Born “prince of the forest”, the young deer Bambi (voiced by Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan - child star of Son of Frankenstein (1939) - and at least two other actors) comes of age along with his woodland friends, Thumper the rabbit (Peter Behn) and Flower the skunk (Stan Alexander). Under his mother’s (Paula Winslowe) watchful eye, Bambi learns about life in the forest and experiences his first flush of love with a little doe named Faline (Cammie King and Ann Gillis). All is well until the day men intrude upon Bambi’s rural idyll…
Walt Disney’s fifth animated feature film marked the end of his studio’s Golden Age, an era of unprecedented artistic ambition, growth and experimentation. It is astonishing to imagine how even a workaholic like Disney managed to juggle producing duties on such diverse projects as this film, Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Dumbo (1941) as well as dozens of short subjects, simultaneously! Yet even as Disney was on the biggest artistic spurt of his career, he found himself under fire from all quarters. Few of these classic films made money on their first run (though all recouped their costs many times over through subsequent reissues) and Bambi was no exception. What is more, its gentle lyricism belies the fact that it was produced during a tumultuous period for the Disney studio, when disgruntled animators were picketing outside the gates and the “moustro” himself was handling the situation none too graciously.
MGM producer-director Sidney Franklin first bought the rights to Felix Salten’s novel: Bambi, A Life in the Woods intending to adapt it as a live action movie, but when the project grew too costly he sold the rights to Disney. While Pinocchio had been Disney’s attempt to stretch cartoon fantasy to its extreme, Bambi was his bold leap towards naturalism, marked by its painstaking attention to detail. However, it was this very adherence to naturalism that drew such fierce criticism from those who felt Disney was betraying both the animated medium’s innate surrealist sensibilities and the seemingly socialist subtext found therein. One of Disney’s hitherto most ardent admirers, Russian silent film innovator Sergei Eisenstein went so far as to decry Bambi as nothing less than a fascist tract, an animated Wagnerian opera rife with pretension and airy-fairy mystical musings. Eisenstein wanted Disney to edge deeper into the kind of anarchic surrealist territory occupied by his great rival, Max Fleischer, and heaped scorn on the studio’s groundbreaking multiplane camera that rendered Bambi’s forest milieu so vivid one could almost reach out and touch it.
There is an operatic feel to the story, yet its languid poetry and circular narrative are far removed from the grandiosity of Wagner and closer to Vivaldi. Almost eastern in its philosophical outlook, Bambi is Disney’s testament to the endurance of the gentle living spirit and speaks more eloquently about “the circle of life” than the studio’s later The Lion King (1994). Where that film stresses martial values, Bambi is about agility, fluidity and endurance, of learning to change with the seasons. Of winter, Bambi’s mother remarks: “It seems long, but it won’t last forever.” In retrospect this was arguably a perfect message for those dark early days of the Second World War, the suggestion that no matter how harsh the conditions or adverse our circumstances, life itself is unstoppable. The “April Showers” sequence, one of the highpoints of Twentieth century cinema, perfectly encapsulates this theme. Disney’s animators take the founding principle of animation itself (movement) and produce a charming ode to cause and effect, as dozens of critters dodge the raindrops till the sun shines brightly once again.
Interwoven amidst this principal theme is the evolution of Bambi’s psychological identity, through interaction with his social environment, thought his first experience of love and loss. His significant encounters with his father, the Great Prince of the Forest (Fred Shields) bear traces of that near mystical quality that irked Eisenstein so much, but the film stresses the importance of strength and the survival instinct without tipping into a Nietzschean tract. Also, Disney and his animators are not bound rigidly to realism. Check out Thumper’s naughty schoolboy mannerisms or the whole “twitterpated” sequence. Bambi’s protagonists are cute without being cloying and arguably mark the medium’s ideal balance between animal behaviour and anthropomorphic character quirks.
The death of Bambi’s mother became a cultural touchstone for baby boomers and subsequent generations, though it is worth pointing out how preview audiences laughed this traumatic incident off the screen. Possibly, once you’ve experienced Pearl Harbor, the death of a cartoon deer means little by comparison. Nevertheless it remains an incredibly intense moment, as does the climactic flight from the hunters which has the feel of a war movie (the fate of one panic-stricken pheasant is almost as harrowing as Bambi’s mom). The American hunting contingent took Disney to task for producing “an insult to American sportsmen”, but the film did influence a generation of ardent animal rights activists. Bambi was also a huge influence on anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka, who claimed to have memorized every frame and took the concept into even more ambitious philosophical waters with his Kimba the White Lion (1966) a.k.a. Jungle Emperor Leo. The little prince of the forest has since been sequelized and spoofed, most notably in the one-joke short Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969), although the most inspired parody came from Disney himself in the 1955 Donald Duck cartoon No Hunting.