Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bambi: The Little Film That Could

Above is a very, very cute snippet from Bambi, the 1942 animated movie by Walt Disney Productions (today The Walt Disney Company.)

The film is legendary now, but its release was anything but successful.  It did not sell enough tickets to cover its cost, which was remarkable after the Snow White-Pinocchio-Fantasia-Dumbo series of Disney movies that preceded it.

There were several reasons.

     --The enemy in the movie was Man.  Man, in the form of a hunter, shot Bambi's
        mother dead.  There were more hunters generally in the country at that time,
        and that plot point made them pretty angry.

     --Bambi was released at the beginning of our involvement in World War II, and
        people were distracted.  In Europe, the only other large market for films, things
        were even worse.

     --Critics did not like the movie.  Why, oh why, they wondered, had Disney strayed
        from the fantasy film formula that had made the company great?

The filmmakers based Bambi on a long-forgotten book (that did not include the doe shooting), and they went at it in a new way -- trying to understand how animals moved and acted.  Bambi and his friends are drawn as cuter versions of real animals, and they live in an Eden-like forest.  This was worlds away from the characters and settings of earlier Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Dumbo the elephant.

After the film's flop, Disney shifted its focus to support the war effort, as many corporations did in the early 1940s.

By 1944, cash was short at Disney, and its executives hit on a new idea to top up the corporate coffers. They re-released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had been very popular in its original run in 1937.

The only expenses involved were marketing and distribution.  There were not many other non-war films in production.  A whole batch of children who had not seen the original SWATSD were now old enough to enjoy it, and families who liked the movie in the first place might return for a second go.

The strategy worked.  In retrospect, it seems to have convinced Walt Disney and his team that the core value of the company resided in its content vault.

Bambi redeemed itself with this re-release strategy.  It returned, successfully, to theaters in 1947, 1957, 1966, 1975, 1982 and 1988.  Copies were released on VHS in 1989 and 1997, and then in a deluxe Blu-ray/DVD combo package in 2011.  It is one of the most popular children's films of all time.

In fact, all the classic cartoon movies got this re-rerelease rotation treatment.  Several -- Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin -- were turned into theatrical shows.  The biggest of these, Lion King, has been in continuous production on Broadway in New York since 1973.

Having sewed up the children/family movie market, Disney built theme parks featuring scenes and characters from its movies; from there, it moved into resorts and cruises.

It also keeps restocking the vault.  Disney's latest release, Jungle Book, is expected to gross at least $1 billion.  The company also has acquired creative material, including the rights to Winnie the Pooh, and content-creating companies -- Pixar (Toy Story), Marvel Entertainment (comic heroes) and Lucasfilm (Star Wars.)

And Bambi, who if he were human would have started collecting Social Security in 2007, remains a gift that keeps on giving.  The Disney marketing site features stuffed Thumper toys, Bambi spiral notebooks, children's clothes, mugs and even a $795 framed giclee print of Bambi, Thumper and Flower the skunk in the movie's idyllic forest.

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