Tyrus Wong in 2015 (Photo: Frank Mastropolo)

Tyrus Wong in 2015 (Photo: Frank Mastropolo)

Even if the actual ball drop is kinda hazy, as long as you’re reading this, you’ve made it to 2017. Congratulations. Seriously though, 2016 was the worst. Case in point: by the time Friday rolled around, it might have seemed like we were in the clear, but 2016 dropped a final insult on top of relentless injury on its way out the door: the death of Tyrus Wong, the artist responsible for Disney’s “Bambi.” You heard right, 2016 killed the dude who created mother-freaking Bambi. 

Wong passed away on Friday at 106, a respectable age to say the least. However, he was an especially vivacious centenarian– in fact, B+B spotted Wong out and about in March 2015, checking out his own solo exhibition happening at Chinatown’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

As a Chinese-American artist who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, Wong faced obstacles posed by the Chinese Exclusion Act– not exactly a welcome mat that says “give me your tired, your poor.” Shortly after arriving, he and his father were detained and harshly interrogated on Ellis Island. As a kid, Wong had to work in order to provide for his family, and he grew up desperately poor. Nevertheless, he was given a proper art education. “His first art teacher was his father, who trained him nightly in calligraphy by having him dip a brush in water and trace ghostly characters on newspaper.” the Times recounts in Wong’s obituary. “They could not afford ink or drawing paper.”

Eventually, Wong worked as an animator at Disney in the 1930s and ’40s (the first theatrical release of Bambi was in 1942), but his rags-to-riches story is about much more than upward mobility– as a Chinese-American of his age, Wong’s success was a remarkable case of overcoming adversity. At the time, Chinese immigrants faced harsh discrimination and were mainly relegated to the lowest paying jobs, often ones that involved hazardous conditions and undesirable, ostensibly lowly tasks.

Long before Disney characters became synonymous with Furries and the Alt-Right’s creepy fixation on the so-called “crisis of manhood,” the production company was best known for hits like Snow White (1937). The animated film was a hyper-detailed, almost ornate feature which the Times describes as “a baroque production in which every detail of the backgrounds — every petal on every flower, every leaf on every tree — was meticulously represented.”

By the time Bambi was in pre-production, Disney had been struggling for a few years to replicate Snow White‘s success. Wong’s work, which was informed by his background as a landscape painter, caught the Big Boss’s eye. The Times obit continues:

Invoking the exquisite landscape paintings of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), he rendered in watercolors and pastels a series of nature scenes that were moody, lyrical and atmospheric — at once lush and spare — with backgrounds subtly suggested by a stroke or two of the brush.

Eventually, he would move on to a position at Warner Brothers. Even long after retiring from the movie bizz, he continued making art and expanded his repertoire to include kite-making. In 2001, Wong was finally officially recognized by the company that has benefitted so immeasurably from his work, when he was named a Disney Legend.

Are you tearing up yet? Thought so.

Bambi will likely remain Wong’s best known work, but hopefully people will glean something else from his life too. Even though he faced decades of discrimination, Wong did some amazing things while embracing his cultural background and upbringing. Ultimately, he realized success because he remained true to himself. His trajectory attests to the fact that immigrants contribute to society in ways that are way more complex than simply “doing jobs no one else wants to do.”

OK, so Disney isn’t exactly known for multicultural awareness or anything (Aladdin), but without the sort of global exchange embodied by Wong’s contribution to Bambi, America would look more like a ’50s-style diner where waitresses, all blonde women who make no tips and pay taxes out the butt, serve taco bowls (hold the salsa) to beardo-man dude customers with a penchant for sexual harassment. The dudes would ride their sales tax-free Chevy all the way to the bank which, like all banks, abides by no regulatory constraints and would have recently changed its name to J.P. Robber Barons. Let’s hope to frick that’s not where we’re headed.