Bambi is perhaps the quintessential children’s film. While youth and personal growth are recurring themes in the Disney canon, no other film with that distinction is so explicitly about growing up.
Discovery is the primary point explored in Bambi. The film begins with his birth, which is particularly of interest because it holds some resonance to even the youngest viewers. This universality of reflection is the bare essence of good art for children, and even after we transition into adulthood, so far removed from the initial experience of the film and with a healthy skepticism towards the revisit, it’s hard not to be spellbound. Children can recognize each of these moments, even if they cannot explicitly remember them, from Bambi learning to walk to the standout schema-accommodation sequence (bird, butterfly, flower). The film is also composed in simple, focused, and cogent frames, cutting to a close-up of the action within the shot (in the first, youthful half, it smartly seems to disappear) to reflect childish egocentrism. Its psychological verisimilitude contextualized by an animated film with talking animals is what ultimately makes Bambi worthwhile as a legitimate art piece.
This is all conveyed cinematically by slowly expanding backdrops, reflecting the world opening up to Bambi as he grows. The opening shots establish the environmental texture, which the film adheres to less and less as it progresses. The frames are less obstructed by branches and colored by womblike background designs, giving way to a more free and open vision of the world that’s at first scary in its uncertainty during both meadow sequences, but becomes freeing during the following love sequences with adult (teenage?) Bambi.
The second half of the film, following the murder of Bambi’s mother, which is ingrained in our cultural consciousness as maybe the darkest moment in a Disney film, marks a significant thematic shift. Bambi must now navigate his own way, so the film becomes less about the controlled curiosity of childhood and the forced discovery of the capacity to adapt, hence the gorgeous forest fire finale. The bookend tune, “Love is a Song” keeps this forward motion of life optimistic. This half entails only two major themes, love and self-preservation, the former of which is merely half explored, despite the huge portion of the runtime dedicated to it. Basically, it just portrays love, and it’s incredibly hollow and easy, except when Bambi literally fights another male deer, which appears now as a shoehorned-in action sequence that results in bad messaging and a deployment of the damsel trope. Bambi turns into an anonymous shadow deer to shield from the fact that our beloved innocent hero is participating in violence, which wouldn’t even fool a child. It renders the vision of love antiquated in its normative vision of gender roles and is the film’s weakest sequence.
The climax, which deals in life-or-death stake,s is the most beautifully animated thing in the film. Animals sprint every which way in chaos: a bird falls to her death and the camera zooms out and shakes as she hits the ground for impact, and the fires flicker across the screen as if they’re eating the animation cels themselves. The forest is destroyed, but the animals live on. This is a far more bittersweet end than one would expect from a children’s film, though it is indeed hidden by the order in which it occurs. No good comes from burning down the forest; it’s just something its residents are forced to deal with. The happy note the film ends on, the birth of Bambi and his mate Faline’s twins, is incredibly simple, unearned, and just another fact of life. That is all the film is, life events building upon life events, some positive, some negative. Its use of animals as ciphers largely keeps normativity at bay, though some inadvertently creeps in, as previously stated, so it can’t be unequivocally called “universal,” but much of the first half can be, and that’s where it counts most.
The film maintains its vision of “life” with an admirable attempt at a balance of major life events and shuffling, seemingly pointless scenes of education that ultimately proves unwieldy. The less important scenes have a pleasantly consumable, lightweight air in which Bambi will learn to skate for a few minutes or frolic with another animal. This ultimately is not narrativized well, though, feeling more like a disjointed and stop-start collection of quality shorts, which is something of a problem with a lot of early, and if you want to go there, late Disney.
The villain of the film is Man. This is often cited as one of the most challenging and subversive things a children’s film has done, though it has been ripped to the point of cliché by 2014. Man is never shown onscreen, defacing him and making him an omnipresent evil force, but children still realize that they are Man. They recognize his structures shown in the camp in the latter half and that the musical cues that accompany their appearance are jolting and ominous. It would probably be too bleak to expect children to swallow that man is inherently dangerous to nature (especially after fetishizing it for the past hour), but somehow that is what is snuck in here. Man gets no redemption; he merely failed to kill our characters, by gun, dog or fire. This plants the seed in the child’s mind that man is imperfect, and that by extension the child is imperfect. But the bitter pill is so sugarcoated by such a gentle film that the most important life lesson of all sneaks by only subliminally. Bambi is indeed a near-masterpiece, hampered only by an overabundance of dead weight and a few editing missteps (it’s nearly impossible to defend the transition from the infamous scene of Bambi’s mother’s death to the love in spring sequence). Disney’s Ozu film, anyone?
— Autumn Faust