Brow Beat

A New Documentary Celebrates the Life of Tyrus Wong, Bambi’s Overlooked Innovator

American Masters
Tyrus Wong painting in his studio.

Tyrus Wong family

Animator Tyrus Wong, who died last year at the age of 106, was inducted into the Disney Legends Awards Hall of Fame in 2001 for his work on Bambi. But if you’re not a 20th century art history buff or a Disney trivia nut—or, perhaps, even if you are—his incredible career may have slipped beneath your radar. For decades, Wong’s influence on the 1942 film was misrepresented or underplayed, starting with when it was first released: In the credits, he was listed as one of several “background artists.” In reality, as several people point out in the latest installment of PBS’ American Masters series, Tyrus, the other animators based much of Bambi’s aesthetic off of Wong’s impressionistic nature compositions. “He was that film, in terms of the design,” says animator and historian John Canemaker,and he was not properly credited for it.”

Luckily, in recent years, some have tried to correct this gross oversight. Fellow Disney artists Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston sang his praises in a book they wrote about the making of Bambi, while his work has been exhibited in several art exhibitions. Tyrus, which premieres Friday, is the latest tribute, and serves as a comprehensive look at Wong’s life. Filmmaker Pamela Tom goes far beyond his brief, three-year stint at the Mouse House (which encompasses less than 10 minutes of the 73-minute runtime) to trace his origins as a young boy who immigrated from China to the United States with his father in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act to his role as part of a movement of emerging California-based Asian American artists in the 1930s. Post-Disney, Wong would design Hallmark Christmas cards and animate scenes for live-action films at Warner Bros., including Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Bunch, as seen in the clip below.

As with most American Masters episodes, the storytelling is formally straightforward—clips, newsreels, and clippings; passionate, if staid, talking heads. If the subject matter interests you, however—be it the history of art history or Asian Americans—Tyrus is worth a look. Tom was fortunate enough to assemble an array of esteemed artists and close friends and family for the documentary, with Wong himself contributing an especially intimate touch. (He features prominently throughout in interviews recorded prior to his death in December.) Whether he’s recalling the racism, both casual and forward, he experienced as an Asian American—out of fear of being mistaken for Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor, he wore a pin that read “China”—or reminiscing over his wife of nearly 60 years, Ruth, who died in 1995, it’s hard not to feel good that Wong at least got to receive later in life the appreciation he didn’t always get during his illustrious career.