Celebrating 75 Years of Disney’s Bambi – Interview with Original Character Voices!

As part of our Disney #PiratesLifeEvent press trip in California, we had the pleasure of spending the day at Walt Disney Studios covering the 75th anniversary of Bambi and its release to the celebrated Walt Disney Signature Collection.

Bambi” was released in 1942 during World War II and took over five years to make due to its exquisite hand-drawn artwork and attention to detail. Beloved by generations, “Bambi” holds the No. 3 spot on the American Film Institute’s “10 Top 10,” honoring the 10 greatest animated films of all time. The timeless tale features an adorable young deer named Bambi who explores the wonders and challenges of the woods with his playful pal Thumper, the lovable skunk Flower, and wise Friend Owl – and ultimately fulfills his destiny as prince of the forest. 

 

It really is hard to believe that Bambi is celebrating 75 years! I’ve always liked the movie – with the animals and the beautiful scenery. But after spending time at Disney Studios over various trips, I really have extra appreciation for just what a feat that level of animation was 75 years ago! It’s truly incredible! And based on that, it’s easy to see why it received such acclaim and was a favorite of Walt Disney’s! During our time at the Studios, we got to sit down with Donnie Dunagan (original voice of young Bambi) and Peter Behn (original voice of young Thumper) to talk about making Bambi! Incredible!

(Left – Peter, voice of Thumper. Right – Donnie, voice of Bambi. Photo credit: Disney)

The conversation was led by a Disney archivist and it was amazing to hear their stories. Both men were born in 1934 and were just 4-5 years old when they auditioned for the movie, though their paths to landing the roles were a little different! Peter was the son of Henry Behn, a famous screenwriter and author, who came to know Walt Disney. At some point, Peter’s father became aware of the upcoming Disney project and took Peter to audition for the role of Bambi. He didn’t get the part as it was said that Peter’s voice was too rambunctious for Bambi. Animators were later listening to the audition tapes and said his voice was “right for the rabbit”. So, that’s how Peter came to voice Thumper.

Donnie was already a child actor in Hollywood at the time. He shared that Disney called his mother and asked him to come in to be a facial model for the part. And, then obviously, things went beyond a facial model and he ended up voicing the character. They each recorded their own parts over various sessions for almost 2 years! Check out the old, archived photos of them at the studios below! SO cute…

Photo credit: Walt Disney Archives

They both shared that they saw the movie at the premiere, but didn’t meet each other. Then, they really didn’t see the movie again until years later when it was re-released. That makes sense of course, because there was no VHS or DVD or anything back in that day! In fact, Peter and Donnie shared that they had never even met each other until about 6 years ago or so! Crazy! Given their ages at the time, neither one remembers too terribly much about each session and the goings on at the studio. But, they did have a few memories of that time. What Peter remembers most is going into the sound booth with a voice director (he was only 4 – so he couldn’t really read). The voice director would say the lines with the inflection, etc. Then Peter would repeat it back. The thing he remembers most is that the recording equipment was very large – sort of like big record players – that would cut the sound into the discs. And they both recalled a little of Walt Disney himself (who Donnie still called “Mr. Disney” throughout our interview). Peter says he did meet Disney a couple of times, but he wasn’t the one directly overseeing everything. Walt Disney showed Peter the little Disney zoo they had for Bambi – with deer and rabbits, etc to help the animators with their drawings. “He was a very nice man”. Donnie recalls Mr. Disney as a true leader, remembering him coming to to the studios with sleeves rolled-up, ready to help and be involved. 

The final question was about the legacy of Bambi and I LOVED Peter’s answer (which Donnie then agreed with whole-heartedly):

Well, very frankly one of my strongest feelings about the movie is the amazing fact that back in the 30s, Walt Disney was far ahead of his time with the environmental concerns. I think the movie is truly a very strong statement in favor of protecting the environment and the concern that man was ruining it or even make it worse which unfortunately I personally believe.  It’s one of my strong beliefs that we have to do everything we can to keep it from getting worse. But it’s just, it’s a forward awareness and thinking that Walt obviously brought to the movie. He had to know what he was doing.  And I think as time goes on perhaps that aspect of the movie will resonate and become even more important and people will be more aware of that aspect of the movie. At least I hope so.

We then had a presentation from Paul Felix (a production designer at Walt Disney Animation Studios), who is the Bambi Walt Disney Signature Collection Disneygraph artist. Paul shared with us that Bambi was actually supposed to be the 2nd film after Snow White – but didn’t come out for 5 years after (there was a studio strike, the studio moved from the hills to Burbank, WW2 happened, etc. etc.). It became more compact than it was going to be and they cut it down to just what the studio could afford. Paul also shared that the animators of that day really had to learn to draw well enough to create the movie that they did. For instance, even just drawing Bambi’s muzzle was incredibly tricky. The distance the animators traveled (in terms of talent/competency) during this time span was huge. And it shows in the animation of Bambi.  

So be sure to get your copy of Bambi when it’s released on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere on May 23, and on Blu-ray™, DVD and On-Demand on June 6!!! For a limited time via Disney Movie Rewards, you can get a tank top featuring the Paul Felix art inspired by BAMBI with every digital purchase/redemption of BAMBI. Click here to see more about the Bambi Rewards offer. 

Do YOU like Bambi? Who is your favorite character? 

Disclosure: Disney hosted me in LA in order to participate in group interviews & media events. As always, all opinions, experiences, and love of Disney are entirely my own!

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