Reel Rumbles: Fantasia vs Dumbo vs Bambi
Since our series of Disney Reel Rumbles began back in October 2019, a new Disney animated film has released, bringing the total in this series to 58. In this entry we return to the Golden Age of Disney for a plus-sized rumble between the three final films of that era. They each epitomize their time period, and they all bear Walt Disney’s distinct touch. They all also continue a through-line of real darkness in the classic Disney canon, with demons, surreal nightmares, and death ever present. Some of the other hallmarks of the era continue as well, with exaggerated villains and witty, snappy sidekicks. The last film of the Golden Age begins the Disney trend of seeing the world through the eyes of animals, a well to which Disney would return many times over the decades that followed.
The History of the Films
Among the more unique of Disney’s works is the studio’s 1940 release, Fantasia. Following two fairy-tale adaptations, a film based entirely on visual interpretation of music certainly stands out. Fantasia didn’t start as a feature-length film though. Originally, Walt was simply trying to create a short to help boost Mickey Mouses’s popularity, and he based it on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Expanding on his previous idea of setting animation to classical music, he wanted to create something more than slapstick and encapsulate pure fantasy. Disney ended up turning to well known conductor Leopold Stokowski to add an extra level of prestige to the picture.
As production continued and costs climbed, Roy, Walt’s brother, and soon Walt himself realized that a short would never recuperate these expenses. The production needed to expand into a film. Roy wanted to keep costs low given the experimental nature of the movie, but Walt’s ambition would not be sated by keeping things simple, and he soon expanded Fantasia into an entire concerto and called on friend Deems Taylor to serve as master of ceremonies for the film, introducing segments of live action and helping to select the musical pieces. Throughout 1938, all of these talks about story selections and music accompaniments whirled as Disney worked on his other films and focused on expanding his Burbank studio. As more musical pieces were selected, Disney’s enthusiasm grew, and he became more focused on Fantasia while anxiety grew over production of Pinocchio.
Next came the name. Fantasia was originally known as The Concert Feature, but nobody particularly cared for such a plain name. Eventually consensus developed around Fantasia, an early working title. The actual animation of the film took over 1,000 artists and technicians who animated more than 500 different characters. They used color scheming to help differentiate the segments and used live-action filming to help convey human movement.
After all of this immense creative work, the release process proved almost as complicated. RKO felt the more-than-two-hour musical was no good for general release. Disney secured a roadshow-style release and worked with theaters to spruce it up by using theater marquees and complicated curtain and lightning cues. These roadshow releases were successful, and Fantasia ran for 49 consecutive weeks at Broadway, a record at the time. Critics were almost unanimous in their praise, with many naming it a masterpiece. The most negative critics came from the classical music community, which didn’t care for many of the arrangements.
Fantasia‘s roadshow screenings earned $1.3 million by April 1941, but the complicated screening procedure was costly. Disney was forced to lease theaters, and they exceeded their loan limits. A planned European roadshow was cancelled because of World War II. RKO finally took over distribution, but they screened the film with only mono sound. A combination of high screening costs and a subdued general release did its damage: the combined average receipts at the end of the general run was only $325,000, meaning that Fantasia lost even more than Pinocchio.
In came Dumbo in 1941 to save the day. After two back-to-back losses, Disney was in financial straits and needed a cheap, low-budget short to help recoup some money. But again, Walt Disney’s ambition and desire to see the story done justice caused him to make a full-length feature out of the Dumbo storybook. The task fell to story artists Dick Huemer and Joe Grant. In an unusual decision, they created a script outline using chapters, akin to a novel. They were responsible for making changes from the storybook, adding the famed beginning stork sequence and the pink elephant sequence, and they changed the names of several characters. They also added in a wise-cracking mouse, Tim, replacing what was originally a robin. The black crows were also their creation. Huemer and Grant’s outline was largely left in place when storyboarding began.
Like Disney’s prior efforts, none of the voice cast received screen credit, but Dumbo featured many of Disney’s most prominent vocal talents. The elephant matriarch was voiced by Verna Felton, who would go on to voice the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, Flora of the Three Good Fairies in Sleeping Beauty, and Winifred the Elephant in The Jungle Book. Jiminy Cricket himself, Cliff Edwards, makes an appearance voicing the leader of the crows.
Avoiding some of the mistakes of the past, at least when it came to finances, Walt did not employ the elaborate special effects from his previous three films. Dumbo managed to keep costs down by keeping character designs and background paintings simple, and it used more held cels in character animation. This gives Dumbo a much more cartoon-like and exaggerated look, though real elephants were brought in in order for animators to better mimic their movements. Dumbo shares one rare quality with Snow White: water-color. Most Disney films use oil paint, but watercolors were used here, and the difference can definitely be seen in the finished product. Adding to the cheapness of the affair, younger animators came in to finish the movie the middle of an animation strike at Disney.
Ironically, considering their reaction to Fantasia, RKO again balked at the length of Dumbo, but this time they thought the film was too short at 64 minutes. RKO wanted another 10 minutes, but Disney again refused to change his film’s length, arguing that the story had nothing more to add and that it would be too expensive (advice modern-day Disney could have taken with their much longer live-action reboot of last year). Even with WW2 raging, Dumbo proved the most financially successful of all 1940s Disney films. It only cost $950,00 to make, much cheaper than any of the studio’s earlier films, and it grossed more than $1.3 million. Luckily, the attempt to be frugal and commercial didn’t harm Dumbo‘s critical reputation, as critics of the time found it charming and precious. The soft gentleness of the film resounds till this day, with Leonard Maltin citing it as his favorite Disney film.
Despite a 1942 release date, Bambi had gestated at Disney since 1937 when Disney obtained the rights to the novel and immediately launched production. He intended Bambi to be his second feature film and hoped it would be timely and relevant due to the fairly recent release of the source novel. However, production was placed on hold due to the difficulty of animating deer, and many felt that the novel was too adult and grim. Work focused elsewhere for the greater part of two years, but by 1939 production picked up again, albeit slowly.
The writing process was slow, and there were many different possible storylines as Walt and other writers tossed around their ideas. One tangent that they pursued for weeks before abandoning involved Bambi stepping on an ant colony and facing the consequences of destroying it. Intriguing as that is, all of the writers wanted to keep the story focused on Bambi. Other serious sequences were considered, such as showing Bambi’s mother’s death or a man burning to death. Both fell by the wayside as the focus narrowed to the three main characters and a budget was set for $858,000.
The animation process still proved difficult. Even in earlier films, Walt had demanded a realistic approach to deer. Visits to the zoo helped animators model fairly realistic looking animals. Marc Davis, among other animators, adding baby-like features to Bambi and other characters. The eastern American woodlands provided inspiration for the backgrounds, which highlight the contributions of Chinese-born animator Tyrus Wong, subject of a recent documentary. Wong’s impressionistic take on the woodlands gave Bambi a unique look within the early Disney canon.
Bambi released in 1942 during the thick of WW2. Despite Dumbo‘s successes, Bambi ended up losing money, even after Disney cut 12 minutes from its projected length to save costs after the failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio. It grossed $1.64 million against a budget of $1.7 million as the lack of access to the European market continued to prove problematic. Initial reviews criticized the film as a middling effort, and hunters and sportsmen considered the film insulting. Even Walt’s daughter complained. Nobody seemed to want a realistic Disney movie.
Later appraisal shifted, perhaps because the real-life horrors of WW2 became a matter of history. The 1947 re-release did considerably better and recouped the losses of the initial release. Critical reaction turned to praise for Bambi‘s moving story and genuine heart as well as its elegant animation. Some now consider the film Disney’s crowning achievement.
Round 1: Story
Fantasia becomes a difficult tool for comparison in our first category. It has no story in a traditional sense, instead being an anthology of different stories set to classical music. We witness the evolution of Earth, Greek mythology, impressionistic fairies and flowers, and the most famed sequence, Mickey Mouse as a sorcerer’s apprentice whose ambition outmatches his talent. Each of these sequences is fun in its own way, with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice being a fun and memorable sequence and the evolution segment holding its own quaint beauty. The Night on Bald Mountain is in line with the darkness of the Golden Age, depicting the hellish and demonic Chernobog wreaking havoc on a town. It’s a truly dark frightening image, but Fantasia‘s brilliance doesn’t really lie in a story.
Dumbo does have a story, if a very basic one. Walt must have been drawn to the idea of a character overcoming a disability or a quality that ostracizes one from the community. Dumbo overcoming the stigma of his large ears and finds a way to be celebrated for them, though this arc is written very simplistically. The film is forgiving of Dumbo’s fellow elephants treating him poorly, and it turns them into celebratory figures as soon as Dumbo’s power of flight is revealed. There is charm to the affair, but Dumbo is too shallow to leave a lasting impact.
Bambi is actually not dissimilar to Disney’s The Lion King in its story of life and death in the wild. We join a young fawn, Bambi, as he learns the ways of the forest alongside his friends Thumper and Flower, a rabbit and a skunk respectively. Like the rest of the films of the era, there are dark turns here, and Bambi is notable for its serious sequences. Bambi’s father, The Great Prince, isn’t around to father him for most of the film, and Bambi loses his mother to a hunter. But it is in this darkness that light shines, and Bambi manages to achieve some sense of emotional catharsis. In the epilogue Bambi has taken a wife, who gives birth to a new fawn, and the movie’s cycle is complete.
Round 2: Music
Whereas story is lacking in Fantasia, music is a major part of it. The combination of many iconic classical works in one film is a fun choice. With operatic dance sequences such as The Nutcracker Suite, The Rite of Spring, and Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the film is full of gorgeous, sweeping tunes. The Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchesta does a fine job, and the combination of this music with ambitious animation is what makes Fantasia notable.
Dumbo is the source of several well-known Disney tunes. While some of the early songs are generic, Dumbo makes up for them with the touching lullaby “Baby Mine.” This beautiful ballad is sung by Betty Noyes and was immediately successful. It was nominated for Best Original Song by the Academy Awards and has been covered numerous times. Dumbo’s mother singing to him and comforting him in a harsh world is one of the great, iconic Disney moments of love and joy. Controversially, an even better number is the fun, jazzy “When I See an Elephant Fly.” The song justifies the inclusion of the crows with its clever descriptions of flight and wonderfully uplifting tune.
Bambi is the weakest musically. While the main theme, “Love is a Song,” is a lovely choral piece communicating a sense of nature and life, the rest of Bambi’s songs fade into the background. The film has a nice string-laden choral score, which helps communicate the story’s natural rhythms. Still, Bambi doesn’t contend with the fantastic orchestra of Fantasia or Dumbo‘s hit songs.
Round 3: Animation & Direction
Another strong point of Fantasia is the wonderful animation. A variety of styles are used from segment to segment. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” has a cartoony look with a familiar, bright, expressive appearance for Mickey Mouse. The Chernobog segment uses expressive, moody coloring to create a foreboding sense of awe. Light, bright, and colorful touches are used in other segments. The animators worked hard and diligently to bring a variety of characters and styles to life, and their work paid off. Fantasia is a true work of art.
Dumbo, meanwhile, is the weakest of the three here. The cheap and hasty nature of the animation is plain to see. Dumbo does look adorable, and much credit must go to the fantastic pink elephants sequence, which is surreal, creepy, and contrasts with the cutesy aspects of the movie. It’s a highlight of Disney’s Golden Age, but no other part of the film matches it.
The development of Disney Animation Studios can be seen in Bambi. Between five films, the animators had gotten lots of practice in and had studied many types of animals to help create realistic movement. Bambi in many ways represents a perfect combination of realism and more artistic impressionistic qualities. The deer, rabbits, and other woodland critters have a great amount of detail and feel like they are real and carry weight. Yet they also display enough of the trademark Disney aesthetic to make them iconic and interesting. The backgrounds of the woodlands are beautiful to look at with their combination of greens, browns, and blues conveying nature’s “moods.” This helps in later sequences where winter comes and death occurs, and in the raging reds of the climactic fire sequence. Bambi represents the creative mastery that had carried Disney through its first 3-4 years of making films.
As strong as Bambi is, it falls just short of the artistic masterpiece that is Fantasia.
And the winner is….
The creativity and ingenuity of Fantasia remains interesting to this day. The animation remains gorgeous and perfectly suits the great classical musical pieces. Mickey appearing as the sorcerer’s apprentice is an iconic image in the Disney canon and likely helped cement Mickey as a pop culture figure. While every segment is not equal, Fantasia still feels inventive and fresh decades later.
Dumbo‘s charming simplicity makes it an easy watch. Yet the lack of nuance in the story makes it feel a little sparse in comparison to its competition. The original songs boost it a bit and create some memorable musical moments, and the famed pink elephants sequences adds some edge to an otherwise safe affair, but Dumbo is the weakest of these three entries.
The charming woodlands story of Bambi remains poignant, somber, and affecting today. From the memorable moments of Thumper reciting his lessons to Bambi gazing sober-eyed at his princely father and the eventuality of death, the movie resonates today. The lack of memorable songs is no great harm against a mature and beautiful tale of nature. For that reason, Bambi emerges the clear winner.
Golden Age Winner: Bambi!
The Golden Age comes to an end in this post, and what an age it was. While some elements of some of these films may not quite hold up in 2020, each of them still endures in some manner. Some of the 20th century’s most iconic songs originate from these movies that helped define Disney as a studio. Ironically, the best of the era is the one with the least memorable songs. Bambi‘s moving story of life and death resounds to this day as it tackles its heavy themes with maturity and hope.
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Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective Chart
- Bambi (1942)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Fantasia (1940)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- Dumbo (1941)