Bambi (1942). 70 minutes. Directed by David Hand. Produced by Walt Disney.
Screenwriter William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) that Walt Disney’s animated cartoon Bambi (and specifically, the death of Bambi’s mother at the hands of hunters) is the 1940s equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock’s later Psycho (1963). It is a provocative claim, yet given the oblique depiction of the mother deer’s death and the generally soft qualities of the film—including how much time Bambi spends foregrounding cute fluffy animals—and also given how comparatively bloody and brutal Psycho’s slasher scenes are, Bambi to me seems a world away from Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Indeed, the public’s focus on the mother deer’s death has enshrined what is essentially one of the film’s weakest moments as a cultural touchstone. Additionally, even though Bambi’s animal characters are rendered with skill that draws on the techniques mastered in earlier Disney projects, the film seems to have forgotten a great deal of what made earlier Disney animation thrilling, including the fantastic and playful qualities of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the early Mickey Mouse shorts. In the end, Bambi’s skillful animation cannot save the film from mundane characterizations, a mediocre drama, and an overall syrupiness that together make it one of the least impressive of the early Disney feature-length films.
The story is simple and somewhat aimless, set in a forest over numerous seasons. When the movie opens, a deer has given birth to a baby, whom she names Bambi. Bambi and his mother struggle to survive during a difficult winter, and one day as the two forage for grass on a meadow, the mother is shot and killed. Bambi is raised by his father, a stag who is also king of the forest. As Bambi matures, he falls in love with another deer named Faline, and when a fire threatens to destroy all of the forest, Bambi must rescue her from the flames. At the film’s conclusion, the forest has recovered from the wildfire, Faline has given birth to Bambi’s children, and Bambi and his father are shown overseeing the forest from the top of a cliff.
Bambi holds a strange, hard-to-describe position in the Disney animated cannon. It is familiar to people who are not well-versed in Disney animation (and even to people who have never seen the movie), yet its fame is more properly termed notoriety. Bambi is notorious for the death of the central character’s mother, which is sandwiched in between scenes of forest animals frolicking, foraging, and generally making merry. But while we see plenty of cuteness, we never see a hint or trace of the mother deer’s death on the meadow—we only hear the fatal gunfire as we watch young Bambi run off to safety. The movie does a great deal to relegate the mother’s death to a kind of impressionistic bubble, caused by a mysterious force for a mysterious, unnamed purpose. Because we do not visually register the death on screen in even a slight way and must put together for ourselves what has happened, it is difficult to connect with the event in an immediate and direct emotional fashion.
Consider a stronger alternative that was supplied by the Disney studio at one point: following images of Bambi and his mother fleeing with other animals from the meadow, the mother’s death was originally animated in a brief moment that showed her falling at the sound of the gunshot. The image was removed from the final cut as Disney determined it was too upsetting—yet the movie would have been stronger if it had included it. I do not normally insist on graphic storytelling where it is not useful, but in this case, the fact that the animators were on the verge of showing this moment speaks to their good intuition. That image would have brought the hard reality of her death into the visual record of the picture and the brutality of forest life directly into the forefront.
An example of how effective this alternative approach could be occurs later in Bambi, when the springtime hunt begins (after the mother deer’s death). A bird that looks like a pheasant is hiding from the hunters with other birds, and it becomes clear that she cannot bear the tension—she knows that Man is coming, and she cannot stand to stay put. In a panic, she flies out of her hiding place and is gunned down; we see her body fall to the ground. That image is immensely helpful, and both the horror she experiences while alive and the horror of her death are easier to grasp as a result. The idea that animals experience stress and anxiety when they know that humans are active in their vicinity is distressing but easily perceptible, and the bird’s vignette makes a larger point about the sensitivity and suffering—both mental and physical—of hunted animals and the sad, pathetic circumstances of their deaths. We only see the bird for a few short moments, but her story feels full and complete.
Bambi’s mother does not have a death like that, and she does not have a story like that. Instead, she dies off camera and simply vanishes from the film. When Bambi’s father encounters him afterwards, he tells him “Your mother can’t be with you anymore,” using language that does not point to death so much as a vague inability to be around her son. What must little Bambi think—has she run off, abandoning him? Or has the wise stag who rules over all of the forest ordered her somewhere else? Bambi drops a tear when his father says this, but what the young deer understands is unclear.
Perhaps the filmmakers think that they are sparing us, but they are actually doing us a disservice, much like preventing a small child from attending a funeral out of concern that it will be too upsetting. From the moment Bambi walks on with the stag, the mother’s death is never addressed again—it is as if she just moved away or, even worse, never existed. We cut immediately to a springtime scene, where brightly colored birds sit chirping in pairs on tree branches, falling in love while upbeat music plays. Without more attention paid to the mother’s death, the film can only momentarily and partially assert the horror of it, and her greatly lamented killing is, to my mind, limited to vague suggestion.
If viewers do connect with the mother character, I would argue that one of the reasons for this is not so much that her death is portrayed in a particularly powerful way but rather that the animals in Bambi, including Bambi’s mother, behave so much like humans. In particular, the mother combines the traits of a human parent with the sweet loveliness of a woodland creature, and together those qualities may prove difficult for some to resist in an animated character. And yet the animals’ anthropomorphism (including their similarity to the unidentified men who hunt them) is also one of the movie’s greatest problems. Manny Farber, film critic for The New Republic, wrote in his negative 1942 review of the film, “Saccharine Symphony—Bambi“:
The animals here behave just as Hollywood thinks we do, and behaving that way it’s [sic] old stuff and boring because of it. Everything is straight-faced, with feet flat on the ground. The animals give birth, grow up, fall in love, get shot at, and killed. Besides, it is moral, starched, heavy.
In particular, part of what makes Bambi unbearable at times is the way that three of its characters—Bambi, the rabbit Thumper, and the skunk Flower—pursue romance. When Bambi and Faline are introduced as children, he hates her of course—much like the characters in a Fred Astaire movie inevitably do at the start of their narratives. But then in an instant they are grown-ups, and there is a long scene where Bambi and Faline bound through the meadow together, on what can only be described as a kind of deer date, accompanied by swirling fireflies and a choral love song on the soundtrack as they collide and nuzzle. It is schmaltzy in the extreme. Moreover, during the fire sequence, Bambi rescues Faline like a buff leading man, fighting off a horde of hunting dogs with snapping teeth, jumping through fire, and leaping off a waterfall cliff. The whole affair suggests a surprising lack of imagination on the part of the Disney studio.
In this regard, it is difficult not to compare Bambi to earlier Disney fare such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While the latter movie opts for unnecessary cuteness on the part of the dwarfs, it still values the fantastic. In particular, Snow White’s stepmother the queen is a strange, colorful witch who conjures spirits and whips up magic potions. Her evil is mysterious and tantalizing, pleasurable in its extravagance while objectively frightening. Even the virtuous Snow White can be appealing (in spite of her never-failing cheerfulness) and otherworldly in her harmonious, nearly magical relationship with animals. Her adventures in the primeval forest seem like an escape from real life. Bambi’s characters in contrast are less of a test of our imaginations—blander, more conventional—and in the forest they inhabit, we watch everyday life play out rather than a special world apart from it.
Bambi opts for cuteness over fantasy, ushering in the Disney movies of subsequent decades: we see the prevalence of glurge in the bashful Flower, first glimpsed in a field of daisies; Thumper, who must explain his chief affectation (thumping his foot loudly on the ground) to us and is frequently scolded in his youth by his mother; the chipmunk, squirrel, owl, and gopher that feel like trial runs for Chip and Dale and later Winnie the Pooh characters—all of these animals appear in sequences that feel precious, unnecessary, and very, very soft. The level of cuteness fails to meld with Bambi’s serious content but is not enough to redeem the film’s heavier parts, and the more adult themes of sex and death feel like incomplete drafts of something larger and greater when grafted over vignettes of fluffy forest babies.
What we get in Bambi are child-friendly cartoon moments rather than the imaginative sequences that in former days had the potential to amuse a general audience filled with adults. Ultimately, the death of the mother figure in Bambi points to the death of something much greater than a single animal character: it is the death of the boundless creativity of the early animation world and its commitment to amuse and delight people of all ages with ingenuity, humor, and a passionate sense of exploration.
That being said, I must admit that from a technical perspective, Bambi does draw on techniques that were established in the many innovative animated films that Disney’s studio produced starting in the late 1920s. Shorts such as Steamboat Willie (1928) and Flowers and Trees (1932) made enormous strides in cartoon sound and color technology (respectively), Snow White was the first feature-length cel-animated film, Fantasia (1940) used animation in sensitive studies of classical music—and Bambi, while not as notably groundbreaking as those films, nevertheless makes its own contributions to the art form, some of which are actually quite beautiful.
We can see the further advancement of Disney animation off and on throughout the film. Take the opening shot of the tree-laden forest, for example. The depth of the image as the camera scrolls by it is impressive, and the scene pulses with life and fecundity. It takes a moment for us to realize that we are only seeing trees and plants–there is not anything stirring in them at all—until we reach a waterfall, and the motion of the water gradually leads us into an area with animal life. Or consider the rain sequence, when Bambi and his mother huddle together in their hideaway and the rain pours onto the leaves nearby. At the end, the camera pans down through the leaves to a pool that reflects the trees and sky, and the last drops of the storm drip down, disturbing the image. It is a lovely effect.
Bambi also at times uses color to great purpose. One of the better aspects of the mother’s death sequence is the snowfall that follows the gunfire, during which we see Bambi roaming the forest crying out for her, the air thick with cascading white flakes that threaten to envelop everything we can see. Even the fight between Bambi and the stag who vies for Faline’s affections, irritating as the context is, is remarkable to look at, with its strong tones of green, blue, and red and the dark, fighting deer bodies clashing and colliding as the colors around them deepen and change.
These visually impressive moments suggest the extent to which animation had developed since the earlier Disney days. With Bambi, techniques for conveying the depth of images were more powerful, backgrounds were more dynamic, and color was more emotive. The most disappointing aspect of Bambi is that the animators’ achievements are diminished by unimaginative characterizations and an overall lack of excitement; and the most disappointing aspect of successive Disney animated films is that by and large, they emulated Bambi’s penchant for the mundane. If you are looking for an animated feature that is more challenging, I recommend Fantasia from roughly the same period, which features some of the most imaginative sequences created by Disney’s team and a minimum of glurge.