"The worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen," said Raymond Brown, editor of Outdoor Life, in 1942, and that sounds like accurate enough praise to me, though it doesn't even sum up half of everything that's masterful about the final effort of Walt Disney's Golden Age.
Directed by David Hand
Spoiler alert: she dies
Bambi speaks for itself, in a way. It is without a doubt the most straightforward and elemental of all of Disney's feature-length cartoons, even Fantasia, which is literally a collection of elemental myths, because "myth" still implies that it has been subject to some conscious being's imaginative process. That's an inevitability of any work of art, obviously; yet in Bambi it's a quality that's decisively subdued. It just kind of is, and if its story had somehow taken on some different form (say, the coming-of-age of a human child) you could fairly accuse it of being boring and pointless and about nothing. But Bambi, of course, is not about a human child. It's about a white-tailed deer living in the forests of North America, and notwithstanding a few serious detours into nonsense, it tends to remember that it's about a white-tailed deer living in the forests of North America.
That's its genius, intermittent as it might be. It's one of reasons why it's great, and it's the single biggest reason it comes off as so perpetually-surprising: for, in this, Bambi is perhaps totally unique. There are thousands of talking animal cartoons, maybe tens of thousands; Bambi is the very best of them, and it doesn't even properly belong to the genre. Every other talking animal cartoon is, at bottom, about people, even the ones that touch the heart of darkness found inside the natural world: Watership Down is willing to conceive of its rabbits as rabbits in a lot of ways, but rabbits don't have religion, or psychic visions, or an awareness of their own mortality. And that's one of the best of its breed. In talking animal cartoons, the animals who talk in them are just people, wearing more-or-less convincing animal costumes, playing more-or-less convincing animal roles. Bambi is not an animated nature documentary, and the fact that its animals talk at all already throws that prospect out the window (though there are, it's said, fewer than a thousand words spoken in its entire 70 minutes, so it surely does not rely upon its dialogue). But, at its best, it's a poetic, unbearably beautiful, unbearably heartbreaking story of one deer, living in a forest, representing nothing more nor less than what he is.
This is the case, as well, in its source material, Bambi: A Life In the Woods (though A Life In the Woods was set in Europe), the 1923 novel by the Austrian, Siegmund Salzmann, who went under the name Felix Salten, and who was Jewish, this being the handiest explanation for how a novel about a deer came to be banned by Nazis, though its empathy for all life—and its disdain for violence, even amongst animals—does, indeed, make it as devoid of fascist ideology as any work could be. I am willing to claim, despite having no business doing so (ask me sometime if I've ever read anything by Victor Hugo), that it must be the finest literary source material Disney ever took on. There must be, anyway, something special about a book that can make you (well, me) cry for ten straight minutes over the fate of two lightly-anthropomorphized leaves who try to comfort each other as they wither and fall in the face of autumn. It's a simply amazing novel.
So the worst thing about Bambi, the Disney film—at least as an adaptation—is that it only alludes to this terrifying existential vignette with a visual reference, rather than giving it a full sequence, though I can grudgingly concede that such a thing might've been harder to pull off on the screen than on the page. But in the process of streamlining the novel, Bambi might have wound up being even more "about animals" than A Life In the Woods already was. The film, admittedly, arrives there by way of much more concentrated bullshit: just to name one questionable choice in particular, Bambi appears to have no idea when the mating season for white-tailed deer actually occurs, placing it in the springtime alongside the rabbits and skunks with whom deer, apparently, have great fun hanging out. But Bambi also dispenses with the theological gropings of the novel—its more pointed allegorical content—and while Bambi, since its only paying audience is human beings, is invariably going to be read as an "allegory" (for does Bambi not grow up, experience loss, fall in love, and have to fight for his place in the world?), this is mainly anthropic bias talking. Bambi is a deer. Only Man is man. I don't even think this was quite intentional, considering it was made by humans; but that's exactly how Bambi works.
It took those humans a while, too: Bambi began its cinematic existence as an overoptimistic live-action project over at MGM, but producer Sidney Franklin eventually accepted that his dream of doing A Life In the Woods was never going to be realized. Accordingly, in 1937 Franklin sold the rights to someone who could realize it, albeit in another medium entirely. Walt saw it as the natural follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But then, to Walt, a lot of things looked like the natural follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Bambi sat there for two years, collecting a stack of story notes and character designs a mile high, only being put into production in late 1939. Even this was no full-scale commitment, since it was competing with Pinocchio and Fantasia for resources, and, as the financial catastrophe of both films became apparent in 1940 and 1941, Bambi was deprioritized again, in favor of the much-cheaper Dumbo, which Disney Studios absolutely needed to be a hit in order to remain in business at all; it's plausible Bambi was only completed because of the costs already sunk into it. What all this meant in practice is that Bambi became the responsibility of the younger artists (Dumbo soaking up the efforts of the likes of Art Babbitt, Bill Tytla, Les Clark, and Norm Ferguson), and, as a result, it became the ultimate proving ground for those of the Nine Old Men with shorter tenures, notably Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson, and Marc Davis—though Ward Kimball and Milt Kahl made their own contributions, too, as the studio focused more upon the film in the year prior to its release. (You'd think something this good must've involved Wolfgang Reitherman somewhere, but Reitherman had joined the USAAF in early 1942.) Bambi also featured Disney's first and, at the time, only female animator, Retta Scott, whose Disney career came to a close much too soon, thanks to her unfortunate marriage to a Navy man who whisked her away to another coast entirely.
She was a pioneer and all, but I don't mention her just for the feminism points.
All along, even if Bambi had been given a stronger, earlier push, with all the personnel it would eventually require, it was never going to be done fast, even as fast as Snow White or Pinocchio (which were hardly quick or easy affairs themselves): Walt's attraction to adapting A Life In the Woods was that it was something that only animation could do, and he aimed to do it right. The mechanically-inaccurate wildlife of Snow White was not sufficient. Seeking realism, Walt established classes to train his animators in animal anatomy, and he shipped in a number of actual living animals (including two deer, a buck and a doe named, of course, Bambi and Faline), housing them on-site for his animators' reference.
Ultimately Bambi's design fell to Davis, and while he introduced a great deal of deliberate anthropomorphism to Bambi—straight-up reproduction lacking a personality, or, as Thomas and Johnston might put it, "appeal"—the bodies of Bambi and his forest friends were built from the skeletons up to be as realistic as possible, and this pays off mightily in the elegance of their movements. Bambi cheats less than any talking animal cartoon except maybe Watership Down—in fact, the only major offenders here are the rabbits, sometimes given hand gestures owing to their ability to sit upright, and even these are momentary aberrations—and Bambi also cheats less as it goes along, the young adult versions of its characters shedding much of the semi-caricatured cutesiness of their neotenous forms.
Bambi and the Great Prince are masterpieces, of course, but also extreme examples of craft: the movement of antlers across different angles proved such a pain that they resorted to rotoscoping sculptures, and yet you could never tell. The detail is astounding.
"Cutesy realism" might have been Bambi's fate, nevertheless; and a lot of it is that. I have not encapsulated Bambi's plot, in part because it is rather well-known, but also because it barely has one. It's worthwhile, however, to at least mention how it's structured, as a string of occurrences in the life of a young deer, connected only in that each represents a milestone for him: his birth; his first awareness of other beings in the world besides himself; his first storm; his first meeting with deer besides his mother, out on the meadow; his first winter, and, therefore, his first experiences of hunger and cold and deprivation; his mother's death, on the same meadow that had once given him joy and companionship and wonder; his survival of winter, and his first (well, probably second) new spring; his first experience of sex, and what that means for a creature such as he; and, because this is a movie that needs some manner of climax, his first experience of a raging forest fire. And so you can see that the cooler stuff is backloaded, and that "baby animals, having a time" occupies a slightly disproportionate number of Bambi's minutes.
And not all of it is unalloyed gold: Bambi's escapade on the frozen stream, egged on by his rabbit friend Thumper, is a marvelous and lovely piece of animation (the result of live-action reference of human skaters), and, for all that, it could honestly be cut out of the movie entirely and not affect it too much either way. Nothing about Bambi's interactions with Thumper and the baby skunk, Flower, are bad—both of them are frankly adorable, maybe Thumper especially, at least so long as he's voiced by Peter Behn, who was famously not a child actor, just a child whose inability to timely remember his lines was precious enough to incorporate into the animation—but I do sometimes wonder if they were necessary. (Bambi talks to other species in the book, but none of them are really "friends.") Still, they never grate, and given that Thumper is the protoypical Annoying Disney Sidekick, this is something to be thankful for. The trick in Bambi, and what makes Bambi's interspecies acquaintances palatable, is twofold, I think. Firstly, every character in the film except for Man is an herbivore (or, in the case of Flower and Friend Owl, meat-eaters who probably aren't quite capable of swallowing even the smallest version of Thumper); Disney would occasionally try to recapture something of Bambi's majesty throughout its history, especially with The Lion King, and the perversity of the predator-prey relationships in that film is one major reason why it was never going to work at the same level. Secondly, Thumper and Flower are useless: they disappear two-thirds of the way through the movie, and that's pretty much that. This seems like a negative, but what it means is that we never suffer through any heartwarming moment where, say, a grown buck is rescued by a rabbit who, odds are, would have already died ages ago.
(Though when watching Bambi I do have a tendency to think in my head, when adult Thumper arrives, "Hi Bambi! You knew my grandpa!", to which Bambi replies, "What the hell does that make us?")
Despite Walt's instinct to bowdlerize the novel—there are, for example, no parts in the movie where deer entrails are smeared across the meadow, nor is Thumper menaced by blamelessly-bloodthirsty ferrets—he was persuaded not to abandon its soul, and perhaps Bambi works all the better because its first phase is so idyllic. The artist with the single biggest influence on the whole production might have been Tyrus Wong, whose concept paintings, combining Hudson River School-style romantic landscapes with the more graphic style of Chinese nature art, served as the model upon which the background painters worked. And Bambi has the most beautiful and varied backgrounds (and, for that matter, foregrounds) of any Golden Age production save Fantasia—oddly, perhaps, given that the story never leaves the woods at all, except to go to a meadow right outside it. Happily, Wong's great contribution led to the backgrounds favoring mood and emotion over strict realism, and while Bambi begins with my favorite multiplane shot in Disney outside of "Ave Maria"—a dauntingly-realistic, almost photorealistic immersion into what we are clearly meant to perceive as the deep, deep woods—the film's aesthetic is a flexible one, to the point that, during Man's first intrusion into the forest, the detail of the meadow is drained into nothing but swathes of color (and the characters into outlines), emphasizing the formless panic and confusion that reigns at Man's approach. Later, the winter backdrops almost feel unfinished—just white hills and stark, barren trees—a reminder of emptiness and the threat of starvation.
And then there's the forest fire, an orange hellscape that threatens death from every corner of the frame, while also offering some of Disney's best, least-showy water animation, as the stream reflects the inferno in rippling waves. But nothing in the whole film beats "Little April Shower," almost a musical number (all of Bambi's four songs are non-diegetic) choreographed to Bambi's first storm and, hence, his first experience of fear. It is the effects animation showcase of the film, akin to a statement, "Perhaps you did not see what we can do with rain and lightning and rhythm and frightened animals in 'The Old Mill,' but that's all right, because this is even better." It is well that Bambi's first phase has a standout sequence of its own, and Frank Churchill's songs and bombastic, omnipresent score are as vital to Bambi's success as anything else in the whole picture: as the accompaniment to an often-wordless film, Churchill is routinely the driver of narrative and emotion, the necessary bridge between Bambi's human audience and its primordial milieu. But with such highlights, littler touches can go unnoticed, like the way that the modal image of Bambi is so cleanly-composed and precisely-detailed (rather than over-detailed), serving the characters without giving up the impression of dense foliage, and subtle lighting effects follow the animals as they move, the dappled rays of sunlight filtered through a canopy of leaves.
Perhaps some of the most vibrant backgrounds go unnoticed, too, because the character animation has taken on its own form of Expressionism to get across its feeling of adrenaline and chaos. In Bambi's first fight with another buck for Faline, the backgrounds alternate with garish color as the characters take on an utterly anti-realistic chiaroscuro that reduces the combatants to almost nothing but charged outlines of violent light. And this is very dramatic and scarily beautiful, but it does something else, too: as it cannot be expected that the audience can tell which buck silhouette is which, the impression it leaves is that it doesn't really matter which one is which, for, from a human perspective, it makes no difference who wins.
It's notable, too, that Bambi probably killed the other deer, even if it'll take him a few hours to internally bleed to death. It is how it is.
This same depiction of nature as nature is found in Bambi's sire, who is as indifferent a father as any cartoon could possibly be expected to get away with (in this respect, the book and the film are rather distinct; Bambi hangs out with his dad almost as much in A Life In the Woods as he does in Disney's six-decade-later DTV cash-in "midquel," Bambi 2, though, tellingly, not as a fawn). Bambi is credited with inspiring millions toward environmentalism, and, as one of the founding texts of American childhood, I doubt its influence is much oversold. Amongst Bambi's various pieces of sheer terror is Man's return to the forest, heralded by his pack of hunting dogs; this was Retta Scott's sequence, and, much as I adore the stylistic boldness of Bambi's duel with his rival, the battle with the dogs is every bit as desperate and merciless. Between these two sequences and the forest fire still to come, Bambi impresses as one of the Disney canon's best action films, even though that's not even the point of it.
It's unclear when or how the word "Bambi" ever became synonymous with softness, sentimentality, and femininity. It certainly seems incredibly stupid if you've seen the whole film.
The thoroughgoing respect for animals and their violent hardships is perhaps why I find the "Twitterpated" sequence to be its one flirtation with being terrible: it's odd, how Bambi drops so far, mere moments after its most invisibly strong gesture (the cut from Bambi realizing he's lost his mother forever, to Bambi as a happy antlered buck two years later, probably because Walt didn't want to dwell on darkness, but, accidentally or not, reminding us that deer do not grieve as humans). But "Twitterpated" is where Bambi, which had previously given us "animated nature, sometimes with cartoonish grace notes that are inoffensive or even enjoyable" descends directly and immediately into the most barbaric kind of talking animal cartoon I was talking about earlier. It is, in itself, not an unpleasant cartoon. The frankness about sex even remains somewhat interesting in a Disney context. But as Bambi, Thumper, and Flower meet their destined mates, everything about it jars: Friend Owl's idiotic warnings and his absurd "walking on air" routine; the Warner Bros. cartoon that Flower becomes when his entire body becomes a boner; the way that the animals in Bambi have been drawn with careful reference to a realistic, subdued sexual dimorphism, then the way Thumper's mate is drawn like an anthropomorphized rabbit slut. It gets back on track the instant that Bambi re-encounters Faline, but it is a difficult four minutes to handwave away when discussing Bambi as a masterpiece without any really major flaws.
I'm handwaving it anyway, of course, because the rest works so well. This is where I admit that, as an adult, I am not overly moved by the death of Bambi's mother. Bambi still brings me to tears, but only at the end, when the cycle is completed, and Bambi stands upon a rock impassively watching the birth of his fawns. I do not care about Bambi, or Bambi's mother, but I do care about life, and here I am struck with an overwhelming sense of life's grandeur and resilience. A sense of eternity, perhaps, or at least a struggle for eternity; and that would not have been possible without the death and darkness that abide throughout. One may also realize that, like the deer, we humans never have to kill anything, though, unfortunately, we often do.
Bambi was a modest failure in its day, and it was one of the last times that Walt's ambitions as an artist would overwhelm his sense as a businessman. As Disney retrenched during the war years—into little more than a propaganda arm for the U.S. government—it would be a long time before the studio began to even approach Bambi's magnificence again. There's a reason why it's called the Golden Age. There's a reason why Bambi closes that chapter. I do not hold that it was a time of unparalleled success: Snow White is great, but only in its way; Pinocchio is an animation powerhouse that always disappoints me; Dumbo is excellent, but was also cheap and for children, a harbinger of worse things to come; and I feel there's no use pretending that Disney doesn't hit higher highs in the modern era, through sheer quantity if nothing else. And yet you feel sad anyway, because something was lost here. Perhaps because Fantasia and Bambi represented real art for everyone, maybe for adults most of all. And while, whatever you think of its sequel, there would eventually be another Fantasia, there would never be another Bambi, and I doubt there ever will.