Bambi is the final film in this series and the final great film in Disney’s original golden period. As with most of the first five films, it was a tremendous creative risk for the Disney company especially since it was a film with no human characters, no typical magical elements, and with a firm focus on looking and feeling as naturalistic as possible. The focus on naturalism was especially daunting because from its inception the strength of animation was always the fact that it didn’t have to adhere to the rules of nature and physics. It was an open question whether animation could stand up to scrutiny if it attempted anything resembling photorealism. Fortunately Walt Disney Animation proved to be up to the task, arguably producing the best film of the lot.
It is pointless to describe the plot of Bambi as the movie is by far Disney’s least narrative-focused narrative film (Fantasia you’ll remember is far from a narrative film). The movie instead is roughly divided into several seasons as it follows a year in the life of the young deer prince Bambi. This gentle pastoral thus is less a movie about what happens, but is more concerned with the aimless joy of play and discovery of children. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that this movie is the best accurate description of what childhood is like.
The movie itself opens with an absolutely beautiful and wordless sequence as we slowly go deeper and deeper into the forest. Our first encounter with the woods is not with forest creatures, but rather with darkly imposing and mysterious trees that slowly surround us. This is our first chance to see the wonderfully impressionistic backdrop work that was done by Tyrus Wong as we are slowly enveloped in the quiet beauty of the forest, far from anything that might resemble civilization:
This opening sequence is remarkable not just because of the detail in the rendered backdrops, but because the camerawork is simply stunning. In one unbroken sweeping shot the camera moves in through several layers of backdrop and then pans to the right for a seemingly endless time, finally tracking the flight of the friendly owl as he heads towards his nest. Hidden waterfalls and streams are revealed as we slowly traverse these woods as trees move in and out of our view. The sequence indicates from the very beginning the kind of movie Bambi will be as it invites you to observe closely and meditate on the quiet power of nature. By the time we arrive at a newborn Bambi and his mother we are so far removed from our own world that it almost seems like an intrusion for us humans to be observing this royal visitation.
From witnessing a newborn Bambi, the movie then gives way to an exploration of the first season, spring. It is in this season that the theme of joy in play and discovery is firmly established as we see Bambi literally take his first steps into a new world. He encounters the rascally bunny Thumper and later on in summer the female fawn Faline. It is ultimately in both of these interactions that we see the greatest strength of this movie. This is because although the movie is on one level a naturalistic depiction of the woods of the Eastern United States, it is also more deeply a detailed depiction of children, childhood, and how children interact with each other. We see this in Thumper’s lack of a filter and the mechanical recitations of his father’s sayings. We see it as Bambi fearfully runs to his mother as he meets Faline for the first time, and then again later on as Bambi eventually warms to Faline and the two play together with imaginative abandon.
The other great strength of this movie is clearly seen at the end of the spring time sequence as the rains come pouring down. The pairing of the music with the visuals is perfectly matched. In fact it feels that in Bambi Disney perfected the lessons they learned in Fantasia as the movie is filled with several wordless scenes that are evocative of the seasons, or of the simple joy of play. And unlike Fantasia the presence of a narrative to the images greatly enhances our ability to latch onto the images, as opposed to the passive appreciation of Fantasia.
Of course, because Walt wanted accuracy to be paramount in this movie, he was willing to show that nature is not merely wondrous and beautiful but it is also dangerous. Thunder claps to send Bambi in terror to his mother. Winter’s chill causes the deer to search far and wide for food. And we cannot talk about Bambi without also talking about the great tragedy at the centre of it – the death of Bambi’s mother. It is still as traumatizing as I remember and mostly because the scene is shot with absolute precision. The nervousness Bambi’s mother feels just before she is shot is ominous because the danger of man has already been twice in the movie, first in Bambi’s first venture out into the open field, and then in a previous attack in that same meadow that Bambi and all his friends narrowly escaped. Firecracks pierce the idyllic peace as the unseen man terrorizes the fleeing deer. His mother close behind screams for Bambi to go faster and faster and then all of a sudden a single crack, and Bambi runs alone. It is the restraint of neither showing the hunter or the lethal hit that gives this scene its lasting power as the filmmakers know that our imaginations are much more powerful than anything they could ever depict.
There is a brilliance in that in this otherwise gentle and peaceful movie, man is the one who is the villain. As I said in my War for the Planet of the Apes review it is only humans who can tell the history of the world and cast themselves as the heroes and this is certainly true in Bambi. Though there are inherent natural dangers in the wild, it is only man’s maliciousness and carelessness that truly causes widespread terror. Bambi serves as a sobering reminder that when wild animals flee from our presence, it’s because they have many, many valid reasons to do so.
The death of Bambi’s mother signals a similar death of innocence, and the movie is wise to transition to a more adult Bambi after this. Although it is Bambi as a child that we remember the most, it is worth noting that there are some standout scenes with Bambi as an adult. The courtship scene of Bambi, Thumper, and Flower the skunk getting “twitterpated” is so narratively sufficient and satisfying that it could easily function as a separate short outside of the movie. In addition the latter half has some great sequences of impressionistic animation in the duel scene and the fire scene. The fire scene in particular is stunning in how accurately the fire is drawn and how active every shot is. It is simply a masterclass in hand-drawn animation.
As the closing entry of this Disney First Five series that I’m doing, it is a perfect end. What is most remarkable is that in their own way each entry in this series advanced the art of animation whether it was the prestige storybook telling of Snow White, the beginning of the basic Disney formula with Pinocchio, the avant-garde art-film ambitions of Fantasia, or the perfection of the feature-length “cartoon” with Dumbo. In Bambi all those elements come together to create a close-to-flawless masterpiece and close off what is arguably the best stretch of movies the Disney company has ever produced.
So with that we come to the end of Disney’s first five movies, each of them masterpieces in their own right. What is tragic is that the end of this golden period came not because of any dip in creativity from the filmmakers but from external forces. World War II basically made the further creation of these sorts of movies economically unfeasible. After Bambi in 1942 the Disney company would be forced to instead create either live action-animation hybrid movies like the travelogues Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros or anthology pieces like Make Mine Music and Fun and Fancy Free. It wouldn’t be until Cinderella in 1950 that Disney would be ready to create a new feature-length animation. The shame is that during those lean years there were some interesting pieces such as Mr. Toad or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that would’ve been fantastic as feature-length stories but had to be restricted to shorts because of finances. Despite this external source of creative frustration however, nothing can take away from the fact that right out of the gate in 1938 Disney came out swinging and created five undisputed masterpieces that still rank as some of the best things ever to come out of the company. The fact that we still talk of them with reverence speaks to their timeless quality. The fact that multiple generations of children have them ingrained in their childhoods speaks to Disney’s strength in understanding childlikeness (and not childishness) that transcends trends.
When I started watching these movies for this series I did so with a little bit of trepidation because it is often true that nothing kills your love for something quicker than analyzing it to death. But what is so great about these Disney movies is that their genius is understated; they are simple enough that my two year old can see them and be enraptured, but made with such care and craft that my appreciation of them only grows the older I get. Looking at the nuts and bolts in this case did little to make the magic less magical, but it only confirmed that when it comes to family entertainment there is a clear reason why Disney stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Other entries in this series: