A Study in Disney: ‘Bambi’ (1942)

| November 22, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Bambi’s mother. 
Say those words to yourself.

For eight decades her death has been a piece of American folklore.  It is a shocking development partially because it arises as part of one the gentlest films that Walt Disney ever made, but mainly because the movie is aimed at children.  To Disney’s work, motifs of death are a component that, at its core brings about long discussion and contemplation between children and their parents about the meaning of her untimely demise.  Yet, what is to be gleaned from this?  The same as it is in any case of bereavement: Mortality is inevitable, but the greatest mystery of death lies in the people left behind.  Most adults carry with them the tools to deal with tragedy, a preparedness that comes with experience.  But what of children?  There can be no more devastating experience than losing a parent during childhood.  Growing up is hard enough but the death of a parent is the most wrenching and confusing experience of all.  Where do you find comfort?  How do you make sense of it?  Perhaps, in many ways, that is the discussion that can and should be pried from this movie.  To be honest, this splash of cold-water reality is healthier, in many ways, then some people’s brand of “Smile Dammit” nonsense.

Bambi isn’t specifically about death, but it is such a massive part of the experience that it leaves questions lingering in your mind.  What the film suggests is that the death of Bambi’s mother is not the trajectory but an integral part of the experience.  That’s important because this is a story about the cycle of life and without discussions of death it is just another cartoon with cute animals and pretty trees.

When facing the death of a love one, no one ever tires of reminding you that death is a part of life – it is just the way things are.  Yet, why is it a part of this story?  Why did that need to be part of Bambi’s experience?  This is a question that we could ask about any person who loses a parent in their formative years.  Why does it happen to anyone?  Walt Disney, of course, brought it into the narrative from Felix Salten’s book but also perhaps from the untimely death of his own mother during the film’s production phase.  Dumbo also dealt with parental absence, but in that film the mother not only survived but got a reprieve . . . and even a nice retirement!  Here, no such acquittal is employed.  If Dumbo represented a fantasy, Bambi presents a dark reality.

What can be wrought from such a story device?  What was the loss of Bambi’s mother trying to say in a movie that is intended for children?  Perhaps it was fitting to the texture of the times.  Bambi was released in the United States in August of 1942 when the world was at war.  At this moment in history, when so many Americans were heading off to Europe and the Pacific, many did not come back.  There were kids everywhere who lost parents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, etc.  It was part of the reality of war, and perhaps that was one of the great benefits of the film.  Perhaps it was an expression that the hand of man is an instrument of destruction and that the destruction of the war reaches into every life.  What would this atmosphere have said to a kid?  Being that the death of Bambi’s mother takes place in a casual, non-combat setting, it perhaps reminds a child that the tragedy of death is not simply folded into the maelstrom of war.  Man is an instrument of death no matter whether part of an armed conflict or not.

Indeed, the film blames man for the downfall of the natural world.  This is, for the most part, a film about the beauty of nature but Disney makes the point that it is sometimes interrupted by man’s destructive instincts and his carelessness not only in the death of Bambi’s mother but also in the destruction of the forest by a campfire that wasn’t properly put out. 

The darker heart of Bambi is kind of jarring because of the film’s gentle nature.  The characters (fawns, birds, bunnies, skunks, etc.) are largely children and we follow their maturation over the course of a year through the season, each of which represents a different stage in their maturity – Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring are presented as the phases of nature: birth, childhood, maturity and then death and rebirth as the cycle starts all over again.

This is a movie that you can ponder.  We’ve talked about Bambi’s mother, but just as interesting is Bambi’s father.  He remains a less nurturing figure who is very stiff with Bambi.  There’s an early moment when they see each other and the father stares him down.  What does this mean?  What is the film trying to tell us?  It can be supposed that the father remains on the outer edges of Bambi’s experience, watching from a distance and that’s why he shows up at the moment when the mother is killed.  Then he shows up at the end to give Bambi the rule over the forest, but why does he do this?  Of course, in the natural world, the males often don’t stick around once the children are born, which would explain the complete absence of Dumbo’s father, but here the father exists at arm’s length.  It is a strange and rather unsettling dynamic that raises questions about the film’s ending.  Does Bambi regard his own children this way?  Given the station that he inherits at the film’s closing, it might seem so.

That ending by the way is one of the most powerful that Disney’s animators ever created.   This is the story of the birth and maturation of a forest creature living under the threat of outside (and unseen) forces that come crashing into the beauty and tranquility of his world.  The ending brings full-circle, something that took place earlier in the film.  Bambi, having encountered his father, The Great Prince of the Forest (voiced by Disney regular Fred Shields), just after his mother’s death, takes on the world alone without his mother’s nurturing.  The final scene, in which father and son look over the ruins of the forest at Bambi’s new family is brilliantly finalized as The Great Prince steps aside and disappears into the woods.  Bambi oversees the remains of a burned-out forest and we are left to ponder, with all of man’s destructive intrusions, what will become of him.

The scene ends with greenery rather than blackness and that says something.  Walt didn’t feel that we needed the dour reminder of the forest fire from the previous scene.  “I don’t think you need a suggestion of the dangers they have in front of them,” he told his creative team in a story conference “They’ve just gone through that.  It is just the way of the world.  It is the way of life.  It is just the life they’re born into, a life of surviving in the forest.  That’s your story.”

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.