Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bambi

Original theatrical release poster

Whatever else one might say about Walt Disney, nobody could accuse him of making the same movie twice during his first half-decade or so of feature production. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo are all very different films in style, in tone, in story and in characters. Disney had pushed the envelope of animation farther than anyone before him and he still wasn’t done. With Bambi, he wanted to hit a new level of realism in animation. It would be his last truly great film of the 1940s and arguably one of his last bold experiments with animation.

Bambi was based on a novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten (we’ll see his name in this column again, as Disney would go on to produce two more movies based on his work). Significantly, Bambi was not considered a children’s book. It had been a major international bestseller and was even banned as a subversive political allegory by the Nazis. Any movie version of Bambi would have been seen as an A-list prestige picture.

Originally, that movie was to have been made by Sidney Franklin, a producer and director at MGM who apparently had a thing for deer. In 1946, he’d produce the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling starring Gregory Peck. But in 1937, Franklin decided that making a live-action version of Bambi would be next to impossible. So he sold the rights to Walt Disney, who planned on making it his follow-up to Snow White. This turned out to be a seriously optimistic goal, as both the story and the animation took a long time to get right.

Today, the story beats of Disney’s Bambi are so familiar that they seem inevitable. But Disney and the story team led by Perce Pearce and Larry Morey would make some big changes to Salten’s book before it made it to the screen. Disney’s movie certainly has some intense moments but the book is an even darker affair.

In the book, Faline has a brother, Gobo, who goes missing following the hunt that (spoiler alert, I guess, although I can’t imagine why you’re reading this if you’ve never seen Bambi) kills Bambi’s mom. Later on, Gobo returns. Turns out that a man found Gobo, took him home and nursed him back to health. Strong and overconfident in his belief that he knows more about the ways of man than the other deer, Gobo is eventually shot and killed in a particularly horrifying scene that would have scarred young psyches waaaaaaay worse than Bambi’s mom’s off-screen demise.

The death of Bambi’s mother is a stunning sequence and a testament to the genius of Walt Disney. For generations of kids, this scene was probably their first experience with death. Did Walt realize that would be the case when he was making the film? It honestly feels as if he might have. Everything about the sequence, the pacing, the colors, the music and sound design and the sudden absence of sound when the Great Prince appears, has been carefully thought out and perfectly executed. The impact of that loss has real weight. It hits audiences harder than most fictional deaths.

A newer generation may have had a similar experience with The Lion King, a movie this column will get to eventually (a couple times, as a matter of fact). The Lion King owes more than a little bit to Bambi but I’d argue that the movies treat their respective parental deaths very differently. Mufasa is killed by an act of treachery. It’s a plot point in a story arc that most of us will never live through. Bambi’s mom is killed by a hunter with a gun. It’s a threat that these animals have to deal with every day of their lives. It could happen at any time. Mufasa reappears in cloud form to give Simba some fatherly advice. When Bambi’s mother is gone, she’s just gone. It’s no wonder Bambi continues to leave an indelible impression on young audiences.

While Disney may have been striving for realism with Bambi, it’s a mistake to describe this as realistic animation. The animals may not be as heavily anthropomorphized as they are in other cartoons insofar as they’re not wearing people clothes. But you’re still not going to find a rabbit who looks and acts like Thumper or a skunk who behaves like Flower in nature. Nature itself doesn’t look the way it looks in Bambi. The backgrounds by Tyrus Wong are stunningly gorgeous and thoroughly impressionistic.

Somehow, all of these non-realistic elements blend together perfectly to create a world that feels very real. There are shots of deer leaping through the forest and Bambi’s mother entering the meadow that look absolutely lifelike. That doesn’t mean they look like a photograph. That’s something Disney seems to have forgotten in their wave of CGI remakes like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. It simply means they have the illusion of life.

Bambi re-release poster

By this point, Disney movies were routinely nominated for Academy Awards. They had been particularly dominant in the music categories, a trend that continues to the present day. Bambi was no exception, earning nominations for the score by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb and for the song “Love Is A Song”. The music in Bambi is particularly interesting. On the one hand, it probably has more music than any other Disney film. The movie is practically wall-to-wall music and the two moments that have no music at all are very noticeable.

But Bambi isn’t really a musical, at least not in the sense that Disney’s previous films had been. There are only three or four songs in the entire movie and none of them are sung by characters. “Love Is A Song”, the sublime “Little April Shower”, and the rest are all non-diegetic songs that comment on the movie rather than help move the story along. Dumbo had done a little of that with sequences like the Stork song but it still left room for more traditional musical numbers. Back then, the Oscars split the Original Score categories into musical and non-musical divisions. The year before, Dumbo had won the award for Scoring of a Musical Picture. Bambi was treated like a drama and nominated in the category’s non-musical equivalent.

(“Love Is A Song” didn’t win, by the way, but I doubt anyone expected it to. It was up against a little number by Irving Berlin called “White Christmas” from the movie Holiday Inn. It’s pretty hard to argue that the Academy made the wrong call in this case.)

Walt may have been more excited by Bambi‘s third Oscar nomination: Best Sound Recording. That may not sound worth getting fired up over but it was the first time that an animated film had been nominated in the category. Although Bambi didn’t win (it lost to Yankee Doodle Dandy), it was further validation that the Hollywood establishment was taking the art of animation seriously.

Bambi was released in August of 1942, already a much different world than the one that had greeted Dumbo less than a year earlier. America had officially entered World War II, so it probably wasn’t the best time for Walt to turn his back on fantasy and embrace realism. Like many of his other films of the period, Bambi would take years to turn a profit.

But the legacy of Bambi is undeniable. Walt Disney proved that animation was capable of tackling mature, serious themes just as well as it could handle fantastic and comedic stories. It places the audience deep into the heart of the forest, making us truly empathize with these animals more deeply and fully than any live-action film ever could. I imagine Bambi has provoked more deep, meaningful conversations between parents and their kids about life, death, the environment, even vegetarianism, than most other movies, animated or live-action.

In some ways, Bambi represents the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s animated art. Thanks to World War II and the financial disappointments of his recent films, Walt would now be forced to cut back. It would be years before he could make another animated feature as ambitious as his first five had been. But even if the studio had gone bankrupt and Walt had never made another feature film, he’d be remembered today for these early classics. Bambi remains a high-water mark in animation, the culmination of a remarkable run of unbridled creativity.

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