Walt Disney loved nature.
From the birds of Snow White to the mice of Cinderella, the animator portrayed animals as friends of mankind: always merry, always present, and always ready to cheer their human companions with favors or a song. There is an inherent, unwavering kindness in the likes of these creatures that spans the entire Disney canon.
Bagheera mentors Mowgli.
Kala raises Tarzan.
Pooh befriends Christopher Robin.
Turn the lenses on humans, however, and Disney assumes a more cynical tone.
Bambi subverts the illusion that Man, like Nature, is innocent. Released in the midst of World War II, the film is a timely exposé of human violence and greed, prompting viewers to think on their sins at a time when Earth itself, like Bambi's forest, was ablaze. Disney has no intent of pretending here, injecting his story with a realism so strong that the worlds of Man and Nature become entirely separate.
In this film, humans have no screen time. The evil that Man enacts can only be felt secondhand--and while Bambi feels the full effect of every crime against his home, from his mother's death to the climactic forest fire, he never sees the hunters or confronts them directly. If the purpose of this film is, as suggested, to stress the moral rift between Man and Nature, then it is the characterization of Man as an unseen evil that makes Bambi successful.
Minutes into the film, viewers find themselves falling in love with Bambi's world. The sense of family that the animals share, coupled with the striking beauty of the woods, renders a divine-like image of Nature. Beauty, however, is impermanent, and Man, with his guns, fire, and devilish hounds, finds ways to spoil the magic.
Bambi's father, especially, contributes to the film's spiritual subtext. While removed from much of the film's physical action, the Great Prince seems intimately connected to Bambi, touching those around him with the same air of warmth and omniscience ascribed to a god. In a telling scene, Bambi's mother observes these traits in the Prince, describing his greatness while Bambi and a chorus of bucks look on in deep, wide-eyed reverence.
Viewers soon find themselves with an altered understanding of this hero. Just moments later, the Prince, having detected approaching hunters, ushers his family away in a dash to the thicket. Like all the creatures beneath him, he does not attempt to fight or engage the evil before him. It is his ability to survive by flight, not confrontation, that has won him respect.
The inclination to flee, while not associated with traditional understandings of heroism, is fitting for a character like the Prince. The attitude he conveys toward Man, and the example his subjects follow, is a direct reflection of what the film itself seeks to teach: that Good should never mix with Evil.
The Prince knows that the kingdom he protects is one that must not be tainted, and to entertain the presence of its destructor, Man, would be to undermine its innocence. When the hunters approach, the instinct of the animals is always the same: to run away. Beneath their basic need to survive, there is a fear of the unknown, a fear of contact with something that can hunt, kill, and set fires, that drives the animals back. While the film aggressively depicts the cruelty of Man, it also seeks to preserve the innocence of a world beyond his own.
And as long as we approach that world with guns, there can be no reconciliation.
© 2019 Evan Vernon