Bambi, 1942, 70 minutes.
A prince is born, the animal friends gather around to see their future leader. No one says a whole lot, except for the prince’s best friend, who gets lectured throughout the film for running his mouth off. This scene sets the tone of our movie for the day, Bambi. On the surface, the film is very close to Dumbo, but indeed, the two are further apart than any two films the studio has put out at this point in their history.
Gone are the watercolor, simplistic backgrounds of Dumbo, or any of the fantasy elements of the studio’s previous pictures, instead choosing a naturalistic forest setting. It is a clear shift in the studio’s storytelling dynamics, doing away with fairy tales, musical numbers, and mythology, and focusing instead purely on a character’s emotional journey through a beautifully painted forest.
Bambi is a masterpiece in storytelling. Its dialogue is sparse, but each interaction is meaningful. While Dumbo felt overstuffed, and diverted from its main plot many times, Bambi is a much slimmer picture. Every scene pushes the story forward effectively. Take Little April Showers, a seemingly silly little song, that serves an important purpose. Bambi’s growth is paralleled with a beautiful recurring motif of the changing seasons. April Showers reinforces Bambi’s growth and the changing of the seasons at the same time, and perhaps most notably, is not sung by a character, but by an unseen chorus. It plays out much the same way music does in popular Hollywood films now, the song is not produced by the characters of the film, but instead it is about them.
Despite the film’s leanness — it is after all, only 7 minutes longer than Dumbo — Bambi develops more than one character. Bambi does not really choose his friends, they are simply the other animals in the forest kingdom that are his age. Bambi ends up naming his skunk friend Flower, because of a mix-up when he is learning his vocabulary. Thumper makes for an entertaining, if ineffective, teacher, but the scene gives us some of the funniest child’s dialogue of all time. Each character grows up and their traits mellow out a bit, Flower becomes less timid, Thumper less annoying. While neither character grows as much as the fawn, they still evolve with their friend.
The shot of Bambi and his mother sleeping during the April Showers scene is more instrumental in the building of their relationship than even the following scene in the meadow. There is something about this simple image that shows us: they are everything to each other. Nothing else matters to them. They have the Great Prince, the aloof third member of the family, but he must keep watch for Man. This scene makes the forthcoming dramatic death scene even more heartbreaking. The foreshadowing in the meadow is obvious, but effective. We know something is going to happen with a gunshot, but we do not expect it to be Bambi’s mom.
Bambi’s setting is one of its biggest virtues. Moving from the vast, varied settings of Pinocchio, and Snow White, and the larger-than-life big top of Dumbo, the film is in a forest inhabited by a small animal kingdom. This intimacy is key to the film’s dramatic moments. Bambi is a much more human film than either Pinocchio or Snow White. It is a small world, with a small cast, yet this allows the storytelling to grow beyond what we’ve already seen. The entire first half of the film is small moments. There is no conflict, no villains, and no real story. Instead, we get ice skating, meeting friends, and our lead being too afraid to talk to girls. It is a collection of moments that seem insignificant, but it is in these scenes that we see Bambi grow up, little by little.
When Bambi heads back to the meadow to look for his mom, and is interrupted by the stag, delivering his first words of the film, “Your mother cannot be with you anymore,” your heart breaks for him, as he squeezes out his single tear. It is the Great Prince of the Forest that brings some of the film’s more poignant moments. Bambi’s mother dying is very sad, of course, but it is not until his aloof father delivers the first line to his son that the drama of the moment truly sets in.
The Great Prince’s words mean a lot to Bambi, and to us as viewers. It is obvious that his words have value, given how rarely they are used. Unlike his mother, who was tender and open with her son, Bambi’s father is distant and cold, but still shows up when necessary. He is proud of the young boy, but it is not until the mother is taken out of the story does he attempt to connect with him. His first line is simple, but its implications are massive. He finally has spoken with his son, as he must, because he is the only thing left in his son’s small life.
Right after the famous death scene, we are treated to another wonderful montage to signify the passing of many seasons. Bambi and his friends, now young adults, get their sexual education from Friend Owl. Despite each objecting strongly to the idea of taking to a mate, all three of them drop like flies, immediately smitten by their respective partners. Bambi’s quick kiss with Faline, whom he met several years earlier, leads him to daydream a wonderful sequence in which the two deer run around in the clouds, in love.
Bambi and Faline’s relationship is the most gorgeous portrayal of love in any Disney film. They meet as kids, their mothers are best friends, but the two of them barely talk until they are a bit older. Bambi must fight off Ronno, an opposing suitor to Faline, as well as save her from a pack of wild dogs in the forest fire, to fully win her affections. The moment in which they are finally at peace is earned, because unlike most Disney couples, they actually go through a lot together, instead of only one of the characters enduring a journey.
The animation in Bambi is the most sophisticated, luxurious hand-drawn animation the world has possibly ever seen. There is so much detail, so much beauty, and while very obviously cartoons, every character is so realistic, yet also cartoonish. Thumper is a little boy much the way Figaro is. In one scene, he sheepishly acts like a kid who was caught stealing candy, and in another, a cocky little boy who will never get hurt. The body language, specifically of Flower and Thumper, feels just like real little kids.
There are a couple scenes in the film so beautiful, you forget that it was all made by hand, with pencil, pen, and paint. Bambi and Faline meeting, the harrowing rescue scene at the end, and the ice-skating scene are all scenes that are tremendously endearing. Bambi’s most striking scene is when the title character must compete with Ronno. The film’s dreamy, nature-inspired color palette completely transforms and we are given stunning deep reds, and bright orange, and even some blue during the fight, all against a black backdrop. It is a short scene, as it should be, the film would become too scary had the scene been any longer. Still, the film’s sudden transformation from dreamscape to nightmare is so jarring, yet stunning. Which is to say nothing of the fire effects during the film’s thrilling climax, itself a beautiful shift in mood and color.
Bambi’s coming-of-age is stronger than Dumbo’s because it is a more complete story. Dumbo is a circus kid, through-and-through, and goes from laughing-stock to star performer, but Bambi’s plight is much more relatable. Bambi is born, everything is new and exciting. He starts growing up, but there’s more to it than that. We have his friends growing up with him, his world changing around him, and he must adjust to all of this. Dumbo simply must get over himself, Bambi has to accept everything.
Which brings us to the beautiful ending of the film, that shows us what the film is truly about. Bambi’s children with Faline are the new royalty of the forest, and Bambi the new Great Prince. The stag is there too, but his time is running out. This scene is a beautiful callback to the introduction to the film. On the way to visit the new children, it is revealed that Flower has named his son Bambi after his friend, in a callback to how a confused Bambi mistakenly named his friend Flower. Thumper, likewise, has several children of his own, and each of the trio’s new families mirror the families they grew up with.
The film shows life in the forest, and more broadly, everywhere, as a circle. It is a theme that would be explored even further, if a bit less effectively, in The Lion King, a whopping 52 years later, but would hardly be touched on in between these two films.
Bambi is not a funny film. It is not a film that has much dialogue, or many exciting plot points, we have Snow White and Pinocchio for that. Bambi is a picture on a much smaller scale. It sets out to tell a real story about a real boy, his friends, and what happens in life when you learn a new word, fall in love, and even have children of your own. It is the first Disney film that is about us, the viewers, as opposed to being an otherworldly fantasy.
While Pinocchio remains my favorite Disney, there is an easy argument to be made that Bambi is better. The film’s storytelling is the best in Disney’s canon, wasting not a single frame of the film, and its character animation has taken a huge leap forward from what Disney has put out to this point. Each animal is adorably expressive, each setting equally breathtaking. It is a case study in perfection, in a purer, more innocent way than Pinocchio is.
Bambi is a wonderful film. It is the last of Disney’s golden age, the last film before WWII shut down full-length feature film animation releases for the remainder of the decade. It’s a damn shame. The company lost a lot of momentum heading into the package film era, and while there is a lot of fun to be had during the next eight years at Disney animation, they are not the beautiful, sophisticated stories that the company has now conditioned us to expect.
Side note: It makes complete sense that Bambi does not have a Disney theme park attraction to speak of, but Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland all do. Even Sorcerer’s Apprentice has Fantasmic, but Bambi simply can not be a ride, and that is for the best.
Next: Saludos, Amigos!