The Persistence of Disney, Part 5: Bambi (1942)

| August 7, 2016

Say the words to yourself . . . Bambi’s mother.

For nearly three-quarters of a century her death has been an integral piece of American folklore.  It’s a shocking development partially because it arises as part of the gentlest film Walt Disney ever made, but mainly because the movie is aimed at children.  The motifs of death are a component that, at it’s best, bring 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?  I can think of no more devastating experience than losing a parent during childhood.  Growing up is hard enough but losing such a large piece of your world must be the most wrenching 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, I prefer this splash of cold-water reality to anyone else’s brand of “Smile Dammit” nonsense.

Bambi isn’t specifically about that, but it is such a massive part of the experience that it renders questions in your mind.  What the film suggests in this regard 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 its just another cartoon with 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’s 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 I suppose 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.  Here, no such acquittal is employed.  If Dumbo represented a fantasy, Bambi presents a darker 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?  Well, I wonder if it wasn’t 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 headed off to Europe and the Pacific, many did not come back.  There were a lot of kids in every country 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.  Man is violent and fallible and sometimes these things happen.  In that sense, this is the most ironic film Disney ever made, a film that cries out for peace at the same time that the world was tearing itself apart.

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.

The odd thing is that Bambi is not really a story that employs a tightly rendered plot.  It’s really just about a fawn that grows into maturity and the wonders and complications along the way.  What complications he discovers are an allegory for the journey of any kid who has to grow up and make his or her way in the world.  He discovers life, death, love, conflict and then takes his place in the natural order.  If Felix Salten hadn’t written it, no one would have to.  It practically writes itself.  the plot is thin enough that it gets out of the way of the experience.

I have a habit of returning to these early Disney films about every decade to see how my brain perceives them with each passing phase of my life.  As a child I loved the characters.  As a teenager I appreciated the darker passages.  As an adult I began to appreciate the artistry.  Now in my mid-40s I still appreciate the artistry, but something seemed different this time.  I noticed the atmosphere, the somber tones and the sound that quietly signal that something is on the horizon.  Yes, this is a playful film but at all times something is lurking just over the horizon.  It rears its ugly head from time to time and breaks up all the fun and frolic and maybe that’s the point.  This is a movie in which sound is crucial.  Disney knew exactly how to make it work, he did it through music.  When the storm comes at the beginning of the film, the soundtrack allows the music to provide the sound of the raindrops.  A chorus was brought in to the Disney studio to provide the sounds of the wind.  The music of the natural beauty of the forest is just that: music.  That kind of generosity is what separates the great films from the merely good ones.  This isn’t so much a story to be told, it’s a story to be experienced and the details of the forest, the use of the multi-plane camera, the colors and the time given to the characters are part of its great effect.

They are also part of the dangers inherited in the forest.  One of the biggest changes between Salten’s book and Disney’s film is that the dangers are mostly suggested.  Man is the villain here but he remains totally off-screen.  We feel his presence and that makes the tension so much more palatable.  When Bambi’s mother is killed, it happens off-screen so we get a moment to process the event before Bambi realizes what has happened.  The film is suggestive in not telling us certain things.  One of the greatest shots in the film comes right after Bambi’s mother is shot and the little fawn has rounded the forest looking for her.  He runs into his father, a remote and distant figure, who tells his son that his mother can’t be with him anymore.  The cold heavy snowfall represents the distance between them.  We are left to wonder about the nature of Bambi’s relationship with his father.  Clearly he doesn’t stay with him, so what happens next?  Who raised him from then on?  In the book, the father carried on the lessons but here we never know.  Bambi is left on his own to figure things out.  That’s a hard lesson to give to a child who sees this film for the first time.  What are they to make of that?  What discussions could the parents have afterwards?  What does it say to them?  I ask these questions with a heart filled with joy that a movie would challenge me in a way that would have be thinking that deeply about it.

Bambi is a generous film that took a lot of time to get right.  The book had been published in 1923 and bought up by producer Sidney Franklin in 1928, almost 10 years before it went into production.  The idea initially was to have turned the book into a live action feature but Franklin, after several failed attempts to conceive a workable idea, decided that since the bulk of the story came from animals, animation was the only way to go.

Enter Walt Disney, who was so taken by the emotions of the story that he wanted it to be his second animated feature.  He and his team started pre-production in 1936 but the complications of animating the animals proved so illusive that the project slipped into a protracted development phase that would last seven years.  Disney and his animators wanted the characters in Bambi to move like real animals while still possessing the human qualities they had given to the animals in Snow White.  I’m happy for the extra time.  I’m happy that they didn’t feel the need to rush through this project.  This is a movie that you can savor.

It’s also a movie that you can ponder.  We’ve talked about about Bambi’s mother, but I’m just as interested in 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 he trying to say?  I suppose the father remains on the outer edges of Bambi’s experience, watching from a distance 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?  I realize that 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 has me wondering 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 I can remember.   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, 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’s just the way of the world.  It’s the way of life.  It’s just the life they’re born into, a life of surviving in the forest.  That’s your story.”

Dumbo (1941)
Fantasia (1940)
Pinocchio (1940)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

About the Author:

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