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No. 3213:
Saving Bambi

by Karen Fang

Today, we save Bambi. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Bambi was in crisis. In 1938, the young Disney studios were eager to repeat the success of Snow White, the first feature-length animated movie.  Snow White had shown Hollywood that cartoon characters could capture hearts, but now Disney's intended follow-up about a young fawn could not find its footing.

The problem was that Bambi required a whole new artistic technique. It was hard enough trying to give animals personality and to make them talk. But the Disney animators also struggled with the story's forest setting, as the fussy fairy tale style that worked so well in Snow White clashed with Bambi's naturalistic animals. Would Bambiever get made?

Help came from a Chinese immigrant, then stuck in the Disney back offices. Tyrus Wong was a master of oriental brush painting, a watercolor tradition that creates with soft lines and limited brushstrokes. On his own initiative, Tyrus used this style to conjure a series of sample backgrounds. With simple brushstrokes of pastel color, he suggested the feeling of leafy forest while keeping the focus on Bambi's animals.

Bambi mother faun glade sketch
Bambi mother faun glade sketch
  Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family

When Walt Disney saw Tyrus's sample backgrounds he immediately promoted Tyrus to the film's lead stylist.  Bambi was finally on its way.

Bambi fire sketch
Bambi fire sketch
  Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family

Disney in the Thirties and Forties was in its Golden Age, so it is interesting how much this iconic American company owed to immigrants, and how some of those immigrants crafted that Golden Age charm in the face of challenging immigrant experiences. For Snow White, Walt Disney had handpicked Swiss-born Albert Hurter to set the film's overall style. Hurter was a solitary man who lived three decades with no family in the US. His two chief assistants on Snow White were Swedish Gustaf Tenggren and Hungarian Ferdinand Horvath. Horvath came to the US after escaping prison camps during the First World War.

Tyrus Wong has a similarly poignant story. When Tyrus first arrived in the US he had spent three weeks as the only child in an immigrant detention center in San Francisco's Angel Island. US law at the time prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, and yet had he not been allowed to enter Disney might never have made one of America's most recognizable films.

Tyrus inside kite studio
Tyrus inside kite studio
  Photo Credit: Irene Poon

European influences in Snow White and Disneyland's castle have always been obvious, but Tyrus Wong and his important contribution to Bambi show how Disney magic borrowed from an international mix of artistic styles and cultural references. Tyrus Wong didn't just save Bambi. He did so by importing a foreign aesthetic, reminding us of the beauty we gain when that transplant takes root and flowers in our national culture.

So the next time you see Bambi, remember that this adorable faun is romping through a Chinese forest. That's the real 'magic' of Disney.

I'm Karen Fang, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.