Bambi, fully grown. Artist: Ken Hultgren.


Original medium: Prose fiction
Adapted to cartoons by: Disney
First Appeared: 1923
Creator: Felix Salten
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Bambi is generally listed as Walt Disney's sixth feature. But by some criteria, it's only the fourth. Fantasia and The Reluctant Dragon are among the feature-length releases that …

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… preceded it, but they were compilations of shorter works; whereas Snow White, Pinocchio and Dumbo each told a single feature-length story. By this criterion, Bambi was the last feature Disney did for almost eight years — after spending the rest of the 1940s on compilations such as The Three Caballeros (1945) and Fun & Fancy Free (1947), the studio didn't return to the production of true features until 1950's Cinderella.

The feature was adapted from a book by Austrian author and critic Siegmund Salzmann, who used the name Felix Salten. He wrote it in 1923 (deriving the name from the Italian word for baby, "bambino") after visiting the Swiss Alps and becoming interested in the wildlife there, and published a limited edition that same year. Three years later, it was re-published by Zsolna, a Viennese company. After that, it was translated into many languages and reprinted all over the world. Disney acquired film rights to it in the late 1930s. The discrepancy between the dates of the two first editions led to a copyright dispute between Disney and Salzmann's heirs, which wasn't resolved until 1996.

The feature was released August 13, 1942, after having been in production for more than five years. It spent much of that time on a back burner, but at least part of its lengthy lead time was due to the necessity of inventing new techniques. Such natural-looking animals, in such a natural-looking environment, had never been animated before. The hard work and creative genius that went into this conferred a mixed blessing on the final product. The result was beautiful by almost any standards, but some critics panned it because they thought a cartoon should look more cartoony. It also came under fire from the American Rifle Association for depicting hunters in a bad light, which may not have been the case had it looked a little more removed from reality — and the scene they particularly objected to, the death of Bambi's mother, may not have provoked as many tears from young viewers if it had looked less realistic.

The public, too, didn't respond very well. Bambi lost money on its first release. But its poor showing is more likely to have been caused by the fact that the country had gotten involved in World War II a few months earlier, because subsequent releases were quite well received. Today, Bambi is regarded as one of Disney's major classics. Nonetheless, it contributed to the company's money problems of the middle and late 1940s, which is why Disney concentrated on the less-expensive compilations for the rest of that decade.

Voice actors weren't credited on-screen, and most didn't do much, if any, other voice work. Bobby Stewart, John Sutherland and Hardie Albright all played Bambi at various ages. Peter Behn and Tim Davis played Bambi's rabbit friend, Thumper, as a child and adult, respectively. Stan Alexander played the skunk, Flower, as a child; and Flower as an adult, the only major role by anyone with a lot of voice credits, was played by Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh, among others). Faline, Bambi's love interest (and mother of his later children) was voiced by Cammie King (young) and Ann Gillis (adult).

There was, of course, the usual flood of merchandise, including adaptations into a comic book, a Big Little Book and, later, a Little Golden Book. The comic and Little Golden Book were reprinted every time the movie was re-released, for several decades. Also, Disney handled the adaptation of Salten's sequel, Bambi's Children, into the first two forms.

The comic book was drawn by Ken Hultgren, and published by Dell as Four Color Comics #12. Hultgren also drew Four Color #30, the one that adapted Bambi's Children. Hultgren's other credits include quite a few Mickey Mouse stories, and many other funny animals for several different publishers. The first use of the Bambi characters as elements of the Disney Universe, available for crossovers with the rest, was Thumper Meets the Seven Dwarfs, which was drawn by Carl Buettner (Bucky Bug).

In the ensuing years, Bambi has entertained generations of youngsters. More important, the techniques developed for it have been refined and improved, and used over and over. It's certainly an exaggeration to say that without this feature to show the way, The Jungle Book, The Lion King and many others could never have been done — but it's also certain that they would have been quite different.


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