Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Will Ross

Bambi is remembered today for one of the most shocking deaths in cinema history, a moment whose infamy and heartbreak is popularly attributed to it being ostensibly a film “for children”. However, Bambi had been conceived as the successor to Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) at a time when the studio did not have children at the forefront of its thoughts, and was adopted from a popular Austrian novel aimed squarely at adults. Though production was forestalled until 1939 in order to develop an adaptation that would be palatable for a mass audience, Bambi is undeniably an often grim work, even more so than that most famously grim scene would suggest.

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Today, the film is most fondly remembered in the public consciousness for its first half, which portrays the titular deer in his formative days as a fawn. The bulk of this half is an unashamedly idealized and adorable portrayal of nature as a place of harmonized beauty, where inhabitants co-exist peacefully. In order to portray this world as faithfully as possible, the animators modeled the movements of the animals as close to reality as possible; Disney even brought live animals into the studio, which lead to some objections from his staff. The resulting animation is completely believable and charming, carefully balancing realistic motions and ticks with anthropomorphic gesture (the latter is particularly present in the owl and some of the rabbits). Of course, Bambi is hardly a realistic portrayal of the woods: There isn't an active predator in sight, and the level of interspecies socializing is obviously fantasy. Though this does not negate the film’s blatant environmentalism, it does suggest the realm of human civilization enough to give the film further allegorical underpinnings.

A scene of interspecies diversity and congregation

The original novel by Felix Salten, Bambi, a Life in the Woods, was first published in 1923 in Austria. Given the timing, it’s hardly a stretch to connect the story of a peaceful coexistence ruined by a faceless instigation of violence to the First World War. When Adolf Hitler took power, Salten, a Jew, saw his books banned by the Nazis (who feared their possible pro-Jewish allegorical implications) and immigrated to Switzerland in 1938. Though production of the animated Bambi began a month before the invasion of Poland by Germany, the animators would doubtlessly have had the stirrings of war in mind as they worked on the film, and some moments of Bambi, especially its infernal climax, suggest the holocaust (more on that later). Of course, it would be absurd to claim that Disney and his staff must have known or suspected that such a catastrophe was occurring, but it is safe to say that they knew of Salten’s Judaism and some of the persecution of the time. I leave further conclusions or interpretation to you.

However, before I get too far ahead of myself, I must stress that for the bulk of its 70-minute running time Bambi is immensely joyous; in fact for its first half-hour it is even carefree. The film has no plot to speak of. Instead, it predominantly presents a series of minor events illustrating the formative years of its characters. Besides Bambi, the chief figure in these events is Thumper, a rabbit who plays with and teaches Bambi as he explores his world, and as lighthearted and innocently mischievous a supporting character as Disney’s ever had. Given an excellent vocal performance by four-year-old Peter Behn, he is conspicuously absent from any moments of real danger or conflict, but dominates each of the more whimsical scenes he appears in. These and other early scenes rely on the charm of their vignettes and characters in lieu of overarching conflict.

After the first twenty minutes, Bambi and his mother travel from the woods to the meadow. That, despite a grave warning from Bambi’s mother to never rush onto it in case of danger, is the site of the film’s most idyllic ten minutes, culminating in a majestic shot of a stag standing nobly and listening just within the woods. However, as the shot tracks forward (making breathtaking use of the multiplane camera), the stag notices birds fleeing and crowing overhead, and rushes to warn the others in the meadow. In the first of the film’s genius scenes of fright and panic, the warm, lush colours and compositions previously adorning the characters and backgrounds are quickly changed for expressionistic stylization to heighten the sense of alarm: Characters move rapidly in and out of sunlight, creating a flashing effect; long bands of harsh, yellow light appear on their rims; and Bambi is isolated in the frame as the other deer first vault across the screen and disappear from sight. The effect is distressing.

Confusion and flight from an unnatural menace. Up to this point, the colour red and such pointed right to left motion have been absent from the film.

Bambi is alone, poised above a red, thorny looking patch of grass. The meadow is no longer a safe or innocent place.

With this scene, the film’s villain and chief problem are established, as Bambi’s mother explains to him: “Man,” she pauses here, as if this might be explanation enough, “was in the forest.” Such a statement can be taken as nothing less than an indictment of human violence and needless destruction of peace. One of the film's most overt conceits is that no single person or image is readily identifiable as the villain. Instead, the governing threat is an idea, a reflection of humanity’s evils identified simply as “Man.” That no incarnation of Man is seen on screen adds immeasurably to his fearsomeness, because he is a threat that cannot be directly confronted. The only diegetic indication of Man is the sound of his gunshots and the fear and death of those afflicted by him. This makes it impossible to identify the evils of Man with any given person or figure, though there are those that act on its behalf, specifically the dogs. Though for all the fear created by the limited sounds (gunshots) and forces (dogs) of Man, its most frightening representation exists extra-diegetically, in the haunting three note theme that cues its presence. Indeed, when Bambi’s mother becomes aware of Man’s presence, she seems to be reacting to the music.

That theme is the high point of an exemplary score by Frank Churchill and Edward H. Plumb. Bambi, like other Golden Age Disney films, is heavily scored; scarcely a moment goes by without music. And it’s fitting that this, the last of the four originally scored Golden Age films, would prove the most musically accomplished yet, deftly evoking character and tone, interweaving and reconfiguring themes and arrangements without a moment of purposelessness. Though Plumb was responsible for much of the score, including the Man theme that amounts to its zenith, Churchill, who had worked on all three previous Disney feature scores, was responsible for the composition of the songs, including “Love Is a Song” and “Little April Showers.” That latter song forms the sound in one of the film’s most spectacular scenes, an early one in which light rain falls through the forest leaves while animals take shelter. As the rainfall intensifies into a lightning storm, so too does the music. Throughout, bells and cymbals stand in for the sounds of water drops and lightning. It is perhaps the single greatest fusion of music and animation in the Disney canon – excepting The Band Concert (1935) and, of course, Fantasia (1940) – and would serve as a final career peak for Churchill, who shot and killed himself during the film’s production.

In fact, the production in general was marked by some stress and turmoil. In 1941, when Walt Disney Animation was at the peak of their work on Dumbo (1941) but Bambi was still in production, the animation staff went on strike, citing too little pay for too much work. Partially contributing to this were the studio’s unfortunate financial circumstances: World War II had eliminated much of the European market and the draft had claimed much of the staff. Bambi was the end of the Golden Age of Disney, a streak from 1937 to 1942 when a lack of rules and Walt Disney’s endless artistic ambition and ineptitude as a businessman lead to the finances, talent, and independence to make adventurous animation. The five resultant films stand as titans of design and technical innovation, but after Bambi, the studio’s financial straits and commitment to World War II propaganda would lead to six “package” films that would merely combine technically unchallenging animated shorts into a feature-length product. Bambi was, in this sense, the final Disney film to resist succumbing to animation governed by necessity, and that there were storyboarded sequences cut for budgetary reasons may hint that their audacious survival did not come easily.

That audacity is especially clear in Bambi’s third act, which, I think it’s safe to say, has the most adult depiction of sex and violence in Disney animation history. After the pivotal death scene concludes with its foggy snowfall and paternal realignment, we see a fully-grown Bambi, now a healthy stag. After a brief reintroduction to his forest friends, the film dives headlong into visual euphemism in the “twitterpated” scene: In succession, Bambi and his two companions meet their mates. When kissed, Flower the skunk goes ramrod straight, turns red, and falls over like a block of wood, and Thumper furiously thumps his foot before going blissfully limp. Such frank depiction of sex was not only unheard of in animated films (and still is), but in 1942 was a major aberration from the Hayes Code, which governed the content of all Hollywood films. To thicken the sexual intrigue, the film next provides us with intimations of rape: When Bambi meets his new mate, Faline, another deer suddenly appears and tries to force her away, blocking Bambi. In a clear re-appropriation of animalistic ritual as human rescue, Bambi comes to her aid in a fight scene that is “lit” almost entirely by multi-colored rims of light on the characters. Naturally, Bambi wins the day and Faline’s heart, and, in an ironic piece of foreshadowing, his rival tumbles into a pool of water.

Bambi fights his rival; the faceless violence and watery dismissal presage the devastating climax.

After some frolicking and intimated coitus between the new couple, the film’s climax begins. The content of this climax is so intense and horrific that it should give any parents pause before showing the film to small children; it amounts to no less than a depiction of massacre, and I question the ability of toddlers to comprehend the implications of it. We are shown pheasants hiding in bushes. As the tempo of the Man theme rises, one of them becomes increasingly hysterical. Her insistence that they should fly is greeted with protests by her friends, “Whatever you do, don’t fly!” Eventually she screeches in terror and flies away. Gunshot. A limp bird plummets to the ground, and animals flee in chaos. While the only further visual confirmations of death are clouds of feathers bursting into the frame from off-screen, the pandemonium suggests wholesale slaughter, which is made further likely (though never explicit) by the appearance of the hunting dogs. The dogs are a mindless, howling horde whose purpose is to tear their enemies to shreds. They are a mob, a military force; they are whatever organized system of violence you like, and they seem to multiply in each consecutive shot. Major characters are attacked and even shot, and soon a man-made fire consumes the entire forest. The surviving animals swim to a small islet in the middle of a lake. Wet and tired refugees huddle with each other among other displaced survivors, looking out at their ruined home. I’m sure that at this point you don’t need me to explain the genocidal implications, but this may be the most grisly sequence in Disney’s history. Children may have better remembered the first death of the film (which should be understandable to anyone familiar with it), but adults must shudder at the ominous punctuation of the sequence’s culminating shot, the forest inferno looming over the little islet. Though the final scene shows the ruined forest beginning to recover and suggests the capability of love to endure, the sheer loss of the climax leaves one with a sense of unease. What is gone is gone forever, and Man remains unchallenged and unchanged, just as sure to continue his cycle as the animals are to continue theirs. That Bambi acknowledges the seeming intractability of humanity’s evil while honestly appealing for it to be put to an end is what makes it so mature, so noble. The film creates a hypothetical world of splendor and unleashes humankind’s darkest impulses upon it.


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