Bambi: Life of a Prince

LOVE COMES TO THE FOREST FOLK… AND TO YOU, IN ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVE STORIES!

I had forgotten about Bambi a little bit. I did see this movie many years ago, thought it was very good, and that was it. When I bought it on Blu-ray and saw it again now, I was bowled over. Walt Disney allegedly intended this project to be his follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but it got delayed and other films were released – masterful ones, including Dumbo, which also starred an animal. That was an elephant in a fanciful story, but Bambi was something else, a white-tailed deer in a film that was much more down-to-earth.

We follow a group of animals in a forest over four seasons, but several years. When Bambi is born, it’s a big deal and the other animals regard him as a member of a royal family. His father is the Great Prince, a magnificent stag who guards the forest. Much closer to Bambi in his life though is his mother and the friends he soon makes, a playful rabbit called Thumper and a bashful skunk, Flower. One day, Bambi also meets a female fawn, Faline, an acquaintance that will reappear in his life later on.

Already at an early age, Bambi learns what is the greatest threat against the forest, himself and everybody he holds dear – Man. It is the job of the Great Prince to warn the animals whenever Man is nearby…

A brutal reminder of real life
Bambi
wasn’t a great hit with hunters. They didn’t appreciate being vilified in this movie, and there were also critics at the time who thought that Disney had given up on fantasy and charm, what made his animated films special. Instead, the audience had to see Bambi’s mother die and be brutally reminded of the awful real world. The great critic Manny Farber called it ”unpleasant”. Times have changed. Now we consider this film a masterpiece and critics are much more inclined to praise an animated film that addresses difficult issues.

The Blu-ray I bought contains a dramatized script meeting where we hear the men behind the film discuss how they wanted to see Bambi realized, and it’s fascinating how unorthodox they were in their attitude at times. Their dedication is obvious in the film; the story is simple and straightforward, there isn’t much dialogue and the whole film has visual qualities reminiscent of a painting. The filmmakers spent a lot of time studying both the animals and the forest itself in Vermont and Maine, taking pictures and doing sketches. The forest has a vibrantly lush look and some of the sequences are stylized in imaginative ways, such as a duel between the adult Bambi and another stag. Part of this artistic approach is the irresistible music, which has symbolic value at times. The lovely ”Little April Shower” with its choruses becomes a homage to the beauty and volatility of spring. Composer Frank Churchill is also responsible for a simple theme that represents Man at his most ominous; understandably, there have been comparisons with the music that John Williams wrote for Jaws (1975), which also represented an (initially) unseen menace.

This is a film that relies heavily on your emotions and impressions rather than traditional fairytale elements. A wonderful, amusing idyll is created in the woods, and the cruel interruption in the shape of a violent Man is horrifying; so is a climactic fire near the end, one of several classic sequences. Bambi is a sweet film that draws you in, its seasonal charm interrupted by gripping tension and sadness.

The film wasn’t a big hit at the time; the financial struggle of Pinocchio and Fantasia also posed huge challenges for Walt Disney during World War II. Considering how amazingly different Bambi was to most films it’s hard to understand why people didn’t appreciate it better.

Bambi 1942-U.S. Animated. 69 min. Color. Produced by Walt Disney. Directed by David Hand. Screenplay: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright. Novel: Felix Salten. Music: Frank Churchill. Songs: Frank Churchill, Larry Morey (”Love Is a Song”, ”Little April Shower”). Voices of John Sutherland (Adult Bambi), Sam Edwards (Adult Thumper), Sterling Holloway (Adult Flower), Paula Winslowe, Will Wright, Ann Gillis.

Trivia: Followed by a direct-to-video sequel, Bambi II (2006).

Last word: “The story of ‘Bambi’ had a so many possibilities, you could go off on a million tangents. I remember one situation when Walt became involved with himself. He said ‘Suppose we have Bambi step on an ant hill and we cut inside and see all the damage he’s done to the ant civilization’. We spent weeks and weeks developing the ants, and then all of a sudden we decided, you know, we’re way off the story, this has got nothing to do with the story of ‘Bambi’. We also had a family of grasshoppers, and they get into a family squabble of this or that, and Bambi is watching all of this, and here’s the big head of Bambi in the grasshoppers. And what’s that got to do with the story, and this would go on many times.” (Animator Mel Shaw, “The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born”)

 

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