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Bambi’s a weird one, isn’t it? It’s frequently ranked as one of the greatest animated movies of all time, and yet not many people seem to actually like it. I asked two people, both pretty big Disney fans, to watch it with me, and they both had the same reaction.
And to be honest, I kind of felt the same way. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was around eight and I couldn’t remember that much of it which is kind of weird for a start. I mean, most of these movies I can remember line for line, stored in the part of my brain that should be used for remembering the names of family members.
So why is this the Disney movie that seems more respected than loved? Well, part of that may be that it’s very much a Tar and Sugar movie. For those of you new to the blog, hello, welcome, make yourselves at home…
…and let me explain. A Tar and Sugar movie is an early Disney movie that alternates with little warning between extremely saccharine sentimentality and very dark horror. I’ve already mentioned how Pinocchio is probably the greatest example of the Tar and Sugar aesthetic, but whereas that was TAR and sugar, Bambi is more tar and SUGAR. Yeah, there’s no denying it, this is a very, very cutesy movie. The animal characters, when they’re young, are voiced by real child actors and the character design really tries to squeeze as much cuteness out as possible. I’m not saying it’s not good, or that it becomes insufferable, but by God it’s borderline sometime. So yeah, if you think Disney is all about cutesy little animals learning to be friends then there is a whole lot of ammunition for the prosecution here.
Then of course, there’s THAT scene. You know the one.
I’m referring of course to the scene where Bambi’s mother um…well. You know. She…
Goes to live on a nice farm, Public Domain Kitten. And, I think part of the reason why this movie is remembered a little, well, coolly, is the traumatic effect said removal to a picturesque farmhouse with lots of fields to run and run in and a nice family to look after her had on the generations of kids who grew up witnessing it. I don’t speak from experience, mind. I don’t remember being particularly traumatised by Bambi’s mother…going to live on a farm. I was a nervous child, but one who accepted the inevitability of death with a stoic if somewhat melancholy resignation. Besides, there are some things after which, having been seen, death holds no terror.
God I hate you, you fat bastard.
But just like I held a kind of grudge against Pinocchio for what it did to me, maybe there are people who still resent this movie for being their first real exposure to the concept of….going to live on a farm.
The movie begins with all the animals of the forest racing excitedly to greet their newborn prince.
And oh my God. Walt, baby, it’s so good to have you back!
Seriously, this animation is just….it’s on the same level of quality as Pinocchio but in a very different way. Whereas Pinocchio invites you to marvel at all the wonderfully crafted detail, Bambi is all about the textures. The forest is just so wonderfully lush you can practically smell the bark and feel the mist on your skin. After the rushed angry doodling of Dumbo, this is like eyewash. I spent most of the time watching this pawing the screen like a cat (this may explain my overuse of kitten pictures in this review). The animal animation is just superb, too. Walt had real deer brought into the studio so that the animators could see how they moved and it paid off. I’m not going to do a blow by blow account of the plot to this movie because there really isn’t that much plot to go around. This is a movie you just soak into. It’s more about atmosphere than story. The dialogue is very sparse and most of the film is just Bambi walking around exploring the forest. Oh yeah, speaking of exploration…
There’s one scene where Bambi and Thumper (his little rabbit buddy) are exploring a flower bed and this happens…
Okay, that right there? That’s a meet-cute. For those of you not up on your screenwriters’ lingo, Futuristic Cyber Websters* defines a meet-cute as: “a situation in which a future romantic couple meets for the first time in a way that is considered adorable, entertaining, or amusing.” Think I’m reading too much into this? Well, apart from the fact that they almost kiss by accident (I actually can’t believe I have to write more of this sentence) Bambi calls the skunk a “flower” (you know, kind of like a term of endearment) and the skunk reacts like the cutest boy in school told her how pretty she was and says that he can call her Flower if he wants to. I’m serious, I’m not shipping these characters, the MOVIE is. Flower is so clearly in love with Bambi that it’s not even possible to call it subtext. This is text, plain and simple. Which, I gotta say, is kind of gutsy. You don’t often see cross-species romances portrayed so positively, even in this day and age.
Okay so let’s talk about THAT scene. What really makes it for me is Frank Churchill’s “Man” theme. It’s three notes played over and over again, faster and faster. It’s incredibly macabre, racheting the tension up to unbearable levels. Frank Churchill is the man who wrote “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work” and “Baby Mine”. He had one Oscar and was nominated for a second. So when I say that in my opinion his work on Bambi is his greatest achievement as a composer I hope you will understand the strength of that compliment. Churchill tragically succumbed to depression and shot himself at his piano a few months before Bambi’s release. Watching it again, it’s surprising how short the scene is. There is a little buildup, those three notes over and over again.
Bambi’s mother looks up. Panic. She screams at Bambi to run.
Faster. Faster. Don’t look back. Keep running.
We made it. We made it mother.
A curtain of snow falls, whitening the screen. Bambi stumbles through the snow, calling out for her.
He stops as he sees the stag.
Your mother can’t be with you anymore.
It all takes less than two minutes, and it’s this brevity that makes it so devastating. Bambi is not given a chance to mourn, and neither are we. For all this movie’s reputation for schmaltz, the scene is quite brutally unsentimental.
She’s gone. She’s not coming back. Come along, my son.
And then we cut to this…
It is such an incredibly jarring moment that watching the one scene segue into the other you’re liable to get whiplash.
We learn that some time has passed because Bambi is now almost fully grown and is sporting a set of antlers. So…what was he doing all this time? That’s a pretty big narrative leap. Well, since the movie doesn’t tell us I’ve taken it upon myself to fill in the missing years in Bambi’s story. Okay, so let’s see. His mother’s been shot, he’s most likely distraught, angry, confused, looking for a purpose. Got it.
EXT. BHUTANESE PRISON COURTYARD
Bambi and an Old Man line up for gruel. PRISONERS are scattered in small groups. All eyes on Bambi.
They are going to fight you.
I fought them yesterday.
They will fight you every day.
Until they kill you.
Bambi holds out his plate. Watches gruel dribbled onto it.
Can’t they kill me after breakfast?
Bambi turns from the table. His path is blocked by an ENORMOUS MAN, The Enormous Man SMASHES his plate away.
You are in hell, little deer…
He PUNCHES Bambi- Bambi goes down in a clatter of legs, antlers and hooves.
ENORMOUS MAN (CONT’D)
…and I am the devil.
Bambi picks himself up. Spits out a tooth.
You’re not the devil…
The Enormous Man swings again- Bambi catches his fist in his antler and gores him in the stomach.
So anyway, Bambi’s back and seeking the means to fight injustice when he meets up with Thumper and then Flower who greets them with a big, booming “Hi Fellahs!”
Dabababaaha ewhat?! Flower’s a dude?! Are you freaking kidding me?! Firstly, when he/she was talking to Bambi as a child he/she was clearly voiced by a girl. I mean, there was no way the actor who played Flower as a child was…okay, IMDb is telling me it was someone called Stan Alexander. Jesus. I hope Stan’s voice became more masculine when he hit puberty or he did not have an easy life. But come on..this?
You were told to draw a male skunk, and THIS was your final draft? Pepé le Pew would be all over that! But that means…no. No way. There is no way, in nineteen freaking forty two, Walt Disney had a gay character in his big budget animated movie. You could not get away with that TODAY. If he tried that in the forties they would have burned him at the stake and flushed his ashes down the crapper. No. I’m just reading too much into this. Yeah, see, Flower meets a girl skunk and falls in love with her. My mistake. Okay, moving on. Bambi meets Faline, a young doe he knew in his childhood. He fights a dual with another stag, and by battering his rival and throwing him in a river he wins the right to mate with her.
But then, Man returns. And when I say returns, he basically descends on the forest like something from the Book of Revelations, shooting animals, releasing a pack of hellhounds to destroy everything in their path and finally just torching the forest. Bambi saves Faline from the dogs and then he and his father outtrun the flames and Bambi gets shot but shrugs it off like Fifty Cent. The forest animals escape and the movie skips ahead to the next spring. The movie ends where it began, with the animals rushing to see their new prince and princess, Bambi and Faline’s twin children. And there’s Flower, with his son.
Who he’s named Bambi.
Okay. Seriously. What the fruitcake? Am I going insane? You all see this, right? Right?! Did Disney really put a gay cartoon character in a mainstream movie in the early forties? Did he actually have that kind of cajones?
I’m just so confused. If only there was some signal, some little clue that the animators snuck in to let the truth be known about Flower’s sexuality.
And so we end with Faline tending her two children alone in a clearing, while on a mountain top, Bambi watches over them with the Prince of the Forest, showing that he has finally grown and become what his father was before him.
It’s all so, so beautiful. The only reason that I’ve marked it less than Pinocchio is that Pinocchio had more motion in it’s animation whereas Bambi relies a lot on still painted backdrops.
The Leads: 13/20
This is really a movie more to be appreciated on a visual rather than a narrative level so the characters are all pretty one-dimensional.
The Villain: 18/20
I was actually dubious of this before rewatching the film, but yeah, Man really is one of the all time great movie villains. The incredible, unsettling Frank Churchill score (incidentally,the inspiration for the Jaws theme), coupled with the fact that we never see him makes Man seem almost diabolically powerful. Disney insisted that the Hunter never be shown onscreen, for fear of angering the gun lobby. Ironically, this made him seem even more terrifying and the movie was blasted by hunters who felt the movie demonised their
early warning sign of a serial killer sport.
Supporting Characters: 14/20
Yeah, they’re cute and Friend Owl is kind of fun, but they’re not what you’d call layered.
It might seem low considering how much I’ve raved about Frank Churchill’s score, but that’s almost entirely for the incidental music alone. This film is notable for being an early major Disney movie that did not produce a single memorable song.
Final Score: 81%
NEXT WEEK: Senor Disney is muy bueno. But Senor Unshaved Mouse is…el Diablo! Join him as he reviews Saludos Amigos, as we leave the Tar and Sugar movies behind, and start on a subgroup of Disney movies I like to call the “Never Heard of ‘Ems”.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!