Watch what I can do!

I cannot tell you how much I adore this week’s Saturday Morning Cartoon. This is one video that I practically wore out as a kid from repeated viewings. I can quote this movie verbatim while watching. It has one of my favorite animal characters of all time: Thumper, the adorable, smart-assed rabbit. As a child, this movie both haunted me and delighted me. And from a very young age, it instilled in me a hatred for casual game hunting.

As you’ve no doubt figured out, I’m talking about 1942’s wonderful animated classic Bambi, Walt Disney’s fifth full-length feature.

Ahh, Bambi. So cute. So furry. So innocent and gangly.

He has no idea what’s to come, does he?

When Bambi was initially released, Disney advertised the movie as a full-out romance, focusing on the happier aspects of the film with little warning to parents about the deeper themes involved.

All of us who grew up watching this movie realize that such billing is not exactly true. Yes, there is romance in the latter third of the movie. But to get to the romance, we have to make our way through those deeper themes of death and destruction … and even after we’re rewarded with the romantic coupling of the film’s characters, “happily ever after” does not immediately follow, as more trouble awaits.

The movie is based on Austrian Felix Salten’s novel Bambi. Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi. A Life in the Woods), published in 1923 to great critical acclaim. The book is considered one of the first “environmental” novels ever to be written (a genre that would later come to be defined by more scientific-minded works such as Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 treatise Silent Spring).

As such, Salten wrote the novel for an adult audience, and the original story is rather grim compared to Disney’s lighter take on the material.

  • In Salten’s original story, Bambi is a roe deer, not a white-tailed deer as depicted in the film. Disney animators made the change after studying two live white-tailed deer for inspiration during the making of the film (roe deer are native to Europe, while white-tails are native to the United States).
  • The “sidekick” animals are given personality overhauls–nowhere is this more evident than in Disney’s adaptation of the novel’s “Friend Hare” as Thumper, a fun-loving, rambunctious burst of childlike frivolity intended to further dilute the grim nature of the original story.

  • In the book, Faline, Bambi’s eventual mate, is actually his cousin, and after mating, Bambi leaves Faline, as his own father had done, and she rears their fawns alone. Also, in the film, Faline is the pursuer in their love match; in the book, however, Bambi pursues Faline doggedly, fighting off two rival suitors to claim her.
  • The character of Gobo, Faline’s twin brother, is left out of the movie. In the novel, Gobo is thought to be dead but is later revealed to have been taken in by a kindly human when he is injured. He is later killed when he naively approaches a hunter, thinking he will be safe because of his previous experiences.
  • The novel follows Bambi through his adulthood, as he learns from “the Prince” about the ways of the forest and takes over the role of protector of all the creatures that live there after the Prince has died. Whereas in the movie, Bambi learns the identity of his father when he is still young, in the book, Bambi does not know the Prince is his father until the very end.

As I’ve already mentioned, the animators studied live animals in order to achieve a heightened sense of realism in the film, and the detail shows in the end product. When comparing the animation of the woodland creatures in this film to their counterparts in Snow White, for example, the difference is quite clear.

The rounded edges and oversimplified features of the animals in the earlier movie have given way to sharper lines, more detailed expressions, and more realistic movements. Disney’s insistence upon realism pays off in a big way, and it is obvious that the methods used in creating Bambi greatly influenced future animated depictions of animal characters.

The well-chosen voice cast compliments the animation beautifully. Four separate young actors portray Bambi throughout the film, one for each “age.” The cast also features Sterling Holloway (one of Disney’s favorite go-to voice actors) as the adult Flower, prolific radio and television actress Paula Winslowe as Bambi’s mother (she is also the voice of the pheasant), and the recently-departed Cammie King, Gone With the Wind’s Bonnie Blue Butler, as young Faline.

Bambi was released in the midst of World War II and thus did poorly at the box office in its initial theatrical run, though its subsequent re-release in 1947 recouped Disney’s losses from the film. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Score, Best Sound, and Best Song for “Love is a Song” (though, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think this film is one of Disney’s better musical productions). It has since become one of Disney’s most beloved films; in fact, the American Film Institute chose Bambi as the third-greatest animated feature in film history, behind its predecessors Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio.

Beloved though it may be, the film is not without controversy in some circles, for yet again, we have an entry in the early Disney canon that seems to almost revel in its ability to frighten the young ones in the audience. Snow White had her murderous stepmother, Pinocchio had Pleasure Island and one big-ass whale, Fantasia had the demonic Chernabog, and Dumbo had the traumatic separation of mother and child. And Bambi … well, Bambi has to deal with the most frightening creature of all … man.

As a child, the implications are terrible. Man killed Bambi’s mother? Man destroyed the forest? Man pursued the cute, fuzzy animals and tried to massacre them? But … I am human. I am man. Am I … bad? It’s enough to send an overly sensitive child (like … well, me) into the self-analytical morass of some very adult questions.

The existential crises of children aside, the film does manage to impart several lessons about the importance of friendship and being kind. One of these lessons has since become known to some as the “Thumperian principle”:

Thumper: “He doesn’t walk very good, does he?”
Mama Rabbit: “Thumper!”

Thumper: “Yes, mama?”
Mama Rabbit: “What did your father tell you this morning?”
Thumper: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Bambi’s themes centering on the “circle of life” and the rules of the natural world would be echoed more than fifty years later in 1994’s The Lion King. And though the idea of a mother’s all-encompassing love is a holdover from this film’s immediate predecessor, 1941’s Dumbo, subsequent Disney films–particularly more modern entries into the canon–tend to focus more on the influence of father figures than on the constancy of a mother’s adoration (see Disney Renaissance pictures The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan, among others).

It’s a rare film that can combine the innocence of childhood and the wisdom of adulthood in a vehicle easily accessible to audiences of all ages. Bambi accomplishes this, and more. A heartfelt and decidedly wonderful viewing experience (despite the potential trauma of dead mothers, forest fires, and hunting dogs), Bambi is one of those films that has truly earned its reputation as a prototypical “great movie.”

2 thoughts on “Watch what I can do!

  1. Wonderful post! There is a “Making of Cinderella” documentary on the special edition “Cinderella” DVD put out 4 or 5 years ago saying that after the failure of “Bambi,” “Pinocchio” and ” Fantasia,” “Cinderella” saved the studio.
    According to this documentary, if it hadn’t been for “Cinderella” Disney Studio might have been put into bankrupcy and maybe forced to close.
    Isn’t it funny? These movies we now consider classics were financial burdens!

  2. Then to think that in 1969 Bambi would be so unfortunate to meet Godzilla in Bambi Meets Godzilla.

    Couldn’t resist mentioning that hilarious 1960’s short.

    Good post. The movie is quite brutal, but I believe that when you expunge the darkness from children’s movies you do them a great disservice.

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