Bambi (1942)

  • Release date: 9 August, 1942
  • Run time: 70 mins
  • Director: David Hand, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright
  • Cast: Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Bobette Audrey
  • Inspired by: Bambi, a Life in the Woods (Felix Salten)

“Your mother can’t be with you anymore.”

While work was being finished on Disney’s first full-length feature film, Walt was already planning his second animated epic. This time his sights were set on a young deer, Bambi, and his adventures in the forest. It was a story which MGM had already considered making as a live action movie, before deciding it was too difficult to achieve. Walt’s plan was to use animation, pushing his cartoonists to their very limit in producing a second masterpiece to stand alongside Snow White. However, it soon became apparent that this was far from an easy task – as staff wrestled not just with pinning down the story but finding ways of animating the woodland creatures – resulting in Bambi eventually becoming so delayed that it ended up as the fifth animated movie from the fledgling studio. Which begs the question – was it time well spent?

Original idea? No – this one was based on a 1923 book by Austrian author Felix Salten. It was an interesting choice for Disney; rather than a traditional fairytale that could be easily adapted to suit the growing young audience, this was very much a story aimed at adults, with a clear agenda of environmentalism at its centre. And it was this which caused the biggest headache for the writers, as they tried to make it more suitable for children to enjoy. Neither was it helped by the amount of effort put into ideas that would eventually be dropped; Mel Shaw, who helped develop the script, remembered a time when Walt became fixated on an idea of Bambi destroying an ants’ nest – and the ants’ reaction. After weeks of honing the minor plot, it was decided that it did nothing to move the story on and was scrapped – a scenario that repeated itself numerous times during the tortuous production. On top of this, the animators spent months studying animals, in order to make the animation of the movements as realistic as possible.

Family situation? What can you say? It’s one of the most famous deaths in cinema. The murder of Bambi’s mother by Man (she’s never even given the honour of a name, which seems a bit harsh of Disney) still has the power to shock. And while you never actually see it, the sound of the hunter’s gun ringing out as Bambi scampers for safety in the forest is one that will haunt you for a long time afterwards. It’s one thing to leave a child to fend for itself, Disney, but to brutally slaughter a deer’s mother in the name of entertainment…what is wrong with you?! Fortunately, Bambi’s father – the Great Prince – is on hand to take care of his son. Although, the way the film is edited, you do wonder how much he really taught him. He comes across a strict, dictatorial figure who is almost as frightening as Man. Which brings us to the obvious question…

Y’know – for kids? It’s based on a novel for adults about the politics of the environment. The main character’s mother is shot and killed. And the final scene – of Bambi and Faline trying to escape Man’s vicious pack of dogs while a forest fire rages around them – is one of the tensest animated moment ever committed to film. The dogs in themselves are terrifying enough, with their snapping jaws and wolf-like faces. But add to that a fire that looks set to engulf Bambi – the animators were incredibly skilled in making the flames seem almost alive, like characters themselves – that you can feel the tension drip off th screen. Bambi’s father doesn’t help the situation. His authoritarian, Victorian-style parenting do not make him a sympathetic character; I wondered whether Bambi would be better off facing up to the hunter. With so much darkness cutting through the film, it does not seem a movie suited for children.

And yet, with its beautifully drawn animals and a story of growing up in the face of adversity, it isn’t hard to see why it connects with children. There are some sweet moments, both before Bambi’s mother’s death, as the young deer discovers life in the woods and his place within it, and after it, when he returns to find Thumper and Flower – and the love of his life, Faline. In many ways, it is a shame that the hunter’s killing dominates how the film is remembered- and it certainly does not pull any punches in introducing children to the concept of death – but there is so much more joy to the film than this moment. In fact, it says something about how shocking and unexpected Man’s intrusion is – mirroring how the animals themselves must feel – that it is the thing for which the film is best remembered. But even with the darker elements, this is still a film with kids very much in mind.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Ok, here’s an admission – until I had seen Bambi, I had assumed that the deer was in fact female. I had no idea that he was meant to be a prince and not a princess. And, yes, I’m aware that adult Bambi had antlers, but I’d only really seen a young Bambi, and I guess, with his long eyelashes and slightly effeminate manner, I automatically assumed that he was a she. It was a shock to learn this was a male – and a prince of the forest at that. He seemed more like a princess for much of his younger years. Oh well…

Alongside Bambi are Thumper (the rabbit) and Flower (the skunk) – two great sidekicks. While their humour may not be entirely slapstick (although the attempts to walk on the ice come close), they bring a strong sense of empathy as we watch the young Bambi grow up from their point of view. Thumper is one of those great creations who almost manages to eclipse the main character, so wonderful is his personality.

Of course, there’s also the villain of the piece – Man. As we currently wrestle with our own mistreatment of the environment and battle to protect it, the role of the movie’s main antagonist takes on an even more sinister tone. We are aware of a faceless entity who seems intent of destroying all of nature. It’s no surprise that hunters in the USA were upset by the portrayal in the movie, turning on Disney for the unsympathetic way in which they were shown on screen. They weren’t the only ones to be upset – critics initially failed to take a shine to Bambi, with one describing the film as ‘unpleasant’. Walt even came under fire from his own daughter, Diane, who insisted that Bambi’s mother did not need to die and questioning why her father had kept in that aspect of the novel when he had taken liberties with it elsewhere. Even time has not dulled the sheer horror of Man as villain, with a chill running through the centre of the film that permeates every scene.

Sing-along a showtune? With Walt going for a more realistic approach in the animation, this was never going to be a movie filled with musical moments. Yet it contains, for my money at least, one of the greatest songs ever to grace the soundtrack of a film – the sublime Little April Shower. With a beat that mimics the coming rain, a glorious choir delivering the tune, building up to a whirl of instruments as a storm hits…this is a piece of music that wonderfully evokes both the freshness of a gentle rain through to the power and thrill of violent thunderstorm, all from the perspective of the young deer. In a film full of standout moments, this is one of the strongest. When you have songs this good, you don’t need much else.

I have questions: My biggest question is for Bambi’s father – where the hell were you at the start of the film?! You wait until the mother of your child has been brutally shot and THEN you turn up to take care of your kid. Talk about an absent father. It’s not like you even seem that enthused about doing the job – it’s more a case of ‘Oh great, now she’s dead I suppose I’ll have to do everything.’ Way to be an appropriate father figure. Also I have a problem with deer being ‘kings of the forest’. I know that, in mythology, there are generally regarded as so, but I’m not convinced. Besides, Bambi and his father do disappear at one point – so who is left in charge while they are gone? Is there some sort of Regent doing the ruling? A grand vizier? Seriously, what sort of government system is in place here?

Feel-good factor: With the murder – yes, murder – of Bambi’s mother and the shocking finale in the burning forest, this is not a film that pulls punches when it comes to wringing the audiences emotions through the proverbial mangle. It is a credit to Walt and his team that he is able to bring such emotions out of his work and shows the power that animation can have. And these moments are, in reality, a small part of the film, which is more interested in showing the joys of growing up and discovering the world around you – even if that sometimes brings heartache as well. It is a truly beautiful film to watch and there are some scenes which are sublime – such as the attempts to walk on the ice. I’ll mark it down a good few points for the death of Bambi’s mum (there’s no way THAT is a feel-good moment!) and give it a feel-good rating of 7 out of 10.

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We head South of the Border as Disney kicks off a series of cartoon anthologies with Saludos Amigos (1943)…

Published by Ben Evans

Film fan; music lover; avid reader; culture snob.

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