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Disney Sundays: Bambi (1942)

  
              The term “Disney Magic” carries with it a definition of unique charm, innocence, and raw emotion. It’s something entirely its own, not mere movie magic, and Disney’s ability to create this sensation is remarkable. And nowhere do I get a truer sense of Disney Magic than in Bambi. It’s not a fairy tale film, it’s not particularly funny or its songs instantly memorable, and is in fact sadly forgotten by many, but Bambi to me feels the closest to Disney perfection.
                The story centres on Bambi, a fawn born in some great serene and peaceful forest who grows up experiencing many of the significant milestones in childhood as the seasons change. However he is kept at a distance from his father the Great Prince of the Forest respected for his wisdom and bravery. Throughout he makes friends, experiences puppy love, and learns about the world and his role in it from his watchful and caring mother. Eventually we see him grown up and forced into the responsibility of his father to protect the forest creatures from their greatest enemy: man!
                The environment of this film is really something extraordinary. It’s something out of a pastoral painting, one of those Baroque forests of pleasing nature with a subtle divinity. Which makes sense considering much of the scenery seems to literally BE paintings. This exquisite artistry really fits the idyllic tone and is gorgeous to look at. Some may think this kind of scenery makes the film look fake but to me they just accentuate how much craftsmanship went into it, and though it may not be as diverse as Fantasia or even Snow White, the clarity of this effort and how flawless the result is I think makes it one of the highest standards of the art of animation. That fight between Bambi and Ronno is terrifically choreographed and the stylized use of shadow is really effective, as is Bambi’s fighting off of the dogs. As a staple of the quality of this film’s beauty and refinement, one of my favourite shots in film is in this: after Bambi’s victory over Ronno, he and Faline are perched on the rock overlooking the river against the sunset. It’s an image worthy of any great gallery! And the animals look and move like they should, which really aids in the characterization. Their action and dialogue comes off as real to how animals would behave, more real than any other film I’ve seen. They’re simple, natural, but still emotional and excitable; they’re the animals who exist in any forest, not anthropomorphized, not exaggerated, just rendered honestly. And the creative directors and animators deserve an applause for that.
But Bambi does focus on the cute and the sentimental in a very Disney way, how could it not, being their first film to mostly star small animals. How then is it different from other works of Disney sappiness like Dumbo? Well what makes Bambi stand out is pure atmosphere. The atmosphere pervading the characters and environment is incredibly rich and spellbinding. The musical score is soft and soothing nestling you into this world with “Love is a Song” a very underrated Disney tune in my opinion, and catching you by surprise with “Little April Showers” capturing both the curiosity and trepidation of one’s first thunderstorm. This is the first Disney film not counting Fantasia where the songs are non-diegetic which I think is a strong move because it allows for fewer songs that don’t have to be written to a specific pitch or mood, and therefore can just stand on their own; and it fits much better in with this particular romanticized atmosphere. The sound design is very sharp knowing just when to be raucous and when to be silent. On the meadow the film lets you take in the melancholy openness and fogginess without audial cues. In fact, in many instances the state of the environment influences the tone. When in love and prancing about with Faline, autumn leaves are blown by the wind in the foreground. And in Bambi’s darkest moment full of fright and confusion, the foreground is occupied by falling snow blurring your senses and getting across the feeling of uncertainty you share with Bambi’s emotions. This attention to scene placement and effects to influence tone is really smart for a film that didn’t necessarily need to be. You really feel swept away by this incredible ambience created, and it’s a feeling of simultaneous whimsy and dread. It also allows the story and characters to be incredibly gripping while staying true to the sense of simplistic nature.
And the story is fairly simple in approach. In some ways it’s very episodic like Pinocchio, but it doesn’t have a specific end goal. It seems to be mostly capturing moments in the life of this deer. It’s a coming-of-age story, perhaps the greatest coming-of-age story because it knows exactly what to show. Rather than focus on a specific point in Bambi’s life or an experience, we see a medley of important moments, especially in his childhood during the first half of the film. We see him walk for the first time, speak for the first time. We see him make friends with fellow woodland creatures: Thumper, a mischievous and overly energetic rabbit who acts more like a real life kid than most kids in film until maybe the ‘70s, and Flower a bashful skunk who I swear is the first LGBT character in Disney, based on how every time Bambi talks to him he seems to be responding as if to an awkwardly flirtatious crush (did anyone notice the owl said “even” with regards to Flower when warning them about falling for a ladies’ charm?). We see this trio interact throughout the seasons. We see Bambi in his first moment of puppy love with the delightfully forward Faline. We see Bambi learn more wisdom from his mother than his apparently wise father. In short, we see the important stages in his entire adolescence up to the definitive point of his life.
That definitive point though is what everyone remembers about Bambi. If you haven’t seen the film you shouldn’t be reading this but spoilers, Bambi’s mum dies. She’s shot by a hunter. It takes place off screen, all we hear is the gunshot. The hunters themselves are never seen on screen which is a really smart move not only showing how these animals perceive humans, as mysterious killers, but also allowing the viewer to project anything their feelings and fears conceive onto them. This death was a groundbreaker and it shocked a lot of people. Today it’s still pointed to as one of the quintessential traumatic events in a kids’ movie. The emotional impact of this kind of death is haunting and moving; and is presented in a way that it firmly cements in people’s hearts and minds. The tension building up to, the occurrence and immediate aftermath is brilliantly animated and scored. It’s so important though, because it’s an honest death. It shows kids how sudden death can be which a scary idea, but a necessary one is. Bambi’s mother was a likable character. She was wise and nurturing and her voice (provided by Paula Winslowe) was one of the most soothing I’ve ever heard. She was a model of motherhood and so we instantly invest in her. Because of this, her death packs a wallop that would take some an understandably long time to recover from. But it is important, it goes hand in hand with the morals and message of the film, and is a turning point for Bambi. It doesn’t have a huge impact on the rest of the film, but we still get the sense it transforms him. We don’t see him again until he’s an adult having been raised on his own by his father. He learned about death and how it feels to lose someone which implicitly inspires his determination to rescue Faline and protect the forest later on.
The death of Bambi’s mum is a very important moment in film history for teaching a hard lesson well but it also had relevance to the film’s strongest message. This is Disney’s most thematic movie yet, with lessons on responsibility, courage, and perseverance but at the forefront it appears is a staunch anti-hunting moral. You could argue it’s too biased, but what’s striking to me is that it was the first message like this I can think of in popular film. No one ever felt bad about hunting deer or other animals in movies before, largely because the characters were never deer or other animals before. When Disney came along though and suddenly wildlife could be more heavily featured in cinema through animation, it made sense to show hunting from the victim’s points of view. No one who’s psychologically fit could go on a hunting trip immediately after seeing this film. Could they still shoot a deer if they suddenly are able to see them as Bambi or Bambi’s mum? Or even a partridge? That was another important scene that’s often forgotten in the wake of the more prominent demise. What Bambi did was factor sympathy for animals, something easy to do considering how close to real animals these depictions were. In some cases, it left a lasting impression. Paul McCartney in fact, credits the film as the inspiration for his own animal rights activism and vegetarianism. If made today I could see how some would call it political and anti-hunting, but back then it felt natural; natural to the characters and their situation to see the world and hunters in a cruel way. And to me it’s only the most evident part of a larger theme of environmental awareness. The last act deals in part with a forest fire started by humans and in a beautiful yet tragic display, we see devastation at its purest definition. Human responsibility for these kind of disasters hadn’t been touched on much and I think this film opened people’s eyes to that as aspect of our dangerous nature. After an hour of seeing the glory of the natural world, it encourages thought about the way we cherish the environment. Yeah, to a degree it vilifies humankind, but we need some vilifying every now and then. I see the film as something more important than a discouragement of hunting; I see it as a touching hymn to the importance of nature.
If there’s a problem, it’s that the film isn’t long enough. It’s barely seventy-five minutes and I’d have loved to spend more time in this environment and with these characters. If I were picky, it could have been paced a bit better between Bambi’s childhood and adulthood. It gets sappy and corny at times yes, and is melodramatic, innocent, and naïve, but that’s exactly what I expect from Disney. Any nitpicks are squandered by everything the film does right. The richness and beauty of its animation, atmosphere, themes, and story keeps anything else from lessening the emotional impact. It warms the heart, it moves you, it entertains and it teaches you. And for this, I love it! I love it from the titles and the moment Bambi shies away from an intrusive owl, to that final scene where he’s overlooking the forest and his father walks away as if to abdicate. It’s one of my favourite movies and perhaps my favourite animated movie! Of all the Disney films thus far, Bambi is the least dated. There really isn’t anything in it to suggest a certain time period or a certain set of values, which makes it so much more universal and timeless. And because of that, I hope to see people discussing and admiring this film for generations to come!

Next Week: Saludos Amigos (1942)

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