Bambi is not a familiar Disney film to me, though of course the little deer and the fate of his mother are deeply entrenched in popular culture now and I doubt it's possible for any but the youngest child to be surprised by what was reportedly such a harrowing scene for original audiences. It was not harrowing for me, however: it's a favourite family anecdote that when I, as a very young child with work-addicted parents, was taken to a theatrical re-release I reacted to Bambi's mother's disappearance by telling the rest of the cinema, 'Don't worry! She's only gone to work.'
If IMDB's rerelease years are to be trusted, I was two years old at the time, and I haven't seen the film since. At least, not all of it. I had a Bambi duvet cover in my childhood, though, and through clip shows and cameos the process of cultural osmosis has meant that most of the film's major elements were not entirely unfamiliar, but still, I was able to watch the film with a fresh eye.
Quite famously, the film didn't do particularly well on release, clashing with the Second World War, upsetting children with its middle-act bleakness, annoying hunters with its political message and making animation fans question if it had lost the point of animation by focusing on realism. But it is now considered one of the greatest Disney films, its middle act is certainly front-and-centre in any debate on emotive issues in animation and of course it has been very profitable in the long run.
It's also another remarkable reminder of how technically accomplished Disney were in their early years. There was really no competition for them outside the
States. While Princess Iron Fan and Momotarou show animators still struggling to make
characters walk naturally or seem like they have any weight at all, Bambi showcases how characters and
scenery look reflected in water, heavy snowfall and storms and even a fire
raging out of control, which may not quite be up to the standard of later
fires, but is certainly both impressive and cleverly-done, especially in how it
is often offscreen. Similarly, the character animation is superb, with the
mixture of studies in animal motions and cute faces much more advanced than it
may at first seem to one very familiar with the cute Disney animal aesthetic.
One need only look at the rather more dated, strange motions of Friend Owl -
and his gimmick of suddenly getting very close to the screen - to remember how
the staples of character animation were not yet locked in place, and to remember
how unusual this sort of animation was in a wider context, and how very
But Bambi is of course an extremely simple story. Bambi is born, a 'prince' amongst the woodland creatures, and has an adorable time learning to walk and talk with the annoying hyperactive bunny Thumper and the gender-confused skunk Flower. He is impressed by the adult deer, and by his father despite how utterly emotionally remote he is (apparently the subject of Bambi II, though I've not seen it). Then his mother is shot, which is terribly sad, but he grows up to happily find a mate and fight off nasty hunting dogs. The wicked men - never actually shown - get their comeuppance when they cause a forest fire they clearly couldn't escape from (apparently Walt had to be dissuaded from showing their agonising deaths onscreen), and the story ends optimistically with the new generation. It is very simple, and a lot less arbitrary than the likes of Pinocchio or Alice in Wonderland, yet quite surprisingly given its reputation as amongst the most babyish of the Disney films, it is also remarkably mature and uncompromising. More of it is about death and sex than it is about cutesy animals.
Apart from the cyclical framing of death with births, Bambi has a lot in common with The Lion King. Both present their talking animals as just that, rather than giving them human bodies or funny hats, which is my preferred form of anthropomorphism. Neither have human characters, though of course they have their mark on the world and the story of Bambi. Both follow up their heart-wrenching scenes with high-energy contrasting scenes, and allow their protagonist to grow up - albeit very quickly. But there is a distinct difference in tone - The Lion King has the epic proportions of power struggles between royals, whereas Bambi is contemplative and almost detached, in a way perhaps masked by memories of Thumper skating on ice or skunk romances.
Though the story is very light on the ground, there is certainly more to Bambi than I ever gave it credit for, and it remains part of a body of work of a studio far, far ahead of anyone else at the time. Don't let it being the story of an adorable baby deer fool you - there is some depth here, if you allow yourself to look for it.