Animators tell story behind a Disney classic

January 13, 1991|By Neil A. Grauer



Ollie Johnston

and Frank Thomas.

Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

208 pages. $29.95.

Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," recalled in a recent issue of American Film that when he was 2 1/2 years old, his sister took him to his first movie -- Walt Disney's "Bambi" -- and that he has never forgotten it.

"I enjoyed 'Bambi' immensely . . . but then came the forest-fire scene and I became convinced the theater was going to burn down. I had to be carried out screaming."

Bambi has a way of doing that, impressing itself upon a child's memory like no other movie. With "a fantasy and reality all its own," a remarkable blend of "humor, beauty . . . charm . . . and . . . anguish," it is "an experience so strong that neither the heart nor mind could ever forget it," write Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of the veteran Disney animators who were key creators of this nearly 50-year-old classic, "the final film from . . . [Disney's] Golden Age," the period from 1928 to 1942.

What is equally incredible in their fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of "Bambi's" creation is that so many of the gems of that "Golden Age" were under production simultaneously at the studio. "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" and "Dumbo," as well as "Bambi," were under way at the same time, not to mention dozens of the short cartoons starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other members of the Disney pantheon.

That "Bambi" was completed at all is something of a miracle, given the difficulty of translating to the screen the ethereal quality of Viennese author Felix Salten's original, impressionistic book; the initial box-office failures of "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia," which had been expected to finance "Bambi"; a rancorous, four-month strike by animators at the studio; and the disruption of production there by U.S. entry into World War II.

Despite "Bambi's" disappointing debut in 1942, its subsequent elevation in status (aided, no doubt, by critics who had seen it first as children and remembered its impact) is a tribute to the extraordinary, never-equaled-again assemblage of artistic talent who in this book get the credit long due to them for the magical work they did in Disney's name.

The authors cite, among others, the special contributions of such artists as Marc Davis, who met the challenge of making "enthralling actors" out of wildlife by creating char

acter sketches of Bambi that "looked like . . . [a] deer . . . but . . . could be understood as having human thoughts and feelings," and Chinese native Tyrus Wong, the background watercolorist whose "soft-edged, Oriental paintings of a mystical forest" were "just what was needed to make 'Bambi' a different, artistic picture."

Nevertheless, Disney's role as guiding genius is never slighted. It was he who insisted on the inclusion of the forest-fire scene that so terrified young Matt Groening (it wasn't in the original book), because he felt it conveyed the "philosophic concept" that there was a power in the forest greater than man. And it was Disney who "realized quite early . . . that Man killing Bambi's mother would be the most powerful and memorable statement ever made in an animated film."

Often derided as kitschy or saccharine, Disney was, as Mr. Johnston and Mr. Thomas make clear, one of this century's greatest storytellers; and "of all the great pictures Walt Disney made," they write, "Bambi" "was his favorite." By combining the story line of the film with lavish stills from the movie, and by providing a revealing account of how it was made, replete with dozens of preliminary sketches and paintings, this book helps explain why.

Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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