Ranking the Disney Canon – 9: Bambi

“Everyone respects him. For of all the deer in the forest, not one has lived half so long. He is very brave and very wise. That’s why he is known as the Great Prince of the Forest.” – Bambi’s Mother

Bambi was the most controversial film Walt Disney ever made, and probably remains one of the more controversial films in the entire canon. The idea that (spoilers if you have not seen Bambi, or, dare I say it, are not in tune with popular culture) a good guy, in this case, Bambi’s mother, could actually perish in an animated film incited venom by all sorts of people when Bambi was released in 1942. The response to the death effected Disney so much that he steadfastly refused to have another heroic character die in one of him films. Though a main character death was considered for both Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book, Walt never again repeated the Bambi controversy. Walt Disney Animation would also keep up with this ideal until the release of The Lion King in 1994. That’s a period of 52 years! And death and adult topics in Animation is still a hot topic today, though that is another discussion for another, less Rankings related post.

Bambi, based on the Austrian novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, is actually one of the simplest movies in the Disney canon to describe. Bambi follows the life of our title character, Bambi, from his birth all to way to when he achieves his destiny as the new Prince of the Forest. Along the way, we see Bambi as he makes friends, encounters the rain and snow for the first time, falls in love, and witnesses how destructive the creature known as man can truly be to Bambi’s forest home.

STRENGTHS

I got to tell you, this was one of the hardest posts to write on this list thus far. Not only is it really hard to talk only good things about a film, but how can you describe something as simple as Bambi? I’m not kidding when I say that Bambi is one of the most straightforward and simplest stories in the canon, and yet, unlike Snow White’s simplicity, Bambi’s simplicity allows the films to have such a complexity. It’s a complicated film to talk about, and thus write about. And where to even begin with Bambi?

Well, this is one of the most stylistic films in the canon, but in a different way from the artsy style of Sleeping Beauty or Fantasia and the Cartoony style of Alice in Wonderland or Dumbo. See, Bambi is stylistic in its use of realism. See, it’s become cliché to say “Oh, Disney films have talking animals LOL So Unrealistic,” but, in actuality, The Disney Animators prided themselves on getting movement of both humans and animals realistic. And if you watch Bambi, you can see all of the little details that make Bambi and Thumper and the rest of the forest seem as real as the ones that is all around the great American outdoors. Next time you watch the film, notice how Bambi stumbles as he first walks around, or truly see how Thumper eats with his family. The Disney animators truly did their homework, and it shows in how beautiful the animation is.

But it is the backgrounds, and the “sets” if you will that truly stand out in this film. I’ve mentioned a few times on this list that Disney has a strong history of films that deal with nature, as Walt Disney had a natural fascination with the subject (you can look up one of his many Oscar winning True Life Adventure documentaries to see a whole lot more, if you wish). And Nature in Disney films begins with Bambi, and nature in Bambi begins with the absolutely stunning background work. Sometimes the backgrounds of these classic Disney films can be a little overlooked, but it really is an important aspect of animation and something that should be celebrated.

And Bambi is among the films that the animated backgrounds should be really appreciated. It’s not that the backgrounds look exceptionally real, but they do look like they could have been adapted from real pictures of the forest. Thus, the backgrounds are able to add to the realism of the whole piece, and it truly adds to the world that Bambi is able to grow up and run around in. Any film in this Top 10 can be used as an example of why I love Animation from a technical standpoint, but Bambi truly shows what Backgrounds can be and what they can do.

And I sort of mentioned it a couple of paragraphs up, but I especially appreciate the realistic character designs in Bambi. Again, it may be cliché at this point to go on about how Disney animals are anthropomorphic, but, again, just look at the character designs of Bambi and Thumper and Friend Owl and even the little details like the field mouse running from the rain. They all are extremely well designed and extremely realistic, and it adds to what Bambi is trying is do and successfully does.

And it may be earlier than usual for me to talk about the soundtrack, but Bambi also has one of the more artsy soundtracks in the Disney canon too. The heavily orchestrated soundtrack and the wonderful vocals of what was then known as the Disney Studio Chorus leads to a collection of music that goes absolutely hand in hand with the nature that defines Bambi. Though the film doesn’t feature a whole ton of songs, The hypnotic “Little April Shower” and the bright and cheery “Let’s Sing a Gay Little Spring Song” are certainly good enough considered for any list of great Disney Songs. This is especially true for “Little April Shower” which moves over a brilliant sequence that just deals with Bambi’s first rain shower. And Frank Churchill’s score is also one of the Disney classics, especially his three note piece for Man’s theme, which would later inspire John Williams on Jaws.

I think it is about time we get to where the real brilliance of Bambi lies: It’s structure. Bambi is the most pure episodic film that Walt Disney ever made. Sure, many of Walt Disney’s film deal with some sort of episodic structure, and sure, there may be better examples of it above this film, but Bambi is so episodic in that we are truly looking at episodes in Bambi’s life. We watch as he walks for the first time, we watch him learn to speak, we watch him make friends, we watch his first rain, his first time in the meadow, his first snow, and of course, his first loss. Whereas the other great episodic films have bits of three act structure in them, due to their shorter time span, Bambi is truly episodic since the story takes a life time. These episodes are exactly that: episodes.

And that structure absolutely works for Bambi because it is the best possible way we can see Bambi’s journey from a newborn fawn to the Prince of the Forest. This is a true life story, from birth to adulthood, and watching Bambi grow up throughout that time is instrumental in caring for the character, which helps the audience become invested in the story. This structure wouldn’t  work for something like Dumbo or Alice in Wonderland, but it is hugely important that Bambi features this structure.

Of course, having mentioned all the episodes from the childhood, one can forget that we actually see Bambi in adulthood having to deal with love, leadership, and the ever dangerous presence of man. And while these sequences are not as iconic or even as amazing as the childhood segments, they are still awesome in their own right, and should not be forgotten. These are as important to see as we need to see Bambi’s final tests before he can truly have the courage and strength to become the next Prince of the Forest. Him fighting the other male deer for the love of his life, which is one of the film’s few stylized sequences, and him having to escape the forest fire after being shot are the final tests on his journey to manhood, and are stunning in their own sense.

It’s actually very interesting to dissect Bambi as a character, since what we experience of the character growing up to be a man. So, much of the time we spend with Bambi is watching him question the world around him, learning what a bird is and being stunned by the rain and even realizing there are other deer in the forest. The young Bambi is one of the more childlike characters in the canon, and his youthful fancy is extremely well written. It’s almost as if Bambi is your own child as he runs around the forest.

Of course, with Bambi being the questioning child that he is, his interactions with the people, er, animals around him are extremely important and as with any child, the interactions that define their life are the ones with friends and family. Let’s start with the friends side of it. Bambi, being the future Prince, has a ton of interest surrounding him, both from the adults and the other children. However, the one child that takes interest in him right away is Bambi’s future best friend, Thumper.

Thumper is the film’s second most famous character, and far and away the film’s best source of comedy. Thumper’s humor has a wide range, from him initially making fun of Bambi’s walking and incorrectness in identifying the world around him, to the running gag of what his father has told him, to the thumping of his leg for which he is named for. Actually, for much of the film, Thumper steals the show. Thumper is an extremely enjoyable character, and one of the few times I think using a child voice actor actually really adds to the character. (it also adds to Bambi’s character, but it stands out more to me in Thumper.)

Again, though, what’s important is the fact that Bambi and Thumper are friends and interact as such, and their scenes together are such a treat. Every single scene between them shows true friendship, and are extremely enjoyable. The scenes in which Thumper teaches Bambi what each thing in the forest is called, and Thumper and Bambi experience winter together by ice skating are wonderful because the two of them are so naive, in a sense, and so childlike. It’s wonderful.

Of course, we can’t forget the lesser seen, but still important, friend of Bambi, the skunk named Flower. The scene where Bambi and Flower first meet is one of the iconic images of Walt’s era, and I love the few scenes we get of Flower. His shyness is perfectly presented, and his hibernation scene is hilarious. I wish we got more of Flower. Even in the few times we see him, he is an enjoyable fellow.

One final aspect I enjoy about the friendship between is how realistic it is in terms of them being animals. OK, sure, it is unlikely that a skunk, a deer, and a rabbit would all be the best of friends, but what makes sense, and what makes it real, is that Flower would be hibernating during the winter while Bambi and Thumper play, or how the three of them haven’t seen each other for a long time when they rekindle as adults, as their fellow species would probably end up in different parts of the forest. I think this make their friendship even stronger, though obviously it cannot be as strong as it was in their childhood, both from a realism perspective and from a film perspective.

(NOTE: The adult voice of Flower is none other than our good friend Sterling Holloway! STERLING HOLLOWAY COUNT: 5!)

I did mention earlier that the second part of Bambi’s relationship is family, and that, of course, starts with Bambi’s mother. Bambi and his mother connect from the beginning of the film, and his far and away the film’s best relationship. It is a modern cliché to say that Disney films don’t include the mothers and even sometimes the fathers of our heroes and heroines (man, disproving clichés is a little bit of a theme, isn’t it?), actually the theme of family and the parent-child relationship is present in many Disney films, and this is one of them.

What makes the relationship between Bambi and his mother so good is that it feels so real. There is no better example than the meadow sequence. It starts with a conversation between Bambi and his mother about what the meadow actually is, and how Bambi has heard that other deer exist. This is almost exactly what any mother-son conversation would be like. And of course, in this instance, the mother also takes a protective role when the deer sense man in the forest, just as any mother would protect their child from whatever danger lies ahead.. This whole sequence may be the best example of it, but it certainly isn’t the only one.

Every moment between Bambi and his mother his precious. From her naming him to her protecting him from the rain, to letting him play with Thumper in the snow, to making him meet a girl for the first time. Bambi and his mother have a true connection in each of these sequences, and it leads to one of the great parental relationships in Disney history.

And of course, it is the fact that this relationship is so good that makes the death of Bambi’s mother so tragic. I know the scene gets a lot of hype due to, you know, people loving to mention that a Disney film features death, but seriously, this is a stunning sequence, and among the greatest in Disney history. I mean, it is chilling to watch Bambi cry out for his mother. It’s a Disney scene that truly can bring you to tears.

And this brings us to one of the film’s forgotten, but awesome characters, The Great Prince of the Forest, Bambi’s father. I love the mysterious mentorship role that the father portrays. His appearance after the death of Bambi’s mother may be among the perfect lines ever seen in a Disney film. It’s just so powerful to hear him speak, not only in that section, but also when he is encouraging Bambi to get up after Bambi had been shot, as the forest fire rages around him. I love the almost wise spirit aura that surround The Great Prince, appearing at the moments when Bambi needs him most. He’s actually one of my favorite characters in the film, even though he doesn’t appear often. He doesn’t need to.

And we will finish off this most by talking about the film’s villain. For a company that has so many outlandish and memorable villains, antagonists, bad guys, and henchmen with so many amazing designs and personalities, it is amazing that one of its most memorable villains never actually appears on-screen. Though I don’t put all my faith in the AFI lists, it is amazing that Man, the unseen villain in Bambi, was named the 20th greatest film villain of all time. Man is just an amazing villain.

We really don’t need to see man, we just need to see the destructive force they can be. And being the cause of the death of Bambi’s mother and the jaw dropping forest fire sequence is enough to make you realize what man can do. Making Man almost this godly, otherworldly force humanizes the animals even more, and that’s an absolutely amazing accomplishment. Man is a wonderful villain that says as much about ourselves as it does about the world around us.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best moment is the death of Bambi’s mother. The best song is “Little April Shower.” I really don’t need to say anymore.

CLOSING COMMENTS

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO RANK!?!?! It’s no long based on comparing strengths. It’s based on pure feeling. Where does this belong, according to my gut? Bambi might as well be a perfect film, but it just feels like Film 9 for me. Don’t take this low ranking for anything else other than the fact that we have AMAZING films coming up. Bambi is one of the most serious, most touching, and best films in the Disney Canon. And I think you can see how much I love these films.

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One thought on “Ranking the Disney Canon – 9: Bambi

  1. Of all the Disney films in the world, Bambi stands as one of my favorite films that I could watch over and over if I wanted to. It’s the same charming atmosphere we have when talking animals are in the mix, but at the same time this is that animated feature that does take itself seriously. For all the beauty we get of the trees, we are thrown into the fire as the destruction of man eats it all away. For all the time we love seeing the bond of a mother and son, we truly feel Bambi’s pain when he loses that one special parent that always stood by him no matter what. It truly is a film of growing up, discovering love, enduring loss, and above all accepting your destiny. And among one of my guilty pleasure films to enjoy, ‘Bambi 2’ is a film that I do watch even though I sometimes wish that Disney had actually made a sequel instead of a midquel (Ironically considering the very same author actually wrote a sequel to his book).

    Yet it is amazing how different the film is when compared to the book. It’s understand why Disney had to go to great lengths to keep to the spirit of the story, while at the same time attempting to make it appropriate for the younger audience. Which to me is suitable because either way it still remains a beautiful masterpiece even if it doesn’t make the #1 spot. Because just as they say that ‘Love is a song that never ends’, the timeless tale that ‘Bambi’ delivers is one that will never end for years to come.

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