As a cranky owl flies home to his tree for some rest, the morning forest comes to life with news of the birth of the “prince of the forest.” Woodland birds and rabbits rush to get a peek at a doe nursing her tired newborn, which she names Bambi.
Struggling as he learns to walk, Bambi is befriended by a tireless rabbit named Thumper, as well as a bashful skunk he names Flower. He begins to explore the world around him, and speaks his first words. Everything is new and exciting.
Bambi’s Mother takes her fawn to the meadow, but as he dashes into the open, she runs after him, and warns him never to do that. “There might be danger.” Bambi is introduced to a young doe named Faline, who takes an immediate liking to him. Bambi would rather hide behind his mother than play with the strange female.
Winter brings new discoveries – snow, and skating over an ice covered brook – but also brings with it the necessity for survival. With the arrival of spring, Bambi’s Mother takes him back to the meadow. She senses danger, picking up the scent of man, and tells her fawn to run. As they flee, shots ring out. Bambi makes it back to the safety of the forest, alone.
In a series of dissolves, Bambi wanders in search of his mother. He encounters a buck, the Great Prince of the Forest, who tells Bambi his mother can’t be with him anymore. Skipping forward to spring, the adult Bambi, Thumper and Flower resolve not to become “twitterpatted” over the hunt for potential mates. But nature, as well as threats from a rival buck and man, intervenes.
Directed by David Hand and adapted by Perce Pearce and Larry Morey from the 1923 book by Felix Salten, Bambi was Walt Disney Productions’ fifth animated feature. Disney actually put it into production while his studio’s first feature – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – was being finished.
Bambi proved to be unlike anything Disney had ever attempted. It was more serious, and all the characters were animals. Striving for them to be believable and have personality, Disney pushed the project back, eventually ringing up a budget of $2 million. It was not profitable during its first run, but began to recoup its costs during the first of several re-releases in 1947.
Like Dumbo, Bambi is deceptively short and sweet, running only 70 minutes. It didn’t make much of a first impression on me, not until the action packed final ten minutes, which captures Bambi and Faline’s flight from man, and a forest fire, in a vivid explosion of moving, impressionistic imagery.
It’s easy to dismiss Disney for pandering to children, with his parade of adorable talking animals, in this picture and so many others. But if you take Bambi with Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia – all films with dark undertones that gave kids nightmares – I see a campaign to move animation away from child’s play and into an art form that adults could appreciate.
The death of Bambi’s Mother – which is revealed slowly as Bambi searches for and never finds her – may be one of the most famous moments in film history. Steven Spielberg has said he considers the film to be the biggest tearjerker of all time, and by some accounts, children had to be carried out of theaters bawling after the scene. That’s hardly pandering to kids.
For every cutesy scene of a butterfly on Bambi’s tail, or Flower batting his eyelashes, there’s a scene where Bambi and his mother search for food against the bitterness of winter, or flee as gunshots are fired at them. The film is a study on the cycle of life: the innocence of childhood, learning about the beauty and the dangers of the world, developing friendships, experiencing loss, and finding independence.
Instead of watching a cartoon, you feel for the critters as they journey through life. There’s not that much dialogue; the images move the story forward. The animation is lush and impressive. I’d recommend this for the final ten minutes alone, which is some of the most spectacular animation ever made, but the whole film is significant, unique, memorable. Nominated for three Academy Awards, in Best Music, Original Song, and Sound.