot and killed by a hunter. “It was my first exposure to death,” he told me, “and it was terrifying. I remember that Bambi’s story was a like a journey from a child to a man. It was very intense.” Dannelly considers the tone an artistic advantage in animation.
“Bambi’s right on track. If you look at The Incredibles, the mom’s flying the plane and the kids might actually die and that’s also very intense,” Dannelly said, noting that, after seeing Bambi, he came out of the theater thinking about losing his own mother and questioning why man encroaches on nature. “I remember being consumed by that world.” Dannelly said he was so affected that, during a visit to his grandmother’s house, where she kept deer, peacocks and honeybees, the family named one of the deer Bambi.
The image of Bambi as man versus nature is widespread, though Dilts doesn’t think Walt Disney intended Bambi as an environmentalist tract. “People can take a story of growth and turn it into an anti-man diatribe,” he said. Bob Gale tends to agree. “You can look at it as anti-man but I don’t think it is,” he said. “It’s told properly from an animal’s point of view. Man acts as a force of nature, like winter.”
The man who made four Benji movies sees animal themes as good plot premises. “Bambi, Lady and the Tramp—they had animals that were integrated into emotions,” Joe Camp said. “They had conflict resolutions which related to the story. Old Yeller—Lassie—sometimes those movies went above their merit, in terms of cinematic achievement, but at least it presents you with something meaningful.”
Dilts, citing animated television programming with a cynical sense of humor, such as South Park, admits that the culture has changed.
“With the Internet and cable you can appeal to a narrower audience [than in the days when Walt Disney was making animated features] especially in niche markets,” Dilts said. “South Park, Team America, and The Simpsons are contemporary social criticism – they’re politically incorrect. They’re thought-provoking. They’re cynical. They represent how things are. Bambi represents how things should be and can be.”
Dilts’ favorite character is Thumper, whom he likes because the adventurous rabbit sets up Bambi’s character to convey a childlike take on the world. Joe Camp agrees, though he insists that Bambi’s best friend’s humor works because the movie is serious.
“For me, the strongest memory is Bambi’s mother being killed and seeing the fear in Bambi’s eyes during the forest fire,” Camp recalled. “I also remember seeing an image of Bambi’s dad, who was very majestic. And you gotta love Thumper.”