Looking Back… Disney’s Animated Classics: Bambi (1942)

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Ellen Murray looks back at Disney’s 1942 animated classic Bambi, returning to that trauma and how the film challenged its audience by examining some of the more complex – and even sinister – aspects of the proverbial food chain.

Images of pink flowers and cutsie woodland creatures are what usually spring to mind when one thinks of Bambi. That and, of course, the other thing…

It was one of the first films to cause trauma on your childhood innocence and make you wonder why on earth a skunk character would be called Flower, but Bambi has endured the decades as an undisputed classic – and for good reason. Disney secured the rights to Felix Salten’s 1923 novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods in 1937 but the story was considered too grim and serious in tone to be suitable for child viewers.

The adaptation was an unusual choice for Disney who was depending on the film to be a success to secure the studios precarious future after a string of financial disappointments in the box office. But hey, add in some pastel colours, maybe a few fluffy bunnies, edit out the more graphic violence, and presto you’ve got yourself a kids flick! To be fair, while Disney’s adaptation is an undoubtedly water downed version of its source material, the film still retains a darker undercurrent that continues to fascinate adults and kids alike. People tend to remember the point up to Bambi’s mother’s death but rarely what comes next. What begins as a pleasant romp around a fairy-tale forest suddenly takes a sharp turn when Bambi finds himself without a mother to guide him through his informative years. Concerns about nature conservation and illegal hunting also come to the foreground (indeed, Bambi’s image was used as the face of fire prevention by the American government until 1944) as the threat of ‘man’ lingers ever present over the life of the characters.

For all its whimsy, Bambi ultimately seeks to challenge its audience by examining some of the more complex (and even sinister) aspects of the proverbial food chain. There’s feel-good mush to spare in this film yet danger is never far off screen.

In terms of animation the film also looks fantastic. The decision to use oils rather than watercolours gives the pieces a far richer texture than anything else being produced by the other leading animation studios of the time. Each frame looks like it could belong in a classical art gallery. The attention to detail is breath taking; we see individual raindrops glisten on flower petals and branches move gently in the breeze. The animation was so good, in fact, that it was to later be recycled in several of Disney’s later films. Talk about getting your money’s worth! Very little dialogue is spoken on the film with only an estimated 1000 words in the script. Instead the story is driven entirely by its musical soundtrack and its visuals, ironically creating a world that is much more emotionally engaging by leaving language behind. Or maybe people just really think Thumper is super adorable.

Disney is often held as the forerunner (or enforcer) of today’s mainstream animation standards. While Disney’s dominance over the industry can be viewed as somewhat problematic, films such as Bambi show us why it was they gained such a high status in the first place.

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