“What happened, Mother? Why did we all run?”
I watched a documentary recently whereby an animator explained how it was fascinating what Walt Disney achieved in those early days. Compare the standard of animation and skill in Steamboat Willie
to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
and it is fascinating the change. In only ten years, animation moved from black-and-white line drawings and into full-feature, fully-coloured and realised characters that could be believed in. In the same way, compare the woodland creatures in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
to the animals in Bambi
. Again, such a huge improvement – and only within five-years. This is what I love about Disney, and specifically what I love about the animation.
Story to Film
By this stage, the established Disney animators were on board. Bambi
ensured the talents of directors James Algar (animator on Fantasia,
who went on to direct Disney True-Life Adventures including The African Lion
and Jungle Cat
), Samuel Armstrong (
director on Dumbo
and a background-artist on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
), David Hand (Old school animator on Silly Symphonies, Mickey-animations and director on Snow White
) amongst many others.
The story was a natural progression as, like Fantasia, it was virtually dialogue-less. It was a story, over four seasons, showing a deer in the forest set to emotive and unforgettable music. Akin to The Lion King, the story begins as we see animals flock to the birth of royalty: the “Prince”. A wise character oversees the ceremony – an Owl in Bambi, opposed to Rafiki in The Lion King. And, to draw parallels further, both films portray the death of a parent and the maturity the child gains from this loss.
Unlike the cartoonish Dumbo, the animation in Bambi was naturalistic. Artists spent hours observing animals directly, imitating their postures, movement and look. The characters had to be relatable and likeable – but they had to also look accurate and natural. Indeed, the Disney lot had deer on set and the art classes, led by Rico Lebrun, would instruct animators on “the finer points of drawing animals”.
Animators would even compare baby-expressions with the animations they had created from observing deer. If an animator was unsure what a deer showing shock would look like, they looked at the baby-expression of shock and applied it to the deer. It is this combination of observation, caricature and a clear understanding of character that ensures the film portrays animals in a relatable, but real, way.
The Future is Bleak
As the story progresses we see multiple sequences showing the forest in different states of emotion – one of which portrays a chase whereby silhouettes are distorted and the animation loses itself in imaginative colour and composition. The forest itself is a character. Like a forest, the Disney studio had grown and had these films within the roots and foundations. But times had changed – indeed the world was changing as the US joined World War II and the unions had gained a stronghold in Hollywood.
The Disney studio, in the previous 10 years, had grown tremendously. In the literal sense, of course the studio had grown. Though the studio was losing staff to the armed forces, and the unions had ceased the difficult, but passionate, working conditions established in the thirties – the animators now knew a broad range of art-styles which they could apply to the films in the futures. These animators were loyal to Disney and were keen to ensure the brand lived up to the expectations Walt had set out. But Disney had a difficult time ahead and, as Christopher Finch writes, “the initial momentum was spent”. What a momentum it was – and these five films, and their re-releases, would be the bread-and-butter for Disney during the war-years, as Disney would release sub-par films just to keep the company moving. Animations continued – on comission from the US and Canadian governments – to increase public support for the war effort, but the hey-day of Disney had passed… for the moment.