Extended Thoughts on ‘Bambi’

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Bambi

Directed by David Hand

Written by Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright

Starring Bobby Stewart, Donny Dunagan, Paula Winslowe, Sterling Holloway

Bambi is a film that touches greatness often, but only just. So much of the 1942 film is justifiably memorable, rightfully iconic, but it slips up in a few notable spots that it’s not quite as perfect as some (such as my co-host Gabe) say it is, nor is it as sublime an experience as the 1940 animated film Pinocchio is. More than the four films that preceded it from Walt Disney Pictures, Bambi is arguably the most exquisite and beautifully animated film from the company. The attention to detail and commitment to reality that the animators strove for throughout the production process is often truly impressive in how it pays off, but there are a few places where they lose the thread, simply because they forget that they’re allowed a bit of dramatic and artistic liberty.

Kids, of course, don’t consider the production background when they watch Bambi–being fair, I’m generalizing, but I think I’m doing so safely. They’re just dumbstruck at how harrowing and painful…that scene is. You know the scene. Yes, the “twitterpated” scene. No, seriously, I mean the scene just past the halfway point where Bambi and his mother are running scared through the meadow in the forest, on the run from the never-seen but always-present hunter. It climaxes with Bambi reaching safety, but his mother being shot offscreen. Bambi’s father, the Great Prince of the Forest, has few lines but none are as potent or loaded as “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” This scene so perfectly captures the anguish, pain, and immediacy of losing a parent, another example of how Disney filmmaking works best when it’s universal. Even for those people who haven’t lost a parent yet, it feeds into our fears of what a gut-wrenching and desperate feeling it would be.

Watching Bambi grow up from a baby into the future Great Prince of the Forest, which is essentially the entire story of this film, is mostly very fascinating. On the one hand, it’s an interesting insight into how the forest works–though the animators do take some liberties, especially in the humorous interactions between animals, it doesn’t often feel divorced from reality. On the other hand, there are notable moments in Bambi’s life that could have had more power had the animators not been so dedicated to showing us what life is truly like in the forest. I brought this up on the show, and was shouted down by my esteemed co-hosts, but one of the two climactic fight scenes, between a grown Bambi and a fellow male buck, Ronno, fails for a very specific reason.

We spend most of the early part of Bambi meeting characters who we’ll watch grow up. We see Bambi, his rabbit friend Thumper, his skunk friend Flower, and many others start as youngsters and evolve into adults of their species. We watch as everyone grows with the changing seasons. Everyone except Ronno. Why don’t we ever meet Ronno until the moment late in the film where he challenges Bambi for the hand (hoof?) of his girlfriend (deerfriend?) Faline? The movie’s not particularly long as it is, just over 70 minutes, so adding a couple of minutes earlier on with some interaction between a younger version of Bambi and Ronno could’ve at least laid the groundwork for the fight later in the story. While the animation in the fight, so striking and rooted in German expressionism, is a wonder to look at, the connection to the characters is lacking a bit. Yes, I want Bambi to triumph and be safe with Faline, but I don’t see this one-time character he’s fighting as much of a threat.

Another place where the film somewhat stumbles for me is in the use of dialogue. The last two weeks on the show, we’ve discussed films with notable sections where they function as completely silent, and are the better for it. Though it would’ve been perhaps the most experimental aspect of Bambi, I do wish the film was dialogue-free. So much of the film avoids explaining things to the audience, letting us do the heavy lifting. But when, for example, Bambi’s mother tells Bambi and the rest of us portentously that “Man…was in the forest,” it feels unnecessary. Really? It was man? I thought those guns fired by themselves! In these rare moments, it feels like the Disney animators assume kids can’t do the math and need their hands held. Seeing as so much of the film doesn’t do this kind of hand-holding, such moments that go against that grain stand out.

These flaws aside, Bambi remains an almost poetic entry in the Disney animated canon, to the point where it’s a shame that Walt Disney the man or the company never really went back to its roots. By 1942, the United States was fully involved in World War II, and the military had tasked Disney with helping out in any way he could. (Keep that in mind for when we discuss Victory Through Air Power in two weeks.) As such, feature production took a break of sorts throughout the 1940s. Yes, Disney made films during this time such as Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros (something else we’ll talk about this summer), but these package films weren’t the same as Pinocchio, Bambi, or even Fantasia, which may technically be a package film in that it’s not a single story, but has more effort, detail, and finances in its production than anything between 1943 and 1949.

Once the 50s came around, Disney went back into film production, but it was more the company, less the man. By that time, Walt Disney had become enamored with creating a theme park in Anaheim that would soon become Disneyland. Films were made in his name, such as Cinderella and Peter Pan, arguably two of the most enduring films from the Disney canon, but even these films don’t have the same experimental, daring nature that Fantasia and Dumbo display. The films have moments of true beauty and wonder, but nothing comes as close to the magic the men and women of the Walt Disney Company created in the five films released between 1937 and 1942. So as much as I wish Bambi was a little better, improved in a few places, I will take what I can get in terms of the film’s lasting legacy. That we have it all is something to be thankful for.

– Josh Spiegel

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