Bambi (1942)

Bambi

Released: 1942

Rated: G

Length: 70 min.

Age: 5+         (commonsense media says 5+ too)

Scary Factor/Violence: one antler-slamming battle between Bambi and another stag; terror-stricken animals flee a large forest fire; a scary fight with vicious hunting dogs; gunshots are heard but deaths occur offscreen

Intense Scenes: death of Bambi’s mother (see full review for description)

Interests: animals, forest, nature, seasons, deer

Next: book Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

Based on the 1928 book Bambi by Felix Salten, this is the story of the life of a young deer, focussing mostly on his early days and weeks of life. Bambi learns how to walk and run and play with his animal friends in the forest. His mother teaches him to be cautious and wary, especially of man. When she is killed by hunters his father, largely absent until then, appears to take care of him. Then we jump forward to the next spring, when Bambi and his friends are all collared by amorous females. The animals must flee a devastating forest fire – started by careless humans – and Bambi saves his mate Faline from vicious hunting dogs. At the end a new “prince of the forest” is born to Bambi and Faline.

Despite the light, toddler-friendly style of the poster above, this film is much more intense and realistic, with far more intelligence and elegance than you may remember. The story is presented simply with no voiceover and very little dialogue (only 1,000 words in the whole film). The animals do not break into song and dance, instead the action is underscored by symphonic music and choral pieces. And the grand villain of the piece never appears onscreen.

Originally released in the middle of World War II, Bambi is a 70-year-old movie (!) that everyone knows but relatively few have viewed as adults. There are two things that everyone remembers about this film,

1. the ridiculously cute forest critters, and

2. the death of Bambi’s mother.

1. cute forest critters

Walt Disney and his minions have a lot to answer for in their Bambi-era pursuit of über-cute animal design, which has infected nearly every animated feature film since, Disney or otherwise. The baby animals in this movie are cloyingly infantilized, with giant heads and enormous eyes. They are syrupy sweet and adorable, and yet somehow still watchable. I thought I had a pretty low tolerance for all things cutesy, but I didn’t mind Thumper and his cohorts so much, possibly because they were voiced by bona fide preschoolers, and not by young-sounding teens or squeaky adults. The actor who voiced Thumper was only 4 years old at the time! Having older actors who can read and take direction may make a recording session WAY easier, but you always lose some veracity, as they are only ‘acting young’, and are necessarily shaping their phrases with a more mature understanding than a real toddler would possess. The young actors in Bambi give performances that are realistic, natural, and unaffected. And Disney and his animators were not afraid to slow these scenes down to accommodate the children’s slower delivery. The result is just charming enough to make me forgive all those big eyes and looming foreheads.

In addition, the cute scenes are more than balanced by the absolutely gorgeous art direction. The film is just so lush, overflowing with detail, luminous colours and light effects, shimmering leaves, glittering water, waving grass… you get the idea. It’s just lovely to look at. And the adult animals at least are designed and animated in a highly realistic style – as Disney brought in a menagerie of live animals for his artists to observe while they worked on the film.

The hardships and danger which animals face in the wild are also convincingly and realistically portrayed, from the harsh winters to the terrifying presence of human hunters. Which brings us to …

2. the death of Bambi’s mother

I delayed watching this film with my daughter because I vaguely remembered being shocked and upset by this death scene. Yet when it came up I was even more shocked by its good taste and distance. At age six my daughter wasn’t terribly overwhelmed by it. She found it sad, but it didn’t bowl her over, and she wasn’t dwelling on it later.

Here’s how the difficult scene plays out…

After a long hard winter Bambi and his mother venture out into the meadow to nibble at the first grass shoots poking up through the snow. She is startled by a noise, and they dash for cover. She calls to Bambi, running ahead, warning him “don’t look back!” He runs on and we hear a shot. Bambi reaches cover and turns to look for his mother. He calls and calls. There is no answer. (And no swelling, sob-inducing music either. Just snow and silence.) Then the stag appears, saying gently but simply, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” Bambi takes this in, one tear falls, then the stag says, “Come, my son,” and they both walk away from camera, disappearing into the snow and the trees.

Next comes a quick segue to a year later. Bambi is older and bigger and no further mention is made of his departed mother. Done!

In my heart I thank Walt for this restraint. It’s an extremely hard moment to put into a children’s film, and he pulled it off with remarkable taste. No thunderous music, no graphic depiction of a wounded deer falling to her knees, no bloody corpse¹, no giant closeup of the sobbing orphan. The viewer is not manipulated into feeling every emotion first-hand; we are given the chance to step back and view Bambi’s tragedy as a third-person event. And then Bambi walks away from us, slowly obscured by the falling snow.

After the death there is no Bambi-is-sad/time-passes montage – standard in films these days – designed to drive home the despair of it all and give a sense of an extended period of mourning. Not in this movie. No heart-wrenching music, no staring gloomily at the rain, no sitting alone batting those huge lashes, no weeping at all, save for that one big tear. Instead we simply jump to a year later. Life has moved on and Bambi has become a youth in charge of his own destiny.

If you really really want to sidestep the death of Bambi’s mother, grab your remote when you see the first shoots of green grass after the winter scenes, and skip forward to the next spring when Bambi and his friends are older. As a movie enthusiast I shouldn’t even suggest omitting scenes, but as a parent… well, sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

The Villain

After the first visit to the meadow, when Bambi asks why everyone must run for their lives, his mother states simply, “Man has entered the forest.”

(In an interesting side note, it’s said that in the Disney studios, whenever the artists wanted to warn each other that Walt was roaming about the building they would use the phrase “Man has entered the forest.”)

In the American Film Institute‘s list of the 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains, Bambi‘s “Man” was ranked the #20 villain. He is the only character on the list not to appear onscreen.² It is a wonderful strategy. Unseen, the human characters remain – as they are to the animals – mysterious, remote, and lethal.

One editor at Outdoor Life decried the movie as anti-gun and anti-hunter propaganda that aided and abetted the Nazis!³  The Nazi angle wasn’t really picked up by anyone else, but it is true that young viewers will probably come away with negative feelings toward hunters. Bambi’s mother personalized the anti-hunting argument  for children just as Babe laid out a convincing case for vegetarianism more than fifty years later.

Bambi was certainly way ahead of its time with its strong environmental themes. The impact that man has on nature is depicted as unrelentingly negative, from random killings to a carelessness with fire that has catastrophic results for the entire forest. For all its cuteness and scenic splendour, Bambi has a hard edge to it, and a message about our responsibility to care for our planet’s wild creatures and wild places. This film still packs an emotional punch after 70 years!

Conclusion – This is a beautiful film though rather intense when depicting the hardships that Bambi and his friends must endure. Cute baby animals will delight the very young, but beware of more demanding moments, like the death of Bambi’s mother. Fortunately these scenes are presented simply and tastefully, making this is a gorgeous, elegant and intelligent film with a strong environmental lesson.

(This DVD available at amazon.com)

________________________

¹  According to imdb.com during the development phase for Bambi there was a scene planned in which Bambi finds his mother’s body in a pool of blood, but thankfully this idea was scrapped.

² American Film Institute: AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains

³ Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960. (Duke University Press, Durham/London, 2005) p. 179.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
%d bloggers like this: