Directed by (supervising): David Hand+many others
Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, etc.
Despite being a children’s classic, I only saw Bambi for the first time the other day. I knew the basics going in: it was about a deer, and that something tragic, certainly by kids’ movie standards, befalls him. Bambi is a simple film, and therefore the above description does it some justice. Nonetheless, it should be further noted that Bambi has a tone that makes it comparable to few other children’s films. It feels primitive, but not in a bad way.
Had I not done my research, I might have supposed that Bambi was the first ever Disney animated feature-film (it’s not, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo all predate it). Through the eyes of its young protagonist, Bambi uncovers the wonders of the woods, and these moments of wondrous discovery have a meta-quality to them. It is as if the animators are not just saying “look Bambi has found water,” but “look at how beautifully we can animate water.”
It is undeniable that Bambi is a film about its aesthetic. The turning of the seasons is another of its important plot points, and a source of the film’s beauty. This is especially noticeable as fall comes around and the animation is simplified to represent the chaos of a hunt. Bambi’s being an aesthetic-focused film is also seen in the way it uses music. Unlike its predecessors, Bambi’s characters don’t sing, instead (as seen in later films like Peter Pan), songs are performed by an invisible chorus. Such a song is used, for instance, to show the pleasant side of raindrops “drip, drip, drip go the April showers.”
But Bambi’s not being a musical simultaneously points to the film’s other provocative trait. Again, many will watch Bambi knowing a major, tragic, spoiler (one out of principal, perhaps absurdly, I won’t spell out). This tragedy has to be understood in context, however. A good point of comparison here would be Finding Nemo. The latter film includes realistic looking fish, living within a realistic looking environment, but within that environment it anthropomorphizes them as much as it reasonably can: a fish can read, and there are sharks that want to be vegetarian. Most importantly, however, it’s protagonist, Marlin, is neurotic. Marlin is not like other fish: a trauma leads him to become uniquely overprotective of his son. Bambi, like Marlin, suffers a trauma, and yet this trauma is not shown to impact Bambi’s psychology. The eeriness of what happens to Bambi therefore, is not simply that it happens to him, but that it is stripped of emotional weight: we are supposed to understand it as part of the life of a deer, and then forget about it. So why do characters as distinct as Snow White, Claude Frollo and Thomas O’Malley sing, but Bambi doesn’t? Because, unlike those and most other Disney characters, Bambi lives without an individualized sense of purpose and struggle.
The oddness of seeing Bambi in contrast to the numerous animated films about animals that have been produced since is that it does not have room for “deer who are not like other deer.” Bambi’s dramas are not the result of his own personality traits, but the inevitable outcome of his being a deer growing up in a world of predators and prey. While I honestly have no idea how I would have reacted to the film had I seen it as a child, in some ways I found it kind of disturbing. The name Bambi has become synonymous with a degree of personality: we think of the expression “Bambi eyes,” and thus associate with the name with gentleness, innocence, flirtatiousness, etc. Maybe there is no one way to be “a Bambi,” but “Bambi” is certainly a way of being. The original Bambi, disappoints or at least defies our expectations in this regard, however. His “Bambiness” is merely a function of his young childhood, and as he grows up he leaves his “Bambiness” behind and becomes indistinguishable from his father (who is himself somewhat of a blank canvass).
There are a number of ways to think about Bambi. One could think of it as being about the woodland-aesthetic, and its decision to star a de-individualized protagonist stems from that. Alternatively, one could posit the opposite theory: the creators decided a deer couldn’t be individualized, and as such Bambi became an aesthetic rather than a plot driven film. Thirdly, perhaps Bambi’s deindividualization is not just the result of a lack of anthropomorphization, but reflective of an old fashioned understanding of masculinity: boys are boys, then they man up and become men; protective, but emotionally distant men.
In short, there is something sets apart the experience of watching Bambi from watching other Disney Classics: it is not so much a story as it is the tracing of a life cycle of a deer. That said, readers who have not seen the work should not mistake my analysis for saying Bambi is an experimental oddity. It more or less has a linear plot, and, like many classic Disney works, it is brightened up via dynamic supporting characters: Thumper, a chipper bunny, Flower, a grateful-for-any-affection skunk, and the gentle curmudgeon Friend Owl. For those whose Disney education is Frozen and Moana, Bambi may feel somewhat unrecognizable, but it can still give children and film fans alike something to appreciate