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Bambi's Secret

Tyrus, screening at the DisOrient Film Festival, looks at the revolutionary artist behind the iconic film who transcended Disney’s racism and disenfranchisement
Artist Tyrus Wong at work
Artist Tyrus Wong at work

Still very much with us, the 105-year-old Chinese-born painter Tyrus Wong is quite possibly the most influential American artist you’ve never heard of — until now, that is.

As the sole inspiration for the expressionistic animated style of Disney’s Bambi (more on that in a moment), Wong’s elegant and economical style, a melding of traditional Asiatic ink-and-brush painting and Western modernist influences, has literally suffused American culture, from dishware and Hollywood to Hallmark cards and museums everywhere.

Written and directed by Pamela Tom, the documentary Tyrus — the centerpiece of this year’s DisOrient Film Festival — unfolds the epic life of this criminally unrecognized artist. Brought to the U.S. by his father in 1919 (his mother was left in China, and he never saw her again), young Tyrus Wong came of age amid the poverty and racism of L.A., where he survived almost exclusively on wit and talent, scraping to survive with piecemeal art jobs until he was saved by Roosevelt’s WPA program for artists.

As part of a burgeoning California Orientalist art scene, Wong’s art eventually came to the attention of Walt Disney studios, where he was thrown in the “inbetweener pool” doing grunt work polishing animated cells. Eventually, his work caught the attention of Disney himself, who commanded his entire art department to “cleave” (in the words of one of the film’s narrators) to Wong’s style in creating Bambi. It is Wong’s gorgeous minimalism, along with his revolutionary use of color, which defines that Disney classic.

Disney, of course, once again proves himself the Leni Riefenstahl of American culture: Wong was fired before the film was completed, and to this day he is only credited among a dozen others for being a mere background artist on Bambi.

And so it goes, as Wong, ever-revealing a generous knack for making do, plows headfirst with his art through a series of insidiously racist scenarios.

And yet this is no tragic tale. It is Wong’s abundant, forgiving spirit and his exquisite talent that triumphs in the end, as he builds his monumental resume: his art design for Warner Bros. and other Hollywood studios, where he worked on such legendary films as Rebel Without a Cause, Rio Bravo and The Wild Bunch; his calligraphic blue-on-white dishware designs, now in hipster cupboards everywhere; and his bestselling Christmas card signature for Hallmark. Not to mention his paintings, which are stunning visions of fluid simplicity.

“If you can do a painting with five strokes instead of 10,” Wong says, “you can make your painting sing,” and director Tom takes this advice to heart. Her documentary is pared-down and straightforward, leaning heavily on Wong’s art, which is breathtakingly beautiful, as well as tons of footage of the man himself, who has entered his second century of life with an undying twinkle in his eye.

Tyrus opens the DisOrient Film Festival with a 6 pm screening Friday, April 29, at Bijou Art Cinemas, with an appearance by filmmaker Pamela Tom; the festival runs through the weekend at Bijou and Broadway Metro, April 29 through May 1, with a slew of screenings and premieres, and more than 25 filmmakers and actors in attendance.

For a full schedule and further information, visit disorient.org.