Boy, do I have some mixed feelings about “Bambi”, though most of them are positive. I first saw “Bambi” not long before I discovered “Lady And The Tramp“, in the latter half of 2005. My experience with this movie has always been watching it, thinking that it’s nice and pleasant, and then forgetting a lot of it not long afterwards. Because as a work of art, “Bambi” is beautiful, charming, intricate and mesmerizing, and there’s a certain quaintness to watching a young deer prince grow up in his bountiful forest. But as a story and a film experience, “Bambi” is more of a mixed bag. “Bambi” was one of Walt Disney’s most ambitious and experimental movies, as well as the last film of the golden era. It was an experiment in trying to tell a film, and more specifically a nature film, with a limited amount of dialogue – letting the animation and the score carry the movie. This is a great idea and it makes for a remarkable film, but there are several shortcomings in the execution. For one example, the characterization in “Bambi” is wafer-thin.
Like I said, “Bambi” is a nature film and the characters aren’t really meant to be characters so much as wild animals, so they’re deliberately kept as ciphers. What little dialogue the forest animals receive is bland and perfunctory and informs little about their personalities (save for Thumper’s and Friend Owl’s), and neither do their actions really. Scenes of the forest animals frolicking, being precocious and inquisitive and generally doing random routines is strewn throughout the film in place of character development and progression, so the audience can see the sort of world the forest animals inhabit. Very few of the characters we encounter in this film are defined, because “Bambi” is much more interested in the day-to-day life of the forest community as a whole (which does get a strong pay-off later on). Bambi and his family in particular are kept as blank slates until the last twenty minutes of the movie, when the film time-jumps to Bambi being a badass young deer prince, which is easily the best stretch of the movie. The second, and arguably largest, problem “Bambi” has is that there is almost no conflict for the majority of the film. A good story needs conflict, that’s a basic rule of storytelling, but “Bambi” has almost none save for the three scenes involving Man and the brief fight Bambi has with Ronno. The rest of the film is the aforementioned scenes of the animals frolicking and doing zany forest things, so as you’d imagine, there are quite a few lulls and dry spots in the movie between standout sequences, though the highs of the film are pretty high.
Bambi is a young deer fawn living in a majestic forest in North America. He’s a spirited, energetic young deer when he’s left to his own devices, but he can be timid, bashful, and easily startled around others. Like all kids, Bambi is greatly interested in the world around him, and he tries to absorb everything nature and his mother have to teach him. For the first two-thirds of the film, Bambi’s primary function is to react to things, so he’s a pretty cute if dull blank slate character. During the last third of the movie, Bambi has a characterization shift. He’s still a bashful soul, but he’s gained confidence. He’s now a competent, knowledgeable young adult and for the first time in the movie, he becomes a proactive character as well as a reactive one. Needless to say, this is the best version of Bambi. He’s always been written as a very kind and sensitive deer and he still is as an adult, so I like that it never makes him any less of a capable prince when his friends need him. Bambi is a rather unconventional hero, especially compared to his father, who is a more stoic, masculine, and straightforwardly heroic stag. Bambi’s character arc is this film is your classic coming-of-age story: loving his mom, making friends, exploring nature, suffering loss, romancing girls, fighting rivals, and having a final confrontation with Man. It’s a pretty effective arc, but it’s not an incredibly satisfying one, since “Bambi” skips over some of the most important steps. We never see Bambi grieve and move on from the mother who meant so much to him and got torn away from him, we never never him adjust to living with his somewhat creepy father that he knows nothing about, and we never see him start to transform from a fearful child to a self-assured young adult, even in montage. We’re just left to assume that it all happened offscreen, since the death of his mother was the death of his innocence.
Regardless, Bambi puts up a good fight against Man and his hunting dogs when they invade his forest, and manages to escape the woods alive with his family when Man’s hubris catches up to him. Bambi becomes the new prince of the forest after his father steps down, and the circle of life begins anew with Bambi and his mate’s kids. After everything we’ve seen in the film, it’s pretty safe to say that the forest will be in good hooves under Bambi’s rule. Bambi’s best friend, Thumper, is probably the character with the most personality in the film while still being a minor character, especially when they’re kids. As a rabbit, Thumper is shorter than Bambi but also older, and he appoints himself as Bambi’s older brother figure. Thumper is playful, mischievous and adventurous. He’s brash, he always speaks what’s on his mind and he usually tries to encourage the young prince, Bambi, to loosen up and be more like him. As a result, Thumper often steals the scenes that he’s in, like a winter sequence where he tries to convince Bambi to try out ice skating (without much success), or a bizarre mating scene when they’re adults that involves Thumper’s mate seducing the love-struck rabbit. Bambi’s second best friend, Flower, is much more similar in temperament to the young prince – he’s quiet, bashful, precocious and pretty in touch with his femininity. Flower is at first the odd man out in the trio, but he’s accepted pretty quickly by his friends. He’s probably one of the few times you’ll see a skunk portrayed in a positive light in a nature film, and he also has the cutest mating scene of the trio.
Bambi’s mom is the person he has the closest connection to in his formative years and is many ways, his teacher. With her son, she’s wise, patient, nurturing, kind, and cautious. You could easily say Bambi’s mom is an archetype of the ideal mother, reserved but reliable, and just when you start to think she’s too perfect, the film seemingly addresses this. There’s a scene at the start of the second act that kind of boggles your mind, when Bambi’s mom takes him to see a deadly meadow. If the deer in this film are clever enough to realize they’re at their most vulnerable when they’re in the meadow and that humans usually come there to try to kill them, then why on Earth do they keep going back and taking their children with them? It’s apparently so they can socialize, but when Bambi and his mom nearly get shot a few minutes after they arrive, just as they predicted, you’d think it would be time for the deer to adapt and have their meet and greets someplace else. In any case, regardless of that slip-up, Bambi’s mom not only gets him through a harsh winter, she also proves once and for all, that she’s a good mother by sacrificing herself for him – shielding him from Man until he can get to safety and being shot in the back for her troubles. The immediate aftermath of her sacrifice leads to one of the best scenes in the film – a quiet, harsh, sobering moment between Bambi and his father – and it casts a real weight on the film, for about two minutes before it’s quickly swept under the rug and never spoken of again.
The Great Prince of the Forest, Bambi’s father, has quite a commanding presence and is easily one of the most memorable characters in this film, which is surprising since he has such a minor role. Bambi’s mother describes her mate as being the wisest stag in the forest, but considering that the deer in this movie apparently don’t make the best life choices that’s probably a low bar. Something that immediately becomes clear to you about the Great Prince is that he is a very pompous deer; in fact there’s this one moment where Bambi looks at him and the Great Prince makes this ‘why are you smiling, boy?’ face in return that’s so weird and so out of nowhere that it’s unintentionally funny (just look at it). With that much having been said, I still like his character. The Great Prince lives apart from the rest of the herd as their leader, their vigil and their king, and as such he’s become distant and aloof over the years – somewhat harsh and tough, but he always comes through when he’s needed. Like the villain, Man, Bambi’s unorthodox relationship with his absent father is one of the more intriguing elements of the film that’s never given much focus, told mostly through subtext. The deer in the Bambi universe maintain the animal instincts and behavior of their real world counterparts – in this case, that male deer have no involvement in the rearing of their children (many deadbeat dad jokes were born in the Disney fandom) – but they also have just enough human traits in them from being in a human story that they’re closer than actual deer would be. As such, Bambi’s relationship with the Great Prince rests in this awkward middle place between distant for humans, and tight for deer. After Bambi’s mom dies, the Great Prince takes on the job of raising Bambi until adulthood, and the film implies that they’ve grown closer and reached an understanding after the time-jump. Exactly what sort of dynamic the princes had and how they built it is a story for a different movie however.
Like Mickey Mouse, Bambi gains a love interest (a doe) who looks almost exactly like him – one might wonder if there’s some narcissism involved here. But in all seriousness, Bambi’s girlfriend, Faline, is cute. She’s a bit of a spitfire and a tease in her youth, and she remains quite flirtatious as a young adult. Faline has a small role in this story, but I like that as a girl and a woman, she always seems to know what she wants and has no problem going for it. Between her and Bambi, it’s clear Faline is the go-getter of the two. Bambi’s rival, Ronno, has an even smaller role – one scene – but he’s worth mentioning for providing the only bit of conflict that doesn’t involve Man in this movie, and for being pretty messed-up. Ronno ambushes Bambi and Faline in the middle of their frolicking and it’s implied that he might want to rape Faline and murder Bambi (why this scene is never included on people’s lists of messed-up Disney moments, I’m not sure). The fight that follows is another of Bambi’s close shaves with death, but it’s also the first one he can fight back against and the first he wins, with Ronno vanquished and the buck never seen again afterwards. Friend Owl is a grandfatherly figure; an old curmudgeon of an owl who has a habit of making nightmare faces. Naturally, I like him. Friend Owl is considered one of the wiser animals in the forest, and a neighbor who often watches Bambi and his friends grow up from a distance, giving them a heads up later on about puberty.
The film’s antagonist, Man, is easily the best aspect of this movie and a gripping presence whenever he appears, because he just throws everything into chaos. I like how Man is never once a character or a conventional villain. He’s a thing, this unknowable predator that’s always offscreen who sometimes invades the animals’ forest. Because when you look at it from an animal’s perspective, human hunters would be incredibly creepy. The critters certainly can’t fight the power of Man’s guns. Bambi and the Great Prince are the only ones who can predict when Man will arrive, and as the death of Bambi’s mom demonstrates, they can’t be everywhere at once. So there are definitely some scenes that play up the psychological horror of knowing there’s something coming to kill you and nothing you can do to stop it or possibly even escape from it. Like when Man waits out this trio of quails hiding in the brush, biding his time until one of them succumbs to her fear and rushes out of her hiding spot, and he shoots her dead. It’s also interesting to think about what Man might actually be. Is he really a hunter? Is he a poacher? Is he some psychotic redneck who likes to go and shoot up the forest for fun sometimes? The ending suggests it’s the last one. Man and his buddies return one last time to slaughter every animal they can find (I suspect they’re totally wasted in this scene), and the pay-off for all that world-building and cutesy scenes we had beforehand comes when we see the kind of destruction the hunters have brought to the forest community. Luckily, their hubris does them in. In their haste to bring home game, they don’t do a good enough job of extinguishing their campfire and the whole forest sets on fire. Man and his buddies burn alive in the flames they created, and at long last, Bambi’s mom and several other animals are avenged.
The production of the film is another one of it’s strongest areas. You can tell Disney threw a lot of money at this movie, because the animation is gorgeous, creating an enormous amount of atmosphere and ambiance throughout the three acts. From the opening sequence onwards, we’re treated to lush, green, sweeping landscapes and spacious woodland backgrounds deliberately designed to resemble stylized, textured oil paintings of old. I especially love the way wind and water are designed in this film, with vibrant, whistling greenery and glowing, trickling streams surrounding our characters from time to time, like the ghostly “Little April Showers” sequence where the heavens crack open above the forest. The atmosphere the colors create in “Bambi” is top-notch, since the movie always knows just how to manipulate it’s color palette to amplify it’s mood at any given time; giving us deep, desaturated, isolated greys whenever the deer and the audience feel uneasy, and sharp, blindingly vivid oranges and reds whenever the characters are in mortal danger, like the first appearance of Man in the meadow or the forest fire climax. The most creative bit of animation is during Bambi’s duel with Ronno, when we only see the shadowed outlines of the two bucks fighting and clashing, and eventually it’s impossible to tell which deer is which or who’s even winning until Bambi emerges the victor. The animators spent a lot of time studying animals in a zoo during “Bambi’s” pre-production and learning their behavior, and the end results are that the deer movements are pitch-perfect – seamlessly emulating their aloof demeanor and nimble strides.
The music has a great amount of presence in “Bambi”, to the point where I would argue it’s another character in the movie – tasked with conveying emotion in the absence of dialogue. The songs often feature an ethereal choir, like “Love Is A Song”, a beautiful opening theme whose whistling vocals perfectly match the ambient tour through Bambi’s forest home, blowing through the trees. “Little April Showers”, performed by a chorus of all ages, continues the pattern of being somewhat haunting with a simple, hummable melody and a surprising, crashing interlude, showing how the forest can both be beautiful and frightening. “Let’s Sing A Gay Little Spring Song” is alright but it comes at possibly the worst time in the movie, and winds up being unintentionally amusing for it. “I Bring You A Song”, Bambi and Faline’s love hymn, is probably the most underrated and overlooked song from “Bambi’s” soundtrack. It’s easily my favorite of the line-up, and an excellent example of how beautiful music and animation can be when they come together passionately as one experience. Frank Churchill’s score is on point and impeccable throughout the entire movie, sprightly and carefree when it needs to be, and terrifying at other moments. Keen ears will notice Churchill set up the melody of “I Bring You A Song” when Bambi experiences the sheer scope of the meadow for the first time as a fawn, before letting it bloom gloriously in the last act. Also of note is Frank’s rumbling and intimidating theme for Man. It wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror movie assigned to a serial killer, and it always clues the viewers in on trouble lurking in the shadows just before the grave danger of Man actually reveals itself.
“Bambi” is a really great movie, if a tad overhyped. With a lack of conflict and a death scene that’s almost entirely ignored. I don’t think I would call it a masterpiece as quickly as I would with “Snow White“, “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo“, but it’s still a very impressive early experiment from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
* “Love is a song that never ends, one simple theme repeating! Like the voice of a heavenly choir, love’s sweet music flows on!”
* Friend Owl casually threatened to murder that chipmunk if he didn’t leave.
* Like “The Little Mermaid“, “Bambi” had a huge amount of influence on pop culture as a film. “Bambi” apparently helped to create anime (so weaboos owe a lot to this little deer), John Williams’ theme for “Jaws” was influenced by Frank Churchill’s sinister theme for Man, and future iconic films like “The Land Before Time” and “The Lion King” reworked the structure of this film and in my opinion, improved on it.
* “I’m thumping! That’s why they call me Thumper!”
* This little duckling held a grudge against Bambi, and later contacted Man to put a hit out on him.
* I like how the score becomes 200% more manly as soon as the stags show up, to let us know the men have arrived to show off to the women.
* “Mother, why did we all run?” “…. Man…. was in the forest” Well, that was an awkward pause.
* Does anyone else chuckle at some of the voice work? As Bambi gets older, he briefly gains a southern accent (“Mother, what’s all that white stuff?!”) and just as quickly drops it. As adults, Bambi, Flower and Thumper’s voices are much deeper than you’d expect for their designs, because puberty hit them hard.
* Why is everyone acting like they haven’t seen Bambi in years? Bambi went to live with the Great Prince, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t move to another forest.
* “It could happen to you, or you! Yes, it could even happen to you!” Plot twist: all the ladies love Flower.
* One subtle and easy to miss detail is Faline’s reaction when she spots Ronno – a look of recognition and distaste. All the deer in the forest know each other, and Bambi and Faline have probably encountered Ronno before now. The attempted murder and rape is new, though.
* I would give Bambi and Faline flack for going back to that meadow again, but at least they waited until it was night to do it.
* “I’m seeking that glow only found when you’re young and it’s May, only found on that wonderful day when all longing is through! I’m seeking that glow only found when a thrill is complete, only found when two hearts gently beat to the strength of a waltz that’s both tender and new!”
* At this point, Bambi’s not even fazed anymore by his dad appearing from nowhere. He probably just hopes he’ll get that cool ability someday.
* The climax seriously makes this movie. Hunters show up and start shooting everything, that one bird’s corpse drops back to the ground onscreen, hunting dogs go straight for Bambi and Faline, Bambi gets shot, the whole forest sets on fire; it’s as exciting as “Bambi” gets.
* “Get up, Bambi. Get up. You must get up. Get up! Get up!”
* I wish that Disney had kept the deleted scene of Bambi and the Great Prince discovering Man’s burnt body, proving that Man isn’t infallible and that justice had been served.
* Flower named his kid after Bambi. So this was a meet-cute?
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