Welcome to Revisiting Disney! Today, we’re looking at that movie which, honestly, ranks very high on the list of “Most Traumatic Film Experiences Ever” for most of us, Bambi! Like The Land Before Time would do years later, this film makes everyone want to hug their mothers and causes you to wonder, did Disney hate children?
We’re back to the normal format, so, as usual, I have labeled each category. If you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free. And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
BACKGROUNDFirst, I was led astray by at least one film historian where I could have sworn that I read that Bambi was released before Dumbo. This is incorrect; Bambi actually came out in 1942, while Dumbo had a 1941 release. I think the confusion stems from the fact that Bambi was supposed to be released before Pinocchio. Regardless, I apologize and we’ll backtrack to 1941, and Dumbo, next week.
Moving on. According to Adrian Bailey in Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy, Disney gained the rights to the story of Bambi by 1936, and they started working on the film in 1937, although it was not released, as I said earlier, until 1942. This is nothing new, things usually go through a long period of development and planning, but if the film had been slated to be released in 1939 or early 1940, that is a bit of a longer stretch.
Adrian Bailey also calls Bambi a masterpiece, and that makes sense; this was the first Golden Age of Disney Animation after all. His argument goes that Bambi was, for the most part, heavily grounded in realism. Not only did Disney animators study and sketch real deer, they also used as many colors as necessary to create a beautiful, serene forest landscape. Some of the animals are less realistic; Bailey calls attention to the baby animals in particular, but they work. He puts it this way, “when as a child I first saw the film, I responded to the sentiment and the cosiness of it all” (Bailey 1982: 153).
I see his point, but I would argue that overall, Bambi is not really a cozy film. The addition of the adorable animal sidekicks and their highjinx serve to put some humor in a story that, really, is a little terrifying at times. I will give it this though: Disney and his team did manage to capture a very realistic and beautiful setting.
The music in Bambi is unique in that it is, according to IMDB (and my own hearing and memory) one of the only Disney movies that does not have the main characters sing at least one song. All the music is performed by a choir and takes place off screen; no one who sings is actively part of the film.
Bambi was also nominated for three Academy Awards in 1943, Best Sound, Recording; Best Music; Original Song (Love Is a Song); and Best Music; Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. The team of Frank Churchill and Larry Morey from Snow White was behind some of the music, particularly the Academy Award nominated Love Is a Song, while Edward Plumb assisted with the Score.
Edward Plumb also worked on Dumbo and would work on Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and The Three Caballeros. He and Frank Churchill seem to have made a good team on this one. The music beautifully complements the animation, often down to the very second. During the rain scene, for example, the raindrops make different sounds when they fall on certain leaves (until the downpour starts, then it doesn’t matter).
The music is also amazing because of the foreshadowing. In the scenes where there is danger, there is a musical undertone that cuts into the happy or excited main theme. It’s subtle, but as the danger grows, so does that portion of the music until it has overpowered the happier portion of the score.
It’s also an amazing score in that it leads your emotions without being overwhelming, an important aspect in a film that is trying to not have the main animal characters constantly speaking.
Four of my favorite animators were the leads on Bambi. Yes, some of the Nine Old Men were involved! If you missed the Nine Old Men talk, check out my post on Pinocchio. The four men I’m speaking of were the supervising animators here: Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Eric Larson. Marc Davis was also involved in production, though not as a supervising animator. If you have Spotify, there is also a great little interview with Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas on the Bambi album that is well worth the 6 minutes.
Bambi is unique in that, according to Christopher Finch in his The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms, it placed a greater emphasis on the natural world than previous films. Deer were brought into the studio; in fact, there was a zoo in place so that the animators could draw the animals and their movements as realistically as possible. The animators also had to take special classes on drawing animals. This is likely why it took so long to complete Bambi; they were trying to make sure the film was realistic.
The only thing that bothered me about the realism of the forest, actually, was the fact that during the “April Showers” rain storm scene, the trees weren’t moving at all. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough at the tree type, but my experience is that trees tend to move in the wind.
Even when Bambi and Thumper are ice skating, Disney had human models so that they could capture the motions accurately. Not only that, but one of the cameramen, according to Adrian Bailey, went to the forests of Maine to capture the changing of the seasons for the animators. There was quite a bit of live-action footage recorded and viewed for Bambi, and it shows.Finch also says that, regardless of his personal feelings about it, Bambi nicely rounded out the Disney studio’s toolkit; they could know handle a wide variety of animation styles, added new colors to their paint box and developed new technologies like the multiplane camera (used in several opening shots). These things would be useful for years to come and Bambi helped in that regard.
Fun fact, according to IMDB, animation footage from Bambi is often reused. This includes flowers and other plant life, but also the characters. Bambi’s Mother is in Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, and The Sword in the Stone, while both she and Bambi are in The Rescuers.
Finally, Bambi is on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films in Animation list; IMDB tells me it’s in the number 3 spot (Snow White is 1, Pinocchio is 2, The Lion King is 4, and Fantasia is 5).
First off, I just want to say that, between this and the other Disney films that I watched as a child, it’s a miracle that I turned out as normal as I did and that I’m not afraid of everything. Seriously, these early films were a bit (translated: very) frightening. Why did our parents let us watch these films?! Oh, right, because they’re classics and they knew we could handle it.
Bambi begins on a beautiful spring day when a young Prince, a deer, is born. All the animals go to see him and we are introduced to our hero and his best friend, a rabbit named Thumper. Thumper was my favorite character as a kid, and he still was my favorite character when I rewatched Bambi as an adult. Flower the Skunk is also fun, though Thumper is still my favorite.
Bambi begins his life in the forest, frolicking with his friends in the forest. He learns to jump and talk, both surviving a rainstorm and learning of the danger of the meadow, a wide open space with no protection. I bet that will be important later.
Bambi meets the other deer in the meadow, including a young female fawn named Faline, and the majestic Prince of the Forest who is the wisest deer of them all. When hunters come to the meadow and Bambi is separated from his mother, it is the Prince who finds him and leads him to his mother and to safety. So far, Bambi has almost died once (I’m keeping track).
After this, Bambi discovers snow and we move into winter. After he learns to skate (which is adorable and hilarious; Thumper is the best best friend a deer could have), Bambi and his mother travel with the other deer in a search of food. Of course, it’s winter, so there is no food except for bark. This leads to what my mom called “The Deer Starving in Winter Scene.” This escalates even further when the trees start to run out of bark and Bambi says that he’s very hungry; Disney wouldn’t kill a main character, right?
Luckily, there is spring grass in the meadow. Unluckily, there is a hunter there (who, honestly, is probably very hungry too. I’m trying really hard to be objective here). This leads to one of the most traumatic scenes in Disney, forget that, movie, history: the death of Bambi’s mom.
We’ve all seen it. I’m not going to describe it, though I wish I could hand you a tissue. I’m moving on now. Bambi finds his dad and goes with him. Suddenly, it’s spring! Bambi is grown up and meets up with the also grown up Thumper and Flower. They talk to the wise old owl who tells them about the dangers of becoming twitterpated, or of falling in love. All three young bachelors are determined to not fall into that trap.
Of course, Flower meets a pretty skunk lady, Thumper hears the singing of a lovely female rabbit and Bambi runs into the now grown Faline. These scenes were interesting because they did border on inappropriate, but weren’t. Bambi is over the moon about Faline, but since this is a realistic movie about deer, there has to be at least one fight over a doe (from what I have read, this is a real thing).
Bambi fights an older and meaner deer for the lovely Faline and to be honest, it’s kind of a terrifying sequence. Bambi is not doing too well at the beginning and this is the second part of the movie where I feared Bambi might die (or be seriously maimed). The use of color and shadow here is brilliant; it becomes difficult to tell which deer is which during the fight and the music matches perfectly.
Bambi wins and he and Faline run through the forest and frolic together to a soft ballad. Sadly, this is not the ending. Man has returned to the forest. This leads to another terrifying sequence where the animals try to escape from the hunters, with varying degrees of success. One poor pheasant, after uttering her lines, tries to fly away, is shoot and lands with a thud back on screen.
The hunters have also left their camp unattended, so a forest fire starts. Meanwhile, Bambi and Faline are trying to find each other, Bambi fights hunting dogs and is shot. We’re up to should-have-died numbers three and four here!
Luckily, his father comes, gets him up and together they find Faline and the rest of the animals, watching their home burn. The movie ends, however, with Bambi and his father watching the animals pay homage to Faline and her two little fawns, so it’s a happy ending, mostly. The forest starts to regrow and not too many animals die (on screen).
Being a deer is apparently very dangerous, and they didn’t even talk about natural predators like cougars, just man and the dangers of nature itself (winter, other deer, and, kind of, fire). I still had times when I feared for the lives of these animated deer. But still, yes, it is realistic. Thanks a lot, Disney.
Bambi was based off of a book published in 1923 by Austrian author Felix Salten. The book was called Bambi: A Life in the Woods. I haven’t read this book in years, but I remember clearly being horrified and sad the entire time. I also remember thinking as a kid that this had to be one of the only times I liked a movie more than the book.
I reread the synopsis on Amazon, however, to see try to remember what I might have blocked out. A story that is darker and more depressing than the Disney version? What horrors could be waiting?
In the book, Bambi has two cousin deer, Faline (who made it into the movie) and Gobo (who is described as frail). Bambi has an idyllic childhood, playing with his forest friends and living in a forest glade. He also learns about the creature that all woodland creatures fear, man. Bambi loses his mother to hunters, and meets his wise father, the Prince of the Forest.
So far, things match up pretty well. Like the source material to many Disney films, however, the end of the film is more like the halfway point. In this case, it’s like Disney cut out all the supporting deer (Bambi and Faline’s friends) and everything that happens with them, before ending at the end.
Also, in the book, Bambi is torn between wanting to stay with his mate Faline and the life they can have together, and the appeal that solitary life that his father leads has for him; this is a major issue that our favorite young stag faces.
One of the subplots that I remember vividly as very traumatic is the one with Bambi’s cousin Gobo, who spent time with a kind human and was, after that, unable to live in the wild. Not only did he miss his human, he also missed the luxury that he had access to in that place. Needless to say, and without spoiling things, Gobo was not a happy deer and his story was a bit tragic.
Regardless of how I felt about it, I always like to read the source material behind my favorite stories. I would say that, like the original Pinocchio, Bambi: A Life in the Woods is worth tracking down and checking out.
I hate sounding like a broken record, but we’re still in the 1940s, so WWII is still happening. Because of that, the European audience pool is not really as involved, being a bit preoccupied at the moment, and America has officially entered the War.
Bambi also was on the heels of a Disney strike (we’ll talk about that when we get to Dumbo next week), and it was the last full-length film Disney made until after the War; the next batch would be a series of shorts tied together with an overarching theme or narrator.
I think that Bambi had, like Pinocchio and Fantasia, an issue of timing. When you’re at war, are you really interested in watching a movie that is realistic and features quite a bit of death and suffering? The audiences of the day seemed to agree, at least in terms of numbers.
Both critics of the day and modern historians seem to have a mixed view of Bambi; on one hand, it’s 3rd on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films in Animation list and the soundtrack was nominated for three Academy Awards, but on the other hand, “Bambi struggled through production…Audiences were seeking more exciting entertainment, and some critics decried Disney’s venture into realism” (Thomas 1992: 91).
One lesson that I learned from Bambi is that “Eating greens is a Special Treat. It gives you long ears and great big feet,” courtesy of the rabbit family and Thumper. Thumper’s addition, “But they sure do taste awful,” makes it a good lesson overall. Sometimes, things that are good for you don’t taste good, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat them anyway.
Secondly, also from Thumper and his family, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” This one really speaks for itself, I think.
Thirdly, there are some things that are worth fighting for. After Bambi is shot, his father comes and tells him to get up, several times and not nicely. Bambi does eventually get up, because he cares about his friends and Faline; he wants to make sure they’re safe despite the fire. Looking outside Bambi, there are some things that are worth fighting for, like innocent lives and the safety of others. Regardless of your pain and what you’re feeling, sometimes you have to just get up and carry on. This could also be a nod to the War, though it might be a bit of a stretch because of timing.
The other thing that I can see as a major theme is that a mother’s love knows no bounds. Bambi’s mother doesn’t sacrifice herself for Bambi per se, but she did encourage him to run ahead, putting his life ahead of her own. She also wasn’t shown as eating during the Starving Winter Scene; maybe this was homage to the mothers of the Depression?
Another mother, Thumper’s mother, reminds her of the lessons he needs to learn to be a productive and healthy member of society. Mothers in Bambi are shown as loving, protecting, nurturing and teaching, a theme made all the more potent by the death of Bambi’s mom.
DOES IT HOLD UP?
Bambi is unique in that it is such a realistic portrayal of the forest life. There is a little whimsy, yes, but it serves to offset the fact that main characters are in danger and that there is an extended scene of the deer starving during the winter. Not only is Bambi’s mother shot, but so is Bambi. Faline is almost killed, there is a terrifying stag battle and a massive forest fire.
Stunningly realistic, the animation and the music are what I expect from my Disney movies, but the story, at least according to some historians like Finch, leaves much to be desired. It’s not Pinocchio. His main issue is that the film tries so hard to be realistic and yet has all the animals living together in harmony. While I understand Finch’s concern here, it never bothered me as a kid (or as an adult) that the animals were all friends. Like I said above, it adds some much needed whimsy and fun.
Does it hold up today? I would say that, despite the semi-inappropriate moments and the sheer terror and trauma that this film inflicted on many children, it has withstood the test of time. It’s still one of my favorites.
Plus, that score is beautiful, and those trees look great.
For next week: Dumbo
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy. Everest House Publishers. New York, New York. 1982.
Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1975.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company. New York and London, 2002.
Thomas, Frank. Disney’s Art of Animation From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1992.
Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945. Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London, 1968.Pin this article to read later! And make sure to follow us on Pinterest.