Good morning, Young Prince!

Bambi (1942)

Anne: Well, James has gone to bed because in England it’s already Thursday, but it’s only 9:45 here, so I thought I would put down some of my thoughts on Bambi before I go to bed myself.

What an incredibly beautiful movie. All that lush forest scenery, the meadow grass that looks like it was done with colored pencils, the April shower scene, the forest fire, the graceful leaping of the stags–everything was truly of a piece. The movements of the animals were both realistic and surprising; rabbits probably don’t ice skate like Thumper does, but it makes perfect sense visually! And that final image of the adult Bambi and his father silhouetted against the autumn sky, with the forest still recovering from the ravages of the fire, was hauntingly grand.

An interesting fact: “Man” from Bambi ranks 20th on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Heroes and Villains. (The Queen from Snow White is #10 and Cruella DeVil is #39.) And with good reason. There was true dread and tension onscreen when the hunters first appeared–as much as they ever did appear. I said back when we reviewed Snow White that the Queen was scary because of her lack of clear definition–and Man is even more frightening because he has no visual presence. We understand the threat and the danger because of the sudden change in movement and attitude of the forest creatures. When Bambi’s mother tells him, simply, “Man is in the forest,” she doesn’t need to elaborate. We know what this will mean for the idyllic existence of Bambi and his friends.

What makes Bambi particularly effective, I think, is that until the appearance–or non-appearance, really–of Man, the animals themselves act a great deal like humans. While they aren’t nearly as anthropomorphic as the characters in The Lion King or The Rescuers, to name a couple of examples, they do talk, experience wonder at the beauty of nature, and forge inter-species friendships. The roles are not so much acted as inhabited–Thumper is easily one of my favorite characters in the Disney canon.

Seriously. Every time I eat kale or spinach, I have to remind myself, “Eating greens is a special treat. They make long ears and great big feet.” I also love that they deliberately hired young children and asked them to read their lines as naturally as possible, which makes the film utterly charming (at least until the characters grow up!).

It is easy to forget that these wonderful characters are not in fact human–that is, until the senseless threat of the film’s actual humans is imminent. While watching Bambi we found ourselves comparing it frequently to The Lion King, but I think the major difference is that the danger in The Lion King–and in most Disney movies–comes from within the characters’ world. An evil stepmother, a royal vizier, a sea witch, all with logical (to them, anyway) motives for wanting to do harm to the main character. But the hunters in Bambi have no knowledge of the rich world they’re destroying, and they have no personal stake in the story, which means that they can strike at random and without mercy. I keep thinking back to the moment near the end, when the hunters return to the forest in force, and the three birds are hiding on the ground; one of them is unable to resist her natural instinct to fly and escape the danger, and she is almost immediately shot out of the sky. Not an important character, but an indelible image and concept.

Wow, that got dark in a hurry. I’ll leave it there and let James continue when he wakes up.

James: Dark is right. For a film that (for the most part) feels like it’s aimed at a much younger audience than its predecessors – the cute animals, the simple emotions, the storybook structure – it’s pretty brutal at times. The bird you mention isn’t just seen flying by, she has a conversation. She’s imbued with a character, a personality… she’s real. And then she gets shot. Ouch. And of course there’s Bambi’s mother… Oh, man. I can’t talk about that yet.

The emotions explored in the movie are very simple – fear, grief, love, etc – and all handled one at a time. Once again the film is very segmented, with each part setting a small goal for teaching the protagonist and audience, and succeeding, before moving on to the next part. The emotions are simple… and yet surprisingly mature. Nothing gets over explained, it’s all shown so well through the animation and the soundtrack. The animals fall in love without ‘love’ ever being mentioned (instead they get twitterpated… and don’t we all?). Bambi forms a bond with the Prince of the Forest without ever calling him ‘dad’. But the script is the most subtle and the most mature when it comes to the villain.

Bambi’s mother enters the meadow nervously. There’s danger. The animals eventually come out, and enjoy the meadow… until something happens. The animals run. Bambi and his mother run. They escape, and when it’s quiet, they emerge.

‘What happened, mother? Why did we all run?’
‘Man was in the forest.’

And it’s as simple as that. That’s all the explanation we get, and it’s all the explanation we need. It’s a haunting line reading by Paula Winslowe, and the silence of the soundtrack is deafening. The fear of this villain drives the two most important (or at least most memorable) parts of the film later on, and this is all the introduction we get to them. We understand the animals’ fear so clearly, and without ever stating that man is a real threat or showing any real damage, even until Bambi’s mother actually… you know. We don’t need any more explanation, we just know. That’s some mature storytelling. 

Okay, it’s possible that the underplaying is to try and let some of the darker stuff go over the kids’ heads. Like not mentioning specifically that Bambi’s mom’s… you know (maybe she just got caught by Man and is living in a nice house with a garden in Detroit? That’s what happened, right, ma?). It’s possible that all of this is subtle specifically so that the kids don’t get it… but I’d hope the parents would help their kids through the emotions. They’re good emotions to experience and understand, and they’re beautifully presented here. Part of the joy of film is wallowing in the emotion it takes you to, and I’d hope that the parents would let their kids wallow here, even if it’s more intense emotionally than most Disney to this point. I choose to see this as subtlety for intensity rather than subtlety for concealment.

Anne: I hate to break it to you, but Bambi’s mother is…well, you know. (Is this joke getting old yet?)

But really, I have thoughts about how they handled the death of Bambi’s mother. Compare it to, say, the death of Mufasa in The Lion King.

Sad, yes. Heartbreaking. BUT also not remotely how animals react in that situation. I mean, okay, there are plenty of things that are not realistic about how the animals behave in Bambi. They are pretty solidly anthropomorphized. (During the twitterpated scene: “Why are the skunks kissing on the lips?”) I think it was very bold of the filmmakers to not even show Bambi’s mother’s death, and not to pursue it afterwards. Obviously all animals are different (I just found this article from the New York Times about how some animals deal with death and grief), and I don’t know much about how deer would actually react. But the cycle of life has to continue, and while maybe it seems a little harsh to jump straight from Bambi’s father saying, “Your mother will not be with you anymore” to the next spring when all of the young adult animals are mating, I appreciate the thought behind it.

I remarked during the movie at that point, when you said you thought that transition seemed a little abrupt, that I liked the idea of Bambi having to grow up very quickly when his mother dies. I think it mirrors the experience of a lot of people, which is consistent with the tone of the rest of the movie.

Also, you said that the word “love” is never mentioned, but what about the opening song?

James: Ah yes, the opening song. A lovely, awe-inspiring, entirely irrelevant song. I like it, but it has precisely zero connection to the rest of the movie.

I did find that transition abrupt, and while I understand the reasons (characterwise showing him moving on and demographicwise not overegging the grief for the kids), I would have liked to see at least a scene or two covering that. If only Disney made a followup film set in this gap detailing Bambi’s new relationship to the Prince of the Forest, maybe getting the voice of that fish Nemo to be Bambi, and indulging in a great Shakespearean actor like, say, Patrick Stewart to voice the Prince of the Forest. But I suppose that would be silly.

Ahem.

Narratively (again) this film is just a series of shorter stories, even more neatly divided up into the seasons of the year. The emotions are simple, each one explored and developed and, often, resolved within a few minutes. However, there is a much clearer throughline for this film than for any so far. Although nothing at the start really gets followed through to the end, and a lot of sequences take place despite the previous moments as opposed to because of them, much of the film does follow on from earlier. Groundwork is laid for ‘Man’ quite early on, and every subsequent appearance is aided by the first (simple) detailing of the villain. The ‘love’ sequence doesn’t require the earlier scene with Faline, but it’s certainly stronger because of it, adding a sense of momentum which, however slight, feels earned. Bambi escaping Man at the end with the Prince of the Forest is essentially a victory against the villain, made stronger by his earlier defeats; ‘You will not take me now’. I’m looking forward to a stronger throughline in these films, but this is a very strong step forward.

The characters are all strong, with Bambi learning in much the same way Pinocchio did (and rising to the challenge at the climax in much the same way) but with a stronger starting personality. His shy, flummoxed nature when being danced around by Faline is very real and very, very funny. Faline is a strong character, if a little unmotivated at times. In fact, she might be one of the earliest recorded examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Manic Pixie Dream Doe?). Bambi’s mother is kind, loving, understanding and wise; she dies not because of an error but because she was so busy making  sure her son was okay. Thumper is, of course, a delight, both as a nonplussed kid and as a nonplussed adult (with whiskers and everything! He’d probably look silly with antlers.), and all of the other named characters get some fun moments. As stated earlier, even the pigeons get enough personality to be shocked by the death of one of them. The makers knew where our attention and affection needed to be for every scene, and made sure we were right there with it.

Anne: HA! Manic Pixie Dream Doe. I like it.

You didn’t mention Flower, and I love Flower, so a shout-out for Flower.

Gaaaaaarsh.

We were chuckling about Flower during the movie, because there really isn’t anything about the design of him to indicate that he’s male. But that’s something I love about Bambi–they didn’t sacrifice the beauty of so many of these animals to make them more like human males and females. The deer are all so graceful, even the male deer; it’s really only the antlers that make it clear which deer are male and which are female.

I really don’t have a lot more to say about this movie. I did think that the soundtrack was exceptional: so descriptive and full of the emotions of the characters. There are only a few songs in Bambi–“Little April Shower,” “Love is a Song” (over the opening credits), the spring song, and the one when Faline and Bambi are frolicking around the meadow falling in love–and to be honest they’re pretty superfluous. But at least the characters aren’t singing, because that would be strange, I think.

9/10 for Bambi. Gorgeous, moving, scary–every single frame is memorable.

James: Bambi is a very positive step on Disney’s path. We’ve got a few compilation films coming up, and so when the next full length feature shows up eight years later (Cinderella) it’ll be interesting to see how the protagonist’s arc shapes up, but Bambi’s is a reasonably strong one, with all the moments building the character Bambi becomes at the end. I’d like to see more complex emotions, and more time exploring them, but taking into account that this is going for a younger audience, it’s all handled superbly. Oh, and the animation is truly beautiful. 8.5/10.

Next up, Saludos Amigos! I know, I haven’t heard of it either.

Anne: I HAVE heard of it! There’s a famous song in Saludos Amigos…possibly entitled “Saludos Amigos.” Oh, fine, I don’t know anything about it.

ADDENDUM: If you liked Bambi, watch this. If you hated Bambi, watch this. If you know anyone who loved or hated Bambi, watch this, and pity parents in the cinema in 1942 having the same experience.

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4 thoughts on “Good morning, Young Prince!

  1. I am sorry, I saw the movie Bambi in 1949 with my brothers and my Mother, when it got to the scene of Bambi’s mother (well you know) I screamed blue murder and had to be taken out of the picture house,on showing my own children some 27 years later, I got to the same part, and had to leave, and now I have just tried to watch it on you tube and got to the same part and had to turn it off. I am 70 years old, and I dont think I will ever be able to watch Bambi’s Mother (you know) to painful by far.
    It has, as you can tell left me with an ever lasting memory of this movie up to Bambi’s mother (you know)

  2. I love Bambi. The last of Disney’s true masterpieces until the 1990s, in my opinion. Although there are a few very good Disney movies in between 1942 and 1991. 🙂

  3. Pingback: The world is ‘Twitter’pated with technology | Earthpages.org

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