A scene from 'Bambi'
Walt Disney Productions
By Lily Rothman
August 8, 2017

Coming from a man who had already changed the entire field of animation, it was high praise — but Walt Disney was feeling confident about Bambi. It was, TIME quoted him saying, “the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood.”

The film — which turns 75 on Tuesday, having premiered in the U.K. on Aug. 8, 1942, before opening in the U.S. later that month — was based on a book by the Austrian writer Felix Salten. Though the music from the movie hasn’t exactly entered the popular consciousness in the same way other Disney tunes have, the animation set a new standard, particularly as the first time the backdrops in an animated Disney feature had been done with oil paints rather than watercolor. The choice of a new medium gave Bambi a palette of rich forest colors that made the flora almost as much a character as the fawn.

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But what really made the movie stand out was its characters, as TIME noted in its 1942 review of the movie:

Disney animates Bambi from birth to buck. He is an appealing, wonderfully articulated little deer, whose progressive discoveries of rain, snow, ice, the seasons, man, love, death, etc. make a neatly antlered allegory. Bambi’s rubber-jointed, slack-limbed, coltish first steps in the art of walking are, even for Disney, inspired animation. The undying affection bestowed on him by a young skunk, whom Bambi inadvertently names Flower, is grade-A Disney. His wide-eyed encounter with an old mole who pops up just to pass the time of day is typical of a fawnhood full of sylvan surprises.

But Bambi grows up, and with horns he loses his cuteness. He also loses his baby voice, his spots, his mother. The hunters, who kill her, hunt Bambi and his bride, a doe named Faline. A pack of nightmarish hounds with luminous fangs (probably the most terrifying curs since Cerberus) attack them. Then a fire burns up the forest. It also burns up Disney’s delicate fantasy.

Bambi is the star, but a puckish, toothy, yellow-nosed rabbit named Thumper almost hops off with the picture. He is a first-rate example of Disney’s genius for creating an illusion of reality only to turn it into a fantasy. Thumper goes along being all rabbit, suddenly does something purely human. The shift is hilarious. Thumper’s chief accomplishment is a hereditary talent for thumping his long left foot against the earth, a log, or anything else, with the staccato crack of a tommy gun.

Newcomer Thumper carries most of Bambi‘s comedy. Just a normal growing bunny, he won’t eat his greens, and adds sly innuendoes to the maxims his mother makes him recite. As court jester to Bambi, who is a prince and must maintain a reasonable reserve, he is very funny. His inability to keep his itching foot from vibrating while making love to the beauteous Mrs. Thumper is great slapstick. So is the skating lesson he gives Bambi. “Come on,” he coaxes, “the water’s stiff!”

The magazine didn’t quite agree with Disney that Bambi was his best picture ever — it was good, the reviewer conceded, but his earlier work, which included Fantasia and Dumbo, was better. But the critic singled out Peter Behn, who had voiced Thumper, as deserving all the praise he could get — and the studio too, for managing to have the boy actor record his lines before his voice changed. That was not an easy feat for a movie that took five years to make, thanks in part to the studio’s devoting three-quarters of its resources to making wartime shorts for the U.S. government.

But perhaps the strongest proof of the movie’s impact could be found in the people who hated it. “Disney’s indictment of men who kill animals for sport is so effective that U.S. sportsmen who have seen the picture are gunning for him,” the original review noted. “They feel that Disney is undoing their lifework of conserving wild animals for future open seasons.”

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