Bambi (1942) Review
What do I know about the film?
‘Bambi’ was in development at Disney for a long time with preproduction harking back to 1936 which you will know if you have been paying attention was before ‘Snow White’ was released. The Disney studio was on the verge of bankruptcy between the previously mentioned strikes and the small matter of the Second World War. Walter and crew had got loans for the Bank of America after both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ flopped and…well…they needed ‘Bambi’ to do well. So you know how this ends yes? After all I am reviewing 52 animated films released by the Walt Disney Studios not 5 so ‘Bambi’ must have blown up and saved the day, yes?
No. Despite rave reviews from the critics the lucrative European market was lost thanks to Orange Wednesday codes not being a high priority at this point in history meaning ‘Bambi’ just couldn’t make the money it needed to. And yet Disney survived to fight another day. How? Well you know how you watched some Disney films for the first time in a cinema even though they had been around since the 1940’s? Disney re-released ‘Snow White’ in 1944. People went to see it. Intrigued, he tried Bambi out again in 1947…This time it did well. He had worked out that if people like a film they will pay to see it more than once. And so Disney re-release their films. A lot. Cha-ching, baby.
Easily the most famous thing about ‘Bambi’ is…Do I even need to say it? It kick started a Disney staple: The loss of a parent. Looking at Disney history it has not been done nearly as often as you might think (Parenticide won’t be coming up again for nearly 40 years…#24 on my list. I will be impressed if you can tell me which film it is without looking it up) but this was the first time Disney introduced a family unit and then promptly tore them apart, leaving children up and down the land devastated. How many crotch dumplings learned that death can come at any time thanks to Disney? The death of Bambi’s Mother is one of the most famous moments in film history. So naturally a lot of this review will be spent talking about it. So if you are still not over it…Get yourself to therapy and then come back.
Did I see it as a child?
Yes. Again, I did not own it and it was not a favourite. I really wasn’t into to early Disney back then. I was all about the renaissance period which is too far off to even contemplate right now seeing as it started the year I was born and I am quite the spring chicken.
So…Bambi. I remember it being boring. I liked Thumper the rabbit but other than that my overriding memory is of thinking it was really dull. Oh, and I used to have a beautiful picture book of ‘Bambi’ that I once made my Gran read to me at bedtime and even SHE, the most patient woman in the world, got bored of it and insisted before the end that I should go to sleep. So yes. Dull. Humdrum. And other adjectives that used to hang on my English classroom wall to encourage us not to just reuse boring.
I have a memory of a wise old animal (maybe an owl?) telling teenage Bambi and his two pals that they will soon get horny. And they are all ‘naw, naw bros before hoes man’ but SECONDS later all fall in love with female versions of themselves with long eyelashes. I am looking forward to seeing if the turn around is as fast as I remember.
And…Here it comes…I remember that Bambi’s Mum dying…well…it didn’t affect me. At all. I cared not a jot. Gasp etc. This coming from the person who cried at least twice during ‘Dumbo.’ So…if history is to be believed I am a monster. Maybe there is still a chance for me to redeem myself. Let’s find out. Will the film turns me into a sobbing mess now or do I still consider ‘Bambi’ the cinematic equivalent of finger painting? (It passes the time but it is hardly life changing art)
There is a forest. And lots of animals. Everyone is happy cause a Prince has been born. How topical. And if you were wondering what the forest hierarchy is, the Prince is a little Deer. We follow him from newborn, to child, to teenager to fully grown Stag. Along the way he makes some friends, falls in love, gets in a scrape and, of course, learns that the world is not always fair…
It did not surprise me in the least to learn that the animators studied the movement of deer and spent a whole year working on animating them. Bambi, the cartoon deer, is recognisably an animal. I know ‘Duh’ but when you anthropomorphise a wild animal there is always a chance the result will lose what made the animal an interesting subject in the first place. But the attention to detail here is great from his gangly legs to his little turning in and out ears, he is clearly not a human character. What Bambi lacks in personality he makes up for in accuracy.
While Thumper was not as charming as I remembered him being, the little kid playing him is just a bit too cutesy, he has some good moments. There is a particularly great line reading when Thumper’s Mum asks: ‘What did your father tell you?’ And he replies wearily: ‘Bout what?’ It is a brilliant ‘kid’ moment.
Speaking of Thumper’s Father: He is a very wise rabbit. With such pearls of wisdom as ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,’ and ‘eating greens is a special treat it makes long ears and great big feet’ Good educational stuff. But where is he?! We never see him. Does he enter into a meditative trance each day in order to rattle off these pearls of genius about vegetables and as such never has much time for family shenanigans? I started to imagine that Thumper’s Mother has been a single parent for a long time and Mr Thumper’s decaying corpse has long since propped up the Bunny Household’s table, supposedly dropping truth bombs on his children and rightfully scaring them straight even though there is no longer any light in his eyes…
Sorry. I am not sure what happened there. It is just odd is all. What are the Father figure’s in this film doing? This is actually one of the more interesting questions the film brings up.
Bambi’s Mother is the sole carer of Bambi. When Bambi briefly meets The Great Prince of the Forest, a big old Stag out for a stroll, he is suitably intimidated. The Stag makes no effort to speak to anyone and is left alone. Supposedly he is respected and adored by all for being wise. What this wisdom is…we don’t know. Is he as wise as Thumper’s Father with his rhymes about greens? Hard to say. But we do know this. If Bambi is a young prince that makes Great Prince his Father. A Father our Bambi only met cause they ran into each other in the meadow.
While I hate being told a character is great without being shown why, I appreciate that the enigma of The Great Prince is never explained. There is no back story to be revealed. When Bambi’s Mum is, err, taken from us it is The Great Prince who comes to his small son and tells him. Then they go away together and then the next time we see Bambi he is significantly older. Where have they been? What has Bambi been taught? We never get a ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ moment of the two of them learning to make French toast together. Bambi’s Dad is distant but, crucially, not absent.
When his son is injured in the last act The Great Prince appears and grimly demands that Bambi get up. There is no sentimental speech or big parental sacrifice. He just insists that Bambi get on with it. His presence in the film is unsentimental throughout and yet still oddly moving.
In the final scene as the beginning of the film plays out again only this time with a brand new baby Deer and the cycle of life continues (This film has a lot in common with another Disney film. Guess which one) I fully expected Bambi to be by the side of his girlfriend/wife Faline. But, to my genuine shock, the camera pans up to reveal Bambi watching his new born from a faraway hill just like his Father before him. Now Bambi is the boss of the forest. He is wise, brave and to be respected. But his son will never know what makes him tick. That’s some ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ shit right there.
While I think history has put this film up on a pedestal it has not earned, I respect that the film comes full circle in such a naturalistic way. It is quite bittersweet that the shy, awkward and clumsy baby from the opening moments is now all grown up and capable, having learned life lessons and, importantly, his place. They grow up so fast, don’t they?
There are some cool moments in the second half of the film like the awesomely animated fire that takes down the forest completely. I like the way our hero, Bambi, can’t conceivably save the day or his home and friends. All he can do is survive. This is nature guys. Shit happens.
The lead up to the fire is also full of some Nam-tastic moments. At one point a bird hiding in the long grass has a mental breakdown and tries to make a break for it only to be taken down at once by the Hunter in front of her family and friends. In most Disney trivia quizzes, you will be told that Mufasa was the first Disney body shown on screen. Incorrect. We see the body of the dead bird. It is kind of brutal. More so than…I will get to that.
On the subject of The Hunter I whole heartedly agree with the decision to keep him off screen. There was much debate among the producers and animators about this and I think they made the right choice. Walt felt that he did not want to villainize the good ol’ American sport of hunting by giving the anonymous ‘Man’ a face. Despite those intentions, the fact that ‘Man’ is never seen makes him all the more like the animal equivalent of the Boogeyman. It is a great way to build suspense because you don’t know when he will show up or if he is already there until it is pretty much too late. BANG!
So I am not surprised the careless behaviour of Man in ‘Bambi’ lead many young Disney viewers to becoming animal rights activists (It is a thing. It is called ‘the Bambi effect’) The moment where Bambi is told ‘Your Mother can’t be with you anymore’ and the little animated Deer squeezes out a single tear is typically viewed as one of the more tragic moments in cartoon history. A terrifying reminder that just because a person is important to us does not mean they are safe from all the horror in the world. But it still does nothing for me. Here is why…
What Doesn’t Work:
Bambi’s Mum. Mrs Bambi. The nameless Mama Deer. RIP and everything mate, but…Apart from dying, name anything else she does or says in the film that left an impact on you? Go on. I’ll wait.
Let’s be fair and compare her to a Disney Mother I do have empathy with. Mrs Jumbo is misunderstood, easily hurt by the carelessness of others, quick to react with anger when her baby is harassed and is vividly distraught when she is separated from her son. Bambi’s Mother is a benevolent robot Mother who answers his wonder-filled questions about the world like Hal from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Everything about her suggests she feels nothing. I am surprised the bullet was able to get past all the ice…She is just there so our hero can experience parental loss. I saw through the manipulation as a child and I see through it as an adult. Sorry Disney. I save my tears for cartoons that work for it.
This is just one of many reasons that ‘Bambi’ has not earned a place in my heart. One of the most disappointing things is the music. As I have documented in previous reviews, I believe Disney has managed to be so successful for so long due to the effort they put into their soundtracks. While that effort is present with ‘Bambi’, the orchestra and choir are like additional characters in the movie, this is the first time the songs left me feeling nothing at all. They are generic and disconnected from what is happening on the screen.
Take ‘Love is a Song that Never Ends’ the song that plays during both sets of credits. One of only four songs in the film, it continued the Disney tradition of getting nominated for Oscars. Sing it. Go on. I will wait.
‘Bambi’ is an enduring gem in American cinema and yet I doubt any of you can hum the song that features twice in the film and was considered award worthy. All the songs are non-diegetic, which means the characters don’t sing/react to them and they are there to add to the scene rather than be part of the story. While this can work in an animated film it just gives another level to the distance between the songs and the story. They don’t fit neatly and don’t leave an impact on the viewer. For a regular film that can be fine. In a Disney film? Unforgivable.
And while the Foley artists do some good work (That really sounded like snow falling) a lot of the sound choices are odd and grating. Right after the scene where Bambi loses his Mother we cut to some birds playing in the spring water while some cheery voices chirp happily. The voice actors are really terrible across the board and the aftermath of the fire would have been so much more moving if we had been able to look at in silence without music telling us how to feel.
Apart from my fascination with aloof fathers (Oh, the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon…) the occasional amusing moment from Thumper and the been-there-seen-it-done-it attitude of the Owl (who seems to be stuck in the nature equivalent of ‘Groundhog Day’) the characters are entirely devoid of anything that made me want to keep watching. The only driving force of the film is: ‘How adorable are animals???’ And that is never, ever worth 70 minutes of my time. And time ticked by slowly as I watched all these animals frolic. And frolic. And die. And then frolic some more.
After watching ‘Dumbo’ where they managed to make such a compelling character both adorable and heart breaking it is a frustrating retreat into syrup for the sake of sweetness rather than as a topping to an already delicious dessert.
The aforementioned scene where our trio of male protagonists all fall in love in about two seconds is annoying to watch as an adult. The girl versions of them are all giggly and flirty… and that is it. My soapbox is all the way at the other side of the house and I am not going to go get it but let me just leave you with this: I don’t think any of the women in ‘Bambi’ own their own property. Or work. Or do anything except giggle and please their men. Although kudos to Thumper for punching way above his weight: I am pretty sure his wife grows up to be the Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny.
The pace drags, very little happens in each scene, the dialogue is sparse but what they do have is horrifically cutsey and even though the environment is lush and well drawn I could not get into ‘Bambi.’ The demographic they seem to be going for is children under 7 and nostalgic pensioners. Except the moments where it all goes a bit dark. But, as I have made clear, even those bits are hard to care about because the animals are not real characters.
So how did it become a masterpiece? I guess it is a coming of age story that some could find charming that says a bit about growing up and the wonders of nature. But…who cares? I am not cynical. I am not. There is plenty of things I am sentimental about. All I ask is that I am given someone or something to care about. Telling me I should be sad for a bereft ‘Bambi’ is not enough. I still don’t cry and I won’t be watching it willingly for a long time.
‘Bambi’ is not a very entertaining film. Not only is it as humdrum as I remembered, it is also horrifically twee. I don’t think people who hold this film close to their hearts are wrong to do so. I just don’t get it. However there are some good moments among all the frolicking. I did not come away appalled. Just bored.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4
The Owl with the rotating head, The shot (BANG!) that told many children their childhood was over, ‘your Mother can’t be with you anymore’ and, my personal favourite, the Bird that has a mental breakdown and essentially commits suicide.
This is the first time that the choice is made by default: I am deeply unmoved and disinterested by the music in ‘Bambi.’ Having said that, ‘Little April Showers’ is quite a nice moment, even if it does go on too long. The choir is suitably bright and it really is the music equivalent of gentle spring rain.
Bad news, notaglia-holics. ‘Bambi’ is our last full length animated story until 1950 and review #12. Things are about to get really, really obscure with Saludos Amigos (1942)