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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Week # 7: "Bambi"

(Originally published on 2/16/22)



Run time: 70 min

Release Date: August 21, 1942

Where/when I first saw it: Town-and-Country Theater, 1982.

How I watched it today: Blu-ray, Sunday morning.

The third Disney picture in which our hero comes into the world, born anew, and who must discover what we already know. In “Pinocchio,” it was morality and the difference between right and wrong. In “Dumbo,” it was cruelty and a unique, natural ability. Here, with “Bambi,” it is nature itself, both the joys and the dangers. Everything is new and this time around, no element of fantasy comes into play in which the rules of the game can change on a whim. Our heroes live in the forest where there exist human hunters--”Man”--lurking in the darkness. No faeries, no magic, nowhere to run for shelter.

Disney and his artists got criticized for completely jettisoning the fantasy element back in 1942. Yet, I’ll bet that when “Bambi” gets mentioned in any capacity, the first thing you think about are the cute little animals. And rightly so, really. Bambi, Thumper… and that cute little skunk (to quote “9 to 5”). These became some of Disney’s most adorable creations. The second thing we think of, of course, is the death of Bambi’s mother and how we felt when we first saw it. At the time, it was the first Disney character to ever die, a huge storytelling risk. But again, this was nature. This is what happens.

The death scene still resonates, as does the element of danger when first introduced. Listen to how everything falls silent in the meadow and how soft and authoritative Bambi’s mother sounds when she first explains to him about “man.” The absence of music is as strong a choice as the absence of a visual of the enemy himself. No boots in the foreground, no shadows. Just the ominous theme music and gunshots in the distance.

The visual splendor of “Bambi” comes in the form of impressionistic vistas of the landscape, with backgrounds that fade into the mist while the foregrounds give the forest a richness that makes it look like a sweet paradise. The artists had certainly come a long way since “Snow White,” with every branch and every plant given more detail and the characters given more of a sense of wonder.

This entire film would be the closest the Disney artists would come to replicating “Fantasia” with a narrative feature. Many musical sequences and moments of strictly visual storytelling bring to mind several of “Fantasia”’s majestic sequences of raindrops, critters in their habitat and fierce, fiery destruction. Like “Dumbo” before it, its narrative structure feels loose and without much in the way of forward momentum. But where “Dumbo” travels into other landscapes while introducing more fun and jovial characters along the way, “Bambi” remains confined to its central setting, where life just happens. It’s a coming of age film where our hero discovers love, death and enduring friendships. After changing the game with this new artform by exploring fantastical ideas and grandiose visions, the Disney artists settled in for something (oddly enough) more human.

Despite a couple moments where the tonal shifts feel a bit jarring, “Bambi” remains a masterwork from a studio at their first peak.


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