About Me

My photo
Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Saturday, October 30, 2010

“Bambi… Yep, I Guess That’ll Do All Right”

         In a sense of really morbid irony, I’m watching Bambi around the same time as the start of hunting season.  On a personal note, I live on a working cattle ranch that’s surrounded by a twenty thousand acre hunting plantation.  I’ve been taking early morning walks for a while and it’s not unusual to come across deer, mostly does and their fawns.  If Bambi is the closest you have ever come to seeing a deer, let me just say that they are gorgeous creatures and the film was very successful in animating them realistically.  Bambi’s mother is especially beautiful to watch, especially during those establishing shots of her and a sleeping Bambi.
The first thing that needs to be said about the animation in this film was how much improvement happened between the time of Snow White and Bambi, as far as the animation of animals go.  This is only the second time that the story revolves around talking humanized animals (Dumbo being the first), and their movements are accurately animal like, yet the emotions on their faces are unmistakably human.  The animation of Thumper and Bambi as babies is especially convincing.  The animators famously studied the facial expressions of a baby in order to give Bambi that look of innocence, but the way he walks is practically textbook for a baby deer.  For Thumper, it’s clear that they studied his voice actor, Peter Behn, for his facial expressions, but the little twitch of his nose that he does and the way he hops is so distinctly rabbit. The mouse that washes its face with a dewdrop in the opening is so incredibly realistic and yet manages to be cute.  That multi-plane opening shot might just be the finest example of that piece of technology in the entire Disney canon.  The whole shot was gorgeous and evocative from start to finish and really showed what the technology could do in the right hands.
While Bambi’s animation and backgrounds are the obvious strengths of this film, it also boasts a number of achievements for its vocal cast.  The main characters are not voiced by established character actors, as had been the standard for the films prior, but almost entirely by children.  A lot of people thought that Walt was crazy (but I think Walt was used to being called crazy, i.e. “Disney’s Folly”) for insisting that they voice the characters using real children as opposed to adults imitating children.  But once again establishing what a visionary and a genius Walt Disney was, children not only voiced the characters but also inspired the animators in the creation of the characters.  Behn almost single handedly invented the character of Thumper just by being himself.  The result: a baby rabbit who is the most believable representation of a little human boy to ever grace the silver screen.
Also a scene-stealer was the young Faline, who was voiced by Cammie King.  Now I happened to watch the making of Bambi documentary one time with my mother, whose all time favorite film happens to be Gone With the Wind.  She was amazed to see that the young Miss King’s other famous role was playing Rhett and Scarlet’s daughter in that particular film.  Her performance as Faline was spot on.  She made Faline a giggling little girl who thought little boys were funny and it was dead on.  The animation for the scene where she and Bambi meet for the first time is great.  I don’t know if there has ever been a scene that captures the awkward interaction between children of different sexes done as well as this one.  I think there are plenty of guys watching this movie who can relate to Bambi when he suddenly ducks behind his mother’s legs, looking utterly terrified.
Speaking of striking terror into the hearts of its audience, Bambi is a suspenseful film.  The meadow scene when the great prince of the forest suddenly rushes back to warn the other deer is a great example of this.  The music that accompanies the moment is a very low register strings piece (almost evocative of the all strings score of Psycho) that is incredibly successful at building the tension.  For a few frames, the colors go from photo realistic to bright blasts of color on the deer, while the backgrounds become almost colorless.  This sudden change is meant to indicate the fevered panic the deer are feeling.
 As the scene ends, Bambi, his mother, and the great prince become colorless as they rush back into the fully rendered forest just as the music ends with a punctuating gunshot.  I’m not kidding when I say this, but this scene made the hairs on my arms stand on end.  The documentary available on the Platinum release of Bambi pointed out that there are only two instances in the film when there is no music in the background, and the first instance happens after this intense scene: when Bambi’s mother looks back at the meadow rather ominously and says “Man was in the forest.”
I mentioned in the blog for Fantasia rather briefly that the seasons have always had literary symbolism attached to them, and no other Disney film relies on them as much as Bambi does (except maybe Beauty and the Beast, but that comes later).  Brenda Chapman once said that when they were making The Lion King, they thought of the film as a combination of Shakespeare and Bambi in Africa, directly making Bambi the precursor to The Lion King.  It makes sense as both films are thematically about “the circle of life.” Except here in Bambi this cycle is reflected in the change of the seasons. 
The film begins in summertime when Bambi is born; this is the season of living and vitality.  After all, this is the time when the best plants are at their peak.  Here we see Bambi’s life beginning from his interactions with Thumper and Flower, to learning from his mother.  Fall is a season of change and transition; the leaves are turning and preparing for winter.  This is around the time Bambi learns about man, and we see a major turn in the story; we learn that behind this beautiful paradise is a veiled threat that all of the animals fear but the audience never sees.  Fall fades to winter and winter has always been the symbolic season of death.
Oh, sure it starts out all sweet and pretty with Thumper teaching Bambi to ice skate.  But then you see the reality of their exposure to the elements and their constant search for food.  Not only have they resorted to eating the bark off of trees, Bambi’s mother foregoes eating so that her son has food.  Just when things begin to look up for the pair again and the first grass of spring appears before their hungry eyes, that ominous string music starts again.  And before we know it, we’ve entered into the most gut wrenching, innocence shattering, and heart breaking scene in cinema history.

Who can say how many children’s innocence and naïveté has been brutally gunned down and left for dead by this one simple question:  “Is Bambi’s mom okay?”  On Entertainment Weekly’s list of the fifty greatest tearjerkers of all time, this moment was in the number two spot, just behind Terms of Endearment.  The other instance of no music happens in the scene after Bambi helplessly searches through the snow repeatedly calling for his mother.  He stumbles across the great prince of the forest, who turns out to be his father.  There is no other sound audible except for the prince’s line: “Your mother cannot be with you anymore.”  Bambi closes his eyes, opens them, and sheds a single tear.  He and his father walk off together until the scene fades to black, Bambi only stopping to look back once.  Without a single line of dialogue spoken, the audience knows that his childhood is over.
Predictably, I was crying.  Heck, I started crying when his mother was yelling for him to keep running.  Originally, the scene was meant to be much more graphic (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034492/trivia) with either Bambi finding his mother in a pool of blood or a shot of the hunter dragging off the mother’s carcass.  I, for one, am thankful that they changed their minds about that.  Not only because the scene is traumatic enough for young kids (I’m pretty sure that seeing Bambi’s mom in a pool of blood would land quite a few children in therapy), but because so much of this scene’s power is derived from what the audience doesn’t see.
It’s a classic horror film technique: what you create in your mind is ten times more horrifying than what you actually see on screen.  Disney had planned for the hunter to be a fully realized character early on, but decided against it at the idea that it might offend hunters.  But just like Jaws was made a scarier film because we don’t see the shark until the end (due to the animatronic shark’s inability to work properly), “Man” becomes one of the most hated villains in the history of film (number twenty on AFI’s list of the one hundred greatest heroes and villains) because he is never seen.  Man’s presence is announced by nothing more than the heightened tension among the forest animals and a gunshot.  It’s that deafening gunshot that announces the demise of Bambi’s beautiful, caring mother and the end of childhood innocence for Bambi and any man, woman, or child watching it.
On the subject of Bambi’s mother’s murder, if you’re a fan of Who Framed Roger Rabbit like I am, then you’ve checked out that film’s trivia page on IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096438/trivia).  There was meant to be a connection to Bambi in that film (SPOILER WARNING if you haven’t seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit) in one of the early versions of the script, in which it was revealed that Judge Doom was the toon that shot Bambi’s mother.  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I’m kind of sad they cut that out.  It would have been a great way to add even more deviousness to the character.  What villain can top the man who committed the single most loathsome act in the history of animation?  Plus, it would have tied the film even more to the golden age at the Disney studios (END SPOILERS).
But winter fades to spring, symbolically a time of rebirth, life starting over, and… love.  For me, besides Bambi’s mother’s death scene, the “twitterpated” sequence is the most memorable scene out of Bambi.  There has been several instances of romance throughout the Disney animated films, but I’m not sure if any of them captured how it feels to be in love as well as Bambi did.  Just take a look at Friend Owl’s speech about states of twitterpated: “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime. For example: You're walking along, minding your own business. You're looking neither to the left, nor to the right, when all of a sudden you run smack into a pretty face. Woo-woo! You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head's in a whirl. And then you feel light as a feather, and before you know it, you're walking on air. And then you know what? You're knocked for a loop, and you completely lose your head!”  Our boys walk away thinking that they’re immune, but my, how quickly they all fall.  

Of course Thumper becoming twitterpated steals the show.  And who can resist a lovely gold rabbit with such luscious, rosy cheeks?  His agape, shocked expression as she coyly waves at him with the tip of her ear is only the beginning.  The way his eyes bug out when she saunters over to say hello is exactly how I imagine young men look while discovering girls for the first time.  But the moment that always causes me to laugh at the top of my lungs is when she leans in for a nose kiss: Thumper’s ears are twisting and untwisting with each other and his big old foot starts thumping rapidly.  We are parted with the image of a Thumper looking positively blissful as his newfound ladylove, inadvertently thumping his foot in sheer delight, plays with his ears.
What’s priceless about Bambi’s reintroduction to Faline is that it mimics his first meeting with her, the only differences being that he doesn’t have his mother there to hide behind and that now he very much likes Faline’s kisses.  Of course this is all interrupted when the film decides to veer into nature documentary territory.  I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the scene between Bambi and his fellow buck as a kid.  My sister, conveniently a vet, explained it to me when we watched it together a few years ago.  Apparently these two bucks are fighting over who gets to mate with Faline.
Pretty adult concept for a movie geared towards children, huh?  This also marks the second time in the film when the colors in the scene reflect more of the emotions within the scene as opposed to the setting of the scene itself.  Hearkening back to The Lion King comparisons, the scene between Bambi and Faline that follows his big fight scene reminds me of the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” scene.  Maybe it’s the nighttime coloring that both scenes possess.  Maybe it’s the frolicking that Bambi and Faline engage in.  Either way, the following scene opens with both characters suggestively sleeping next to each other.
The scene where not one but several hunters come into the forest is the closest the film comes to an actual showdown between Bambi and those responsible for killing his mother.  That foreboding string score appears again, birds scatter, and multiple gunshots ring out. The most eerie part of this scene is the quail that freaks out and flies up only to be shot.  It’s interesting that this scene ends with a forest fire that had begun in the hunters’ camp.  Fire and springtime actually go together, in that they are both symbols for rebirth.  In a way, the fire is cleansing the forest of past tragedy for life to begin anew.
And begin anew it does.  Thumper has his own troupe of thumping bunnies., Flower has a son named Bambi, and Bambi and Faline are now parents to twins.  The film ends with Bambi watching his family alongside his father, a mirror image of the film’s open. Bambi is left alone atop of the rock, not a fawn but a proud buck.  The leaves change around him, symbolizing the change in both Bambi and the great prince of the forest, suggesting that Bambi takes over the position of guarding the forest now.  In a way, it’s fitting that the film ends on the season of change since this was the last traditional feature length animated film for Disney in the forties.
I have to say one thing about the early days of Walt Disney Animation and that is that they were most definitely not formulaic.  Their first five fully animated features had very little in common with each other: Snow White was an old fairy tale, Pinocchio was based off of an Italian children’s book, Fantasia was an experimental film more in line with impressionist art, Dumbo was an original story, and Bambi was based off of an Austrian children’s book.  All of these films were made before World War II began to affect the studio and all five of them are considered classics.  Three of them comprise the top three of the American Film Institute’s greatest animated films list: Bambi was number three, Pinocchio was number two, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was number one. 
            What does this say about the studio?  It could be interpreted that they were trying to find their niche, but I think it’s a testament to the studio’s skills as storytellers and innovators.  All five of these films were compelling to a broad audience and all five of them never failed to move their viewers emotionally.  It also says that this was the time when the animators, artists, and Walt himself were truly fearless.  They did not settle for sticking to what they knew worked; they experimented and challenged themselves to see how far this medium could take them.  They knew that they were inventing a new art form, but they probably did not know that they were setting the standard for which all animated films are still measured to this day.


  1. Bambi was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was four years old. I remember spilling my M&Ms on the floor. Sometimes to this day, if I'm eating M&Ms in a movie, I throw a few to the ground ceremonially.

    The animation is wonderful in this movie. The backgrounds are some of the best of the golden age. And although some of the songs feel a bit dry, the score itself is very nice. This movie is the first to have really "Disneyfied" eyes; the characters' eyes are just HUGE. This makes them expressive, but also does take away a bit from some of the realism Walt was going for and achieved here. I think it was the New York Times review when the film came out that said this hurt the film. It definitely sticks out, though whether it's a hindrance or not I can't say. I started to read the book earlier this year (didn't finish), but was impressed by how much the film really did reflect the book.

    There are storyboards that originally had the hunter being seen dead in the forest fire. It's interesting now that the film exists without that sense of closure; man is always out there. For me one of the best tension scenes is when the birds are hiding in the grass and the one flies out to its death. That is just SUCH a strong moment; a very adult sort of moment. For me it's more memorable even than the shooting of Bambi's mom.

    I've also really come to appreciate the Great Prince of the Forest more on each viewing. There are still parts that drag for me, but Bambi is very much a lyrical ode to nature and a wonderful film.

  2. Admittedly, Bambi has never been one of my favorites. I don't hate it, but I guess for some reason I never really wanted to watch it as much. Now however, I enjoy it so much more.

    I really do love the big eyes. So cute and expressive. The scene that definitely affected me most was the very suspenseful scene where the bird gets shot. The way she freaks out and the way the score accents it truly makes it one heck of a scene.

    Though the songs aren't my favorite, I do enjoy Little April Shower. The storm scene where everyone is trying to shake shelter is quite nice for some reason. While it's still not one of my favorites, I feel like I'll be able to watch it more often and enjoy it now.

  3. I always found Bambi to be a fairly 'adult' animated film. After all, there are long stretches without dialogue, expressive instrumentals...or maybe it's just because parts of it seemed a bit slow. I can count on one hand the number of deer I've seen in my life, so I guess maybe it's unfamiliarity with the majesty of nature that spoiled it for me a bit? I don't know.

    Still, it goes to show you how far Disney's influence reaches: any time one of us kids spotted a deer when visiting relatives in the country, it was always "Look! It's Bambi!"

    Some of it may have gone slow for me, but Bambi's mother's final scene was and always will be completely unnerving. I used to hide under the bed with my fingers in my ears until that fateful gunshot. The bird getting shot was bad, too--the music sends chills down your spine.