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A forest ballet
Bambi’s pop culture legacy has reduced it to “the dead mom movie” and an outdated Disney brand product; however, along with Snow White and Fantasia, it’s one of Walt Disney’s golden age film triumphs. The widespread perception might cause contemporary viewers to assume the film is either too traumatizing or (worse) too boring, but Bambi is as vital to film canon as it was on release.
Based on a 1923 Austrian novel, Bambi is structured in easy-to-follow episodes, performed with meticulously choreographed animations synced to orchestral music (often with an angelic choir). The film opens with the spring birth of Bambi, an adorable fawn. Other forest critters gather to witness the “prince of the forest” in an intimate and warm contrast to the Lion King’s regal opening spectacle. In the following scenes, Bambi bonds with his mother and makes friends with an audience surrogate (for precocious children) rabbit, Thumper, and a sensitive skunk, Flower.
The story isn’t about Bambi so much as a dance of forest ecology through the seasons (the original Disney take on Circle of Life) with natural miracles both observed by and through Bambi. The film also captures nature’s harshness and brutality — first expressed in a thunderstorm, then later enacted through human interlopers (Bambi’s mother’s death and a terrifying forest fire).
The film is almost an extension (or conclusion) of Walt’s Silly Symphonies 1930s shorts, with Fantasia being its experimental, anthological sister film. It is a deeply resonant animated ballet with numbers like “Little April Shower'' and “I Bring You a Song” being high points in the Disney musical pantheon. Much like taking a weekend hike, it’s a refreshing escape to the forest with sincerely breathtaking and surprising moments. Despite the reputation, Bambi is not just about death — it’s about all life experienced by our woodland animals.
While the film is a sincere exploration of nature, Bambi anthropomorphizes its animals via dialogue and designs them to maximize expressiveness (and arguably cuteness). Although I’m tempted to take over this review with an essay on cartoon abstraction, the Bambi characters are far from pants-wearing, pop culture-referencing/inspiring, merchandisable icons. They blur the line enough to make the viewer ponder whether humans are still tied to many of the same cycles and worries of our animal brethren. Bambi makes animals more human to reflect that we’re still critters, despite the destructive relationship men have increasingly formed with forest fauna. This ability to create empathy with animations makes Bambi a stand-out in animation and film history.
Throughout the mid-century, Disney would re-release their classics about once a decade, getting more frequent through the late 80s until VHS sales seemingly killed or at least replaced demand for another rerelease. The original model led to generations seeing Bambi on the big screen. When released on home video in 1989, it quickly became the second best-selling VHS at the time – so there’s no doubt that Bambi was fondly remembered. However, its position on the video rack amongst the burgeoning Disney Renaissance and direct-market Barney videos soon positioned it as the traumatizing “kids” movie from grandpa’s time.
It’s a dream of mine to see this in the cinema - unlike most cartoon animal productions, it’s not iPad entertainment for your toddler, though maybe it should be that too. It’s one of our great film spectacles, with which only a handful of animated classics can compete. If you haven’t seen it since childhood, take the 70 minutes (that’s right!) to experience it as an adult.
Written by Perce Pearce & Larry Morey; Directed by David Hand