The Great Disney Blogathon: Bambi (1942)
|February 4, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, The Great Disney Blogathon|
It’s time for another classic Disney review! Like its predecessor, Bambi is a relatively short movie (67 minutes) about a baby animal. There the similarities end, however, because while Dumbo is fast and noisy and bright, Bambi is slow and stately. It has a great deal of dignity to it; there’s something very solemn about the film (though it’s not heavy with seriousness, like some (*coughHunchbackcough*)).
This actually wound up hurting the film a little bit; many critics felt that the film was too “realistic.” I mean, it’s about a talking deer, but apparently that wasn’t cartoony enough for the New York Times, which declared that “Mr. Disney has come perilously close to tossing away his whole world of cartoon fantasy.” And hunters were understandably peeved by the fact that they were painted as a dark, ominous evil (which, sorry, hunters, but I can’t feel too terribly bad about that). Bambi’s real foe, however, was the ongoing war in Europe, which was still closing off that lucrative overseas market.1
Of course, Bambi has since made money hand over fist for Disney, as have all of these early sleepers. However, the critics weren’t wrong about the deliberately cultivated realism of the movie – or perhaps naturalism is a better word. And that’s the magic of Bambi. Copying nature sucks the life out of it, but to evoke it is another story entirely. This was done primarily by bringing in a whole host of animals native to northeastern US forests for the animators to study, including fawns named Bambi and Faline. However, the fawns quickly became too tame to behave the way wild fawns like the “real” Bambi and Faline would, so Walt sent two cameramen to Maine for seven months to film the woods; as John Grant puts it, not just deer, “but also any other natural scene that might help the animators: fallen logs, pawprints, mountain streams.” The rainstorm scene in particular shows off this exquisite attention to detail. Not until The Lion King would the animators again be so committed to rendering believable fauna and flora.2
That same naturalism, though, makes it a little bit hard to talk about this movie the way I usually talk about Disney movies: plot and character.3 The plot is a pretty straightforward year in the forest; what would be Act Two in a more Hero’s Journey-type story, Bambi’s time with his father after his mother is killed, is entirely skipped (though I believe that’s what Bambi II is about? It’s sitting in its little red Netflix envelope next to my computer as I type, so we’ll all find out together!). Similarly, most of the characters are pretty blank; Bambi is not supposed to be one particular deer, he’s any deer. It reminds me of the opening lines of another Disney movie: “All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”4
The trick, which I noticed while rewatching the movie to write this post, is that with the exception of the four main babies (Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline) and Friend Owl, the animals…basically don’t make facial expressions. It’s actually fascinating to watch Bambi’s mother. Almost all of her “acting” is done via her ears and body language, and slightly through her eyes. This is, of course, realistic, since animals don’t actually make all the expressions I Can Haz Cheezburger? attributes to them (well, they do, but it doesn’t mean anything), but it contributes very strongly to the feeling that these are animals and not in any sense metaphors for people. (Compare to The Lion King, where yes, the animators brought lions onto the lot and studied them, but Mufasa still smiles and frowns and looks worried through his eyes and mouth as well as his ears.) Bambi and Thumper do plenty of ear-acting, even while young, but they’re also given expressive little baby faces. Thumper never really loses this, but Bambi and Faline’s facial expressions are dramatically reduced by adulthood.
Thumper, really, is the only character who can be comfortably lifted from this movie and placed somewhere else. He wouldn’t be at all out of place in, say, Dumbo. And though he’s very cute, he manages not to be cloyingly so, which is impressive, and helped along by the fact that he was voiced by an actual little boy (four-year-old Peter Behn, who was discovered by some of the animators while visiting friends). He absolutely steals every scene he’s in, and provides 90% of the (very gentle) comic relief, which saves the movie from unrelenting solemnity. Flower is kind of a pale shadow of this, but his screentime is much more curtailed, and his shy, coquettish contortions translate a little oddly to a modern audience, especially since the object of his eyelash-batting is a baby deer. Seriously, who gets shy around an infant? Flower, you’re weird.
I’d also argue that Faline gets quite a bit of personality, at least as a child. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to posit that Bambi presents anything like a well-rounded female character. Bambi’s mother is literally just that – she doesn’t even have a name – and every other female character is either one-dimensionally a mother, a love interest with one or two lines, or a nameless hunted pheasant. But at least as a child Faline is bright and playful and entertaining, tougher and braver than Bambi. Once she’s an adult, unfortunately, she’s reduced to an object for Bambi to attain, and even though she’s always been boldly forward in coming on to him, as both a child and an adult, she’s helpless when Ronno tries to make off with her.5 And don’t try to tell me that that’s how animals are in nature, because I’m pretty sure that they don’t fall in love and frolic through dream-clouds in nature. I’m not particularly het up about the lack of dynamic female characters in Bambi, since this movie is from 1942 and, as noted earlier, it’s not like the male characters are particularly well-realized aside from Thumper. I just wish Faline could have retained the spunk that characterized her as a child.6
Finally, I direct your attention towards the Wikipedia synopsis of Bambi: A Life in the Woods, the original novel by Felix Salten, as proof that The Fox and the Hound doesn’t have a monopoly on “Holy crap, the movie was plenty traumatizing, but who would EVER decide to make a heartwarming family film out of THIS?” (*coughHunchbackcough*) Wikipedia also has a section on the page for the film called “Writing” that should probably be retitled “How Bambi Was Almost Completely Ruined,” which details discarded scenes such as: Bambi destroys an ant civilization, Bambi intercedes in a grasshopper domestic dispute, two autumn leaves “conversing like an old married couple,” and the squirrel and chipmunk, briefly scene throughout the film, as a comic duo “reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.” Yikes, guys, yikes. Although it does bear out the feeling I’ve always had that there was supposed to be more of the chipmunk and squirrel than there actually is; from my notes, as I rewatched the movie: “What’s up with the chipmunk and squirrel? Are they lovers?” Yes, I are serious Disney academic.
Next up: Bambi II! Hold me.
- Disney would finally come up with a way around this with their next film, Saludos Amigos, but that’s a story for a later post. ↩
- Disney even brought in ice skaters as live action reference for Bambi and Thumper on the ice, a detail I love. ↩
- Though admittedly I don’t always talk about the plots all that much, especially for the movies I’ve seen a billion times; it’s hard to analyze something you know by heart. ↩
- “But this time it happened in London.” Or the woods of Maine, whatever. ↩
- Question: How have I always known Ronno’s name? It’s not given in the movie and he has no lines, and I certainly didn’t read the credits, yet I’ve always known that his name is Ronno. Mysteries of the Disney child! ↩
- Maybe in Bambi II? Real talk, guys: I’m a little terrified to watch this movie. ↩