I seem to have picked up a bad habit of watching and writing about so-called golden era Disney movies. And while I certainly can use some practice in the 1000+ word pop culture essay, if I’m going to gush about animation I should probably get some Studio Ghibli up here. It also wouldn’t hurt to update my Reading Wolfe series, which remains weirdly popular (to the extent that anything on this humble blog can be considered popular).
(Fair warning: I am totally going to spoil Bambi and The Lion King in what follows, for the two or three of you who don’t know what the big twists are)
Anyway, I have to begin this post with a confession: I’ve never actually seen Bambi until just recently. Bits and pieces of it have entered my consciousness by way of pop culture osmosis, but it is the only golden era Disney flick that I can’t associate with my childhood. And this means that I’m not dragging any emotional baggage about the death of Bambi’s mom into this review.
Now Bambi was the fifth Disney feature, released in 1942. It was originally planned, however as a followup to 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But the studio’s goal of realistically depicting two years in the life of a deer with little to no plot proved to be hellishly difficult to attain, and so the project struggled along for five years until it finally saw the light of day. And it wound up marking the end of the golden era for Disney, being the last film to be relatively untouched by the effects of WWII and the 1941 animators’ strike.
But that was seen only in retrospect. At the time, critics castigated Disney for abandoning fantasy in favor of misguided realism, putting it alongside Fantasia as evidence that the man’s ambitions had gone astray.
Movie critics can be kinda dumb like that. While I didn’t find it to be quite the tearjerker everyone remembers it as, I do think it more than deserves its classic status.
As mentioned, the plot is almost nonexistent: Bambi is born, makes friends and learns stuff, loses his mother, grows up, finds a mate and has babies. There is no real running conflict – even the various threatening appearances of Man is just that; an occasional appearance, something frightening that happens. Very little that happens in a particular episode has bearing on a later one. Even the death of Bambi’s mom doesn’t impact the movie’s arc in the way that Mufasa’s does in The Lion King. It only serves to give punctuation to the end of Bambi’s younger days.
So Bambi turns out to be a remarkably understated film, which saves it from the kind of cloying sentimentality that too many of its imitators succumb to, and which also gives it a meditative quality which surprised me. Clocking in at the epic length of 70 minutes, this is likely American animation’s best exploration of time and the ephemeral.
And this is where the woodlands setting and animal cast pays off. Because human lives are already embedded in narrative and self-reflection and hence inherently have a perduring and developmental quality to them. Lacking this, animal life unselfconsciously submits to nature’s cycle of life, suffering and death. For us to observe them is to recognize, in negative fashion, something about our own particular condition. Adam learns about his own solitude when he names the animals.
So the animals talk, obviously, but they’re not anthropomorphized to the point where, say, they can fret about their past in the way that Simba does. The lack of a plot suits them well, and makes the film ironically reflective for the audience.
All this calls to mind just how much The Lion King is really a remake of Bambi with a pseudo-Shakespearean plot grafted on: you have the opening and closing scenes where all the animals gather to see the newborn protagonist/child of the protagonist, the parental figure who dies at the halfway point, the love interest who is initially a childhood acquaintance, scenes of the two frolicking together to a languid love song – and even a massive conflagration at the end. It’s been ages since I’ve seen The Lion King and so I’m unsure as to whether this derivativeness actually cheapens it. But I doubt I’ll be able to watch it the same way again.
Getting back to Bambi, all the aforementioned is married to some exquisite animation. Evidently the studio set up a sort of makeshift zoo so that animators could study the animals live, were given primers on deer anatomy and the like. Whatever the apparent agony of the process, it all pays off with the kind of zoological realism that likely doesn’t otherwise exist outside of, uh, The Lion King. But in a deft stroke, the animals are frequently placed in the midst hazier, more impressionistic backgrounds which inform the emotional tones of the scenes. Which in turn reinforces my point about the reflective quality of the story.
This in turn is abetted by one of the studio’s more lush musical scores. My favourite moment, the “Little April Shower” song, has the music onomatopeically mimicking the imagery of rainfall and thunder in delightfully chopinesque fashion, while the inevitable love song seems to pull the landscape into its reverie. It’s the sort of moviemaking magic that never gets old.
Ultimately, I didn’t find this movie as thematically or emotionally resonant as something like Pinocchio. I almost feel that the charge commonly put against Fantasia is more applicable here: Bambi cares more about your admiration than it does your other emotions. But perhaps it only seems that way because I lack the childhood relationship I have with those other films. In any case, I don’t find that charge to be a fault; there’s room in the world of art for the more Apollonian approach.