Like many other children, I was raised on the films and stories of Walt Disney. Some of my earliest memories involve a picture book tie-in of THE SWORD AND THE STONE, knowing every lyric to “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”, and staring up in awe as the Wicked Queen transformed into a Witch in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES. All of the tales Disney Studio chose to tell in their Golden Era were known by verse during story time in my childhood bedroom.
All except BAMBI.
BAMBI is set in an American forest and begins with the birth of “a new prince”. All of the woodland creatures make a pilgrimage to a white-tailed dear who has given birth to a new fawn. The fawn is named Bambi, and is embraced as a prince by every creature great and small. The fawn is given the lay of the land thanks to Thumper, a young rabbit with enthusiasm to spare. Together, they soon meet Flower, a bashful skunk who takes a bashful shining to the attention.
The film takes us through the harsh realities of life in the forest for these woodland creatures…from spring to winter, from birth to death.
As BAMBI played out, I found myself trying to settle on one of two different theories:
A – BAMBI would never be embraced by modern audiences
B – BAMBI would never be made by a modern major studio.
The story of BAMBI is a rather subtle one. Simply put, it is the story of a deer being born and learning about his surroundings. Much patience is given to Bambi learning how to walk, learning how to speak,learning what to eat, and just meeting his fellow woodland creatures. Really, Bambi is just a few pegs above an animated nature film. I could see modern parents perhaps bringing their children to see it in the hopes of entertaining them…but I wonder how many of those children would stay engaged given how easily kids get bored nowadays. If the kids didn’t get bored, they’d certainly get scared for reasons I’ll get into later. Put it all together, and I see modern audiences widely rejecting BAMBI in theatres.
That is assuming a filmmaker could find a studio willing to bet on an animated feature like BAMBI anyway. It eschews plucky adventures in favour of natural maturity, its antagonist is primarily an off-screen entity, it spends a lot of its third act talking about the birds & the bees (literally), and again – children are gonna get scared. BAMBI is a story told in very broad strokes, and studios aren’t interested in telling such abstract stories anymore…and certainly not in a cartoon.
A moment to answer an obvious question: No, I didn’t cry when Bambi’s mother died. This isn’t to suggest that I wasn’t affected, quite the contrary. In fact, I can think of few lines of dialogue as sad as Bambi calling out “Mother?” in vain. Such a plot point is extremely bold, as you are basically spelling out for children the very mortality of their own parents. It’s intensity is only mildly dulled by the fact that the carnage is kept off-screen, but made that much worse when Bambi’s guardian finds him and says quite matter-of-factly “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.”
That’s the law of nature folks. They don’t have the luxury of grieving or memorials – they need to get it together and move on, lest they get killed themselves.
Interestingly, the death of Bambi’s mother wasn’t what shocked me the most. As the warning call goes out through the forest that man is on the hunt, we meet a small flock of quails hiding in the bush. One particular quail is inconsolably scared and wants to flee, while the rest of the flock plead with it not to fly.
In a panic the quail takes off. We hear the inevitable gunshot – and then see the quail crash back down to the ground! Are you kidding me? It’s not bad enough that cute little woodland creatures are trembling on the big screen, we actually have to watch the carnage too? I knew Bambi’s mom was going to get clipped – nobody said anything about a frightened quail. Boy was Walt ever sadistic.
While it’s no small wonder that audiences turned a cold shoulder to BAMBI upon release, there’s something to be said about its endurance.
Today, if a film doesn’t test well prior to release, it gets buried…banished to dvd (maybe)…seldom heard from again. Films that get released and under-perform cause even greater fervour: policies are drawn up and people get fired. A film like BAMBI would crumble under poor word-of mouth today, with chatter about how poorly its characters are, and how little plot there is. It would leave theatres almost as fast as it arrived. (Such was the case for the film’s release in 1942).
To their credit Disney studios knew what they had created – how glorious the art was and how enduring the story was. They came back to it a few years later…then brought it back again, and again. The same viewers and critics who had once written it off as “entirely unpleasant”, were forced to reconsider it. They clung to its charm, they got a better appreciation for its visual splendour, and were still every bit as shocked by its violence as they were the first time…even though they knew it was coming.
Perhaps it’s best that I am only coming to BAMBI now, as only now can I truly appreciate its legacy as a film and its place within the Disney canon. As a child I would have seen it as cute in places, and perhaps even dull in places. All these years later, I see it as a bold story, an example of visual elegance to be mentioned in the same breath as SLEEPING BEAUTY, and a touchstone for what animated film is capable of.
…but did I have to see a quail get shot?
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for June (so far)…
Dave Voigt watched SECRET SUNSHINE
Sean Kelly watched THE TERMINATOR
Dan Heaton watched EASY RIDER
Jake Cole watched THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
Courtney Small watched DAYS OF HEAVEN
Steve Honeywell watched TRAINSPOTTING
Max Covill watched THREE COLORS: BLUE
Bob Turnbull watched both WHITE HEAT and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES