Should I Watch..? 'Bambi'
What's the big deal?
Bambi is an animated family drama film released in 1942 and is only the fifth feature-length animation produced by Walt Disney and his team of animators. Based by Felix Salten's 1923 book Bambi, A Life In The Woods, the film follows a young deer in the forest who discovers the harsh truth of life alongside his friends as they all grow up together. The film was released with America on the cusp of plunging into World War II which sadly contributed to the film making a slight loss at the box office. Critics were also unimpressed with the film, claiming that the realism and lack of fantasy elements stripped the picture of Disney's "magic". However, the film would be re-released in cinemas in 1957, 1966, 1975, 1982 and 1988 which has made the film become one of Disney's most beloved pictures among adults and children alike. Receiving three Academy Award nominations when it was first released, the film would be chosen for preservation at the US's National Film Registry in 2011.
What's it about?
A doe gives birth to a fawn named Bambi who the other animals in the forest refer to as a prince. Unaware that his father is a mighty stag known as the Great Prince Of The Forest, Bambi quickly becomes friends with an excitable and energetic rabbit called Thumper who soon teaches Bambi how to speak and walk. With Bambi's curiosity about the world sometimes getting the better of him, he soon becomes friends with more animals such as a shy skunk called Flower and a young female fawn named Faline.
As Bambi grows ever more confident, he soon tests his mother's attention by wandering out into a meadow one day - unaware that hidden hunters called Man are waiting beyond the meadow's boundaries. Warned of Man's presence by the Great Prince, Bambi and his mother soon make their escape and return to the relative safety of the woods. But during the winter, Bambi and his mother are out hunting for food when Man shows up again...
Bambi's Mother / Pheasant
David Hand (supervising), James Algar (sequence), Samuel Armstrong (sequence), Graham Heid (sequence), Bill Roberts (sequence), Paul Satterfield (sequence) & Norman Wright (sequence)
Perce Pearce (story direction) & Larry Morey (story adaptation)*
Release Date (UK)
1st January, 1943
Animation, Drama, Family
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound, Best Musical Score, Best Original Song
What's to like?
It's sometimes difficult to assess something which is considerably older than yourself from the perspective of someone around it was originally released. But Disney are nothing if not canny and their frequent re-releases of Bambi have meant the film has been seen by generations of children who then go on to encourage their own children to watch the film - in a weird way, mirroring the film's message about the circle of life. But unlike the mass-produced, computer-assisted movies of today, this is a truly beautiful film that you can tell has been laboured over by dozens (possibly hundreds) of artists. It also sounds amazing. The orchestral score not only enhances the movie's atmosphere, whether its playful or ominous, but also provides effective sound effects in places such as water falling from a leaf accompanied by a cymbal crash. At times, it reminded me of Disney's earlier film Fantasia.
But Bambi proved to be influential in a number of other ways. Anyone who has seen The Lion King can trace that movie's origins right back to this production in its study of animals and their behaviour to animate them properly. And while it wasn't the first film to use child actors to voice younger roles, it reinforced a basic principal of voice acting - if a voice sound right then it's right for the part. Given the relative lack of experience by the child cast, they mostly do a great job of breathing life into their roles. Of course, this film will always be associated with the heartbreaking scenes involving Bambi's mother which actually hit you like a thunderbolt. It's almost as though you can't quite believe they chose to go down that road but the film has another twist in the tale. The explosive forest fire is both stunning to watch as well as genuinely terrifying. Despite it's reputation, this film isn't quite as kiddie-friendly as you might imagine.
- Dunagan would go on to enlist with the US Marine Corps at 18 (he voiced Bambi when he was just 7), becoming their youngest-ever drill instructor and serving three tours of Vietnam. He retired from the military in 1977 and lives in San Angelo, Texas at the time of writing.
- Animation from this film has been reused more than animation from any other Disney film. In addition to the birds flying and leaves falling, Bambi's mother has appeared in The Sword In The Stone, The Jungle Book and Beauty And The Beast. Bambi himself also appeared with his mother in The Rescuers.
- Despite being the favourite animated film of Walt Disney himself, it would be the last full-length animated film produced by him until 1950's Cinderella. This was because a number of animators and film-workers were on active military duty.
What's not to like?
I realise that it's impossible to separate the character of Thumper from the Southern drawl used by young Peter Behn but it does get rather annoying after a short period of time. I was reminded of the equally irritating Prissy from Gone With The Wind whose voice grated on my nerves so much, I dreaded every one of her appearances. Thankfully, Bambi is somewhat light on dialogue so this isn't as much of an issue as that. And having just sung the praises of the animation in the film, there are a couple of moments that I noticed when things go wrong - I'm sure there are a couple of fleeting moments when the curmudgeonly owl appears cross-eyed for some reason. But the whole, the film is a treat for the senses.
So why not five stars? I appreciate that this is the opinion of someone whose parents weren't even alive when this was first released but I had a couple of issues with the film's narrative which suffers from predictability. I was confused by the relationship between Bambi and his father which seemed unnecessarily distant until tragedy strikes. Does the film (or the book, for that matter) chalk the success of the Grand Prince's instinct for survival down to not having any emotional ties to his own offspring? Leaving the Freud behind, it's also somewhat jolting to see an adult Bambi violently step up during the fiery climax. The character's name and the film itself have become synonymous with doe-eyed innocence so it's a bit of a shock seeing him stand off with Man's canine companions.
Should I watch it?
Of course, Bambi has become one of Disney's most cherished pictures and for good reason. At times, it's a joyful frolic through a summer's day with visuals and score to match. But don't take it for granted as there is a very real core of darkness and tragedy behind the picture. It's one of Disney's most daring pictures, lulling viewers into a false sense of serenity before unleashing nature's bloody truth on a shocked audience. What it lacks in humour, it makes up for in charm and it's well worth a watch for the animation alone.
Great For: scarring younger viewers, fans of Disney's early output, environmental activists, deer numbers
Not So Great For: hunters, the NRA, modern children who might demand more hyperactive fare
What else should I watch?
Coming from a time when the studio wasn't so concerned with producing billion-dollar franchises, Bambi rightfully earns its place as one of Disney's best-loved movies along with earlier hits like Dumbo and later smashes like Mary Poppins. But the studio would go through some turbulent times, bringing themselves to the brink of bankruptcy on a number of occasions. Expensive and formulaic flops like The Black Cauldron threatened to put Disney Studios out of business until fortunes were revived in 1989 by The Little Mermaid, a film which reignited interest in animation after years of largely uninspired film-making.
There's no denying the similarity between Bambi and The Lion King, other than a change of scenery from an undisclosed forest to the African savannah. A young animal's journey from newborn to king of their respective kingdoms, guided by unlikely friends might not be the most inspired story but modern viewers may well prefer the latter film which has an epic feel, a setting not normally seen and some of the best and brightest animation Disney has ever produced in its long history. No wonder the film continues to live on in stage adaptations, sequels, spin-offs and TV shows as well as a forthcoming live-action adaptation.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox