“Your mother can't be with you any more. Come.”
Funnily enough, when most children were distraught and crying at that pivotal scene in Disney’s coming-of-age classic, Bambi, the studio’s sixth animated feature, I, on the other hand, was yawning and wondering what all the fuss was about. My mother had warned me that this one might be upsetting and that perhaps I should sit a little closer but, much as I had done when I first saw the original King Kong (lots of coverage for this one elsewhere, folks) and she had delivered a similar warning, I felt nothing when that hunter's rifle rang out and poor little Bambi was left alone in the snow. And, enhancing this blasphemy all the more, every time I saw the film since those younger days, until my own children sat down and watched it with me, that is, I felt exactly the same way. Whilst I loved the sumptuous animation, I had always found the actual content of the story threadbare and the emotional elements coy, obvious and largely un-affecting.
Boy, how wrong could I have been?
Now, I’m not going to sit here and preach to anyone that merely by having kids your eyes and your heart are suddenly opened-up to all sorts of sentimental ideas and emotional upheaval. Nor am I going to say that it may take a fair chunk of “living” and “experiencing” what life throws at you to properly appreciate the rites-of-passage development that the young faun, Bambi, undergoes in the trials of his life. But sometimes, just sometimes, something that you had taken for granted for so long just comes up and grabs a-hold of your heart with that death-grip that you never knew it had … and it is genuinely as though you are watching it again for the very first time, but with much fresher eyes.
I have probably seen Bambi more times, for myself, over the last few years than I have with the kids. And the very thing that I had perceived as a shortcoming many times beforehand has since become the magical glue that draws me in each time, and keeps me coming back for more. Bambi is one of Disney’s most simply told tales – a fable of the natural world and the unending cycle of life and death – and, therein, lies the secret of its majestic and timeless power. It has no pretensions, no airs or allegories, and in no way ordains to condescend to the viewer, however old or young they may be. They would virtually remake it in 1994 with The Lion King, a film which took all the best that Disney had to offer and made a modern classic. Bambi, however, was the foundation stone, and when you watch it now it is remarkable to see just few of the trademarks that would find their way into Lion King were actually present here as the clichés that they would go on to become.
The story follows the tender childhood and coming-of-age of a young deer, who is welcomed into the multi-faceted (indeed you could argue multi-cultural) society of the great forest. He makes a lot of friends, he experiences the changes of the seasons and he discovers that life is not all cosy and sweet. The harshness of reality is brought home to him with one of the most shocking moments in the Disney canon, but he is then taken in by the Great Prince of the Forest, a noble stag who is actually his father, and he is then tutored for the role that destiny has earmarked for him, that of the next Prince who must act as valiant and wise protector. The film is as much a chronicle of survival as it is about the more conventional moralistic fun that Walt Disney peddled. There are no wicked witches, or bad fairies, dragons or pirates. The tale does not depend upon, or require anything magical or supernatural to take place. It gains as its narrative thrust the notion of commitment, responsibility and, somewhat refreshingly, the simple everyday incidents that become the stepping stones to maturity. There's no great quest to undertake, other than to care for your loved ones and to get by in a world that can be unpredictably dangerous. As such, Bambi is impossible not to relate to.
Growing up alongside the perennial favourite of the rabbit, Thumper, and the skunk, Flower (who were not actually in the original story written by Felix Saltern), it is fine to see that Bambi is not the leader of the gang. In fact, it is his new buddies, and especially the ever-gobby Thumper, who instigate much of the fun and the scrapes that the younger incarnations get up to. Bambi is learning from them. This is the common ideology that Disney was fostering. The hero has to learn from someone, and it is essential that we see this taking place so that we can feel an empathy towards him. Children, crucially, gain from this. Bambi starts off as stumbling, gangly and painfully shy … but the film is keen to reveal that he learns just as much from his pals as he does from his mother, and therefore gains confidence very rapidly and becomes a sociable participant with all those around him. Lesson-wise, Disney's film was a lot more matter-of-fact than it was moral-badgering. Daily rituals and respect, a good sense of humour and a healthy curiosity in the world around you, says Disney, are all the badges you need to get by.
Undeniably, Bambi has some of the most wonderful animation of any of Disney’s classics. That Walt sat his artists down and had them all research the motion and bone-structure of the animals they would be creating, have them visit zoos and national parks, and even have deer and rabbits brought into the studio so that they could be studied and rendered on paper with absolute adherence to realism, showed just how seriously this project was to be taken, and just how dedicated the animators were to providing their characters with genuine and accurate life. There was some trouble concerning how the faces were to be drawn – it was necessary to have the audience relate to these forest denizens with strong emotional attachment, so they needed that all-essential human quality about them that Disney was renowned for. And the eventual blend between natural physiognomy and playful, expressive countenances was absolutely perfect. Thumper and Flower have those cute eyes and cheeks, yet they are merely exaggerated examples of the real thing. The young Bambi, of course, has that ever-appealing bashfulness that makes him irresistible, and even the older incarnation has that good looking, young buck zest. The deer, especially, have such authentic mannerisms, such as nervous head movements and that little ability to swivel their ears that looks quite astounding when attached to those human baby-faced expressions. And their balletic grace is rapturous.
All of this would still be cartoonic if their habitat was anything less than stellar. But, thankfully, the backgrounds and surroundings are simply beautiful. Every effort had gone into creating believable environments – forests, snow-covered glens, swaying meadows, tinkling streams, cosy, twig-littered dens – and the film looks like a nature documentary conjured in ink and paint. The very opening shot, that introduces us to this idyllic realm, is a splendidly detailed pan across an image made up of lots of different plates meshing foreground and background into a three-dimensional collage that produces the same sort of lavish depth that was evidenced with the glass-plate process in the original King Kong, only now we have colour and painstaking animation to supply a certain fluidity. There are some great zooms that find a character submerged behind the canopy of foliage, or reverses that pull away from Bambi snuggled up against his mother, say, that show the beauty and the stealth of such an environment. There was the idea that the surrounding landscapes should painted softer than the characters within them, thereby focussing our attention upon the animals, but I find that I am often more enamoured by the surroundings, themselves. Amazingly, you get the distinct impression of the wider forest stretched around you, even beyond the restrictions of the actual frame. The lightning illuminating, like an X-ray, the clouds in the distance, and the deluge that forms a symphony of rainfall brings a lavish and refreshing cast to the film, the blue-green shading of the sodden leaves and trees is lovely, as is the momentous orange sky that awakens after the storm has passed. Stylishly surreal colours add mythical dimensions to the grudge-match between Bambi and a rogue aggressor for Faline's attention later on. There is so much to admire. Little hoof-prints in the snow, and falling mounds of the stuff actually capture the innocent delight of such soft frolicking. The love-dream fugue when Bambi and Faline go skipping through the fluffy, pink and blue-tinged clouds is like a Greek odyssey. By contrast, the intense inferno that roars through the woods during the frantic climax is alive with snake-like flames and a tangible heat and danger. The artists are able to combine bright, burning ferocity with intricate cavorting shadow-play, bringing this exciting final act together with a gloriously kinetic vitality that never loses that rich and decorative finesse.
As detailed as the majority of the film is, it was a wise move to never show the people at large in the woods. In the fear that we could possibly relate to them or, perhaps, just as bad, despise them as nothing more than stereotypical monsters, we hear their gunshots, see their hunting dogs and we see their camp …but we never actually see them. Or him, as although the term Man is used symbolically by Bambi's mother to reflect the whole cruel race that is encroaching upon their habitat, it could also be fitting that the conflict is seen in strict linear form, especially from the viewpoint of the animals, so that a singular threat comes embody the greater danger. Whatever, because in this shadowy way, Disney is uncannily clever at not presenting the hunters as bogeymen. We’re not exactly fond of them, of course, but when we don’t see their faces or hear their voices it is hard to find something personal about their actions. They become just another element of the forest, a lurking danger that is not always there, but remains something that all the wildlife needs to be aware of. Just as the rains fall, the snows blanket the land and life hibernates and awaits the rebirth of the forest, Man is portrayed as a disruptive element that purges the environment, from time to time. It is interesting to note that the hunter who fires the fatal shot that brings down Bambi's mother made it into the lists of the most infamous screen villains. In the topsy-turvy world that we live in, I'm sure that most of the protesters at the time of the film's initial (and actually quite unsuccessful) release would have been brought up in the belief that hunting was a good, and very possibly essential activity. This shows that Disney was thinking well and truly outside of the box and, as well as providing a cute allegory for the pitfalls of a child's formative years, he was having a sly dig at the conventions of the gun-toting times. Of course, what makes this all the more fascinating is that, all these years later, it is just as easy to dismiss the presence of the hunter in this beloved forest as being one of the simple truths of the natural world, as it is to hate him. Neither monster nor practical man out trying to feed his family – he is simply there, and in this limited aspect, perhaps just as much a part of the ecology as the falling of the leaves in Autumn.
Plus, without his committing of such a dreadful deed, we really wouldn't have much of a story, would we?
Disney would approach the topic of loss and grief many times over. Snow White kicked out against the accepted norm by dropping its heroine into a spell-cast coma. Dumbo was torn from his mother, forced to witness her descent into melancholy and madness, and to endure plenty of degradations of his own. Emotion ran high in the strangely overlooked Pocahontas, and I can recall struggling not to make an audible gulp during a busy showing of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Of course, none of this really comes close to the almost unbearable sight of poor little Simba snuggling into the meagre warmth and comfort of his slain father’s body in The Lion King which showed, in one barnstorming moment, that Disney were unafraid to confront the trauma of death and the grief that it can wring about in quite graphic terms. That one was a shocker, all right, but its genesis was undoubtedly to be found in the paralysing sequence when a hunter’s bullet hits its mark and one young faun must find the strength to carry on without his mother to guide him. The inspired thing, I feel, is the way in which both Bambi and his father, the Great Prince, are obscured from our view by the falling snow, the animators not fully giving in to the temptation to clearly paint the sadness across the faces. It is a highly stylish scene that gathers more impact by somehow showing the moment in isolation.
There is comedy with the convivial antics of the young Thumper, Flower and Faline, and the wise old owl, but the set-pieces don’t feel forced or contrived or merely placed there for a happy diversion for the kids. There is meaning in all of these encounters. Learning how to walk, and to run, and exploring the forest with your friends. The fun of discovering snow, and the slip-sliding Dancing On Ice sequence across the top of a frozen lake. What is unique about the way these extra characters are handled is that they don't ever come across as just cute sidekicks for Bambi, as similar creations (notably Pumbaa and Timon in The Lion King) in the majority of the Studio's later output would. They are never just sitting on the sidelines as some form of scenic decoration, and we know, quite emphatically, that they are all individuals who must follow their own path. In other words, they have a life beyond merely fooling around with the lead character. And to this end, we have the first flirtatious advances happened-upon during the ritual of mating, come the Spring. You know, I’ve been asked more questions about this segment by my own children than any other in the film, including the death of the mother. They sort of understand what's going on, don’t they? Disney knew that kids cottoned-on far quicker than their parents ever gave them credit for, and his marked subtlety for such developments is terrifically shrewd. It is also great that the film's biggest close-ups come courtesy of this star-crossed lover scene, the animators going to town on the tease and sass of each female counterpart, massive, screen-filling shots of faces and eyes … and the typically gob-smacked reactions of the boys when confronted with true love.
But there is also the action of the duel with another deer who wants to challenge Bambi's authority, and the all-out battle with the hunting dogs. Disney would repeat such things, of course, with The Fox And The Hound and Beauty And The Beast (incidentally, watch out for Bambi's mother in the opening shot from the latter), but Bambi, whose name actually doesn’t suit him at all once he’s grown into a strapping young buck, and his furious skirmish with the ravenous dogs is one of Disney’s milestones during its Golden Age. We don’t see flesh and fur flying, but there is plenty of raw aggression and a devoted, heroic rage to the set-piece. One idea that was scrapped was to have witnessed the hunter getting caught up in the fire that he has accidentally created, and although I can see some value in such a thing, it would have been the sort of narrative comeuppance that would have been pure Hollywood. As we have already learned, the film is far superior for not showing us the hunter, but even if we had just heard a scream, or seen, perhaps, some smoking bones (now actually that would have been cool!) it would have identified and personalised him, and may have altered our animal point-of-view perception of things.
Although many of the early Disney films have charming yet saccharine-laced scores that serve to date them incredibly, Bambi is a little different. The music from Frank Churchill, orchestrated by Edward H. Plumb, is utterly tremendous, and written far more in the style of a traditional film score. There is a lot of dramatic fare that they create, such as the running of the deer herd, the duel over Faline, the battle with the pack of dogs and the race from the engulfing conflagration, and even the songs have a more lasting, and much less “vintage” quality than a great many that Uncle Walt had punctuated his earlier films with. Little April Shower is a bonafide classic, and its rendition here is a gorgeous ballad of natural wonder, its sprightly cadence undeniably invigorating and remarkably uplifting. Churchill wrote the apocryphal “Some Day My Prince Will Come” for Snow White, but I can forgive him all with his outstanding work here. The use of a choir gives an eerie soul to the wailing of the winds during the storm, and this was down to the variation on the Gregorian Chant that Churchill wove into the section. The tragedy of losing his mother and never even getting to see her again, even for just a second, is treated with the solemn musical poignancy that it deserves, and Bambi’s slow-dawning realisation of the gravity of this turning point is dealt with miraculously. The composers don’t go for overbearing pity and remorse … rather, they depict the moment with dignified reserve, ensuring that we know Bambi has resigned himself to the drastic transformation that he will have to undergo. Elsewhere, their music is flowing, rhythmic and dynamic for the scenes of the deer-run, evocative of speed and grace, and there is abundant nobility afforded for the Great Prince of the Forest. Aye, and there's even some soft, woozy saxophone playing for the seduction scenes … especially for when Thumper is transfixed by that sexy bunny who comes slinking up to him. Churchill is one of the old school, though, which means that his compositions totally thrive upon “Mickey-Mousing” with the onscreen action. I do not have a problem with this, but I will concede that this is a style that many find terribly dated. But you must remember, also, that Disney specifically wanted the score to be telling the story as much as the artwork. To this end, it is the orchestra who provide the sound of the lightning, of the clash of antlers and the impact of bodies and rock-falls and crashing timbers.
At barely over seventy minutes, Bambi still packs a visceral punch and an almighty emotional wallop, and, best of all, a truly spiritual catharsis that informs us, without descending into a lecture or a sermon, of the joys and the terrors and the responsibilities of life. It is brave enough to imply that nature doesn’t always have a happy ending, but that outcomes, whether they are pleasant or grave, are all vital to the balance of life. As we have seen, the film has been hugely influential, and not least to Disney Studios, themselves, who have followed the template, or portions of it, ever since. Two asteroids have been named after Bambi and Thumper and, of course, there is that pair of scrap-happy vixens in Diamonds Are Forever who are also named after the duo. But Bambi, as much as I may have dismissed it when I was a child, is one of the all-time greats that definitely rewards repeated viewing, and only grows in resonance and stature as the years go by.
It is, unequivocally, a masterpiece.