Bambi: Beautiful Trauma

Walt Disney alleviates his own films even as he makes them as traumatic as childhood. He introduces a dance number to a Grimm fairytale in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or lets Jiminy Cricket whistle through the hardship of living inside Pinocchio, a film tortured with its desire to be happy. But there’s something cruelly non-alleviating about the bouncy brightness of Bambi. Childhood games lead to survival necessity; friendships turn into the obligation to mate; life creeps towards death and life again. The world of Bambi is so passively hostile that sweet things seem like fleeting distractions in a traumatic childhood. This could easily be a child’s first encounter with death.

But since the film is bookended by birth, the result is to find beauty in that hostility, to look at life as a compilation of hardships and still see the joy. The result, I think, is a little growing up. I don’t think even the most passive little viewer will be the same mental age after this 70-minute life cycle. The childhood of the animals is so vibrant and springy that even leaving home to find love is a tiny tragedy, abandoning old friends for the sake of physical attraction despite an ill-conceived promise to always stay together. Yes, there is the gut-punch involving Bambi’s mother, more powerfully conceived from the eye-level of a child (we aren’t present to see it happen, to get any closure; instead we get only sinking silence and a distant father telling us that nothing will be the same). Yet beyond this famous moment (the film doesn’t dwell on it more than an animal would), the whole picture in Bambi is of a world where nice things don’t last. Children know that flowers wither in the winter. Bambi taught them that mommy and daddy are flowers.

Walt Disney knew that animation didn’t have to copy the world around him; he favored character over reality. When he introduced us to seven dwarfs, he makes sure that they look, not like people, but like their different natures. This was taken further and perhaps too far in Pinocchio, in which there is no artistic reality at all: in the same film, there was a real cat, cutely innocent, and an upright one, who dreamed of being a human and got so drunk that he forgot he used to be an animal.

What Disney did in a smaller way in Snow White, with the animals defining their appearance through actions (quails become matronly because they cluck, squirrels wily because they scramble and fidget) he turns into the whole natural world in Bambi. Everyone exudes their own character by design and, as an upgrade on Pinocchio’s clutter, from within the same stylistic reality. Disney called Bambi his favorite of all the films he made; Eisenstein called it “the purest example of the application of the method of art in its very purest form.” More must be said of it, than just that the Disney studio captured every animal and droplet and tree branch to perfection. What does Bambi represent, not in the scheme of animation only, but in the scheme of all art?

Film has an obsession to preserve life, not just in the sense that a biopic preserves the life of a person, like a portrait in the palace of a king, but as a recorded art in general. In a sense it is as Andre Bazin taught us, like moving terra cotta, a likeness designed from a fantasy of living, to preserve it in an image. Most movies carefully preserve the things that they show: it’s rarer for one to preserve principles of human nature in images that don’t seem to concern them. Bambi is such a film because it isn’t just about one animal’s life. What it’s about, and what it attempts to preserve, is all life.

Nature is packed densely with discoveries in Bambi. It shows in painstaking detail that wisdom is as important as a good heart when trying to survive your own life (which is, of course, impossible). Playing on the ice with the bunny Thumper, whose nose crinkles at the slightest joy, Bambi experiences ignorance without fear. He can’t pronounce “bird” and everyone laughs, children inside and outside the film, more so because he’s talking about a butterfly. Then he learns “butterfly” and says it to a flower, and then a pretty little skunk fellow also gets called “flower” and just lets it stick 'cause he’s too shy to change it and likes being thought of as pretty. Flower has little human feet with pink toes and enters every scene after waking up for it. Thumper recites nutrition platitudes that an unseen father tells him every morning. These are animals, yes, and children. It preserves the niceties forced on them and the tiny wonders they discover for themselves.

Bambi, of course, doesn’t have a father for most of his life. His father is called the Great Prince of the Forest, which his mother utters with revererence. He imparts the forest with its instinct for wisdom. There’s something like a cold shiver at the end of Bambi, even in the midst of its life-renewing warmth, to realize that in this film absent fathers are a fact of nature, and that Bambi will be just as absent to his own children. In 1942, this might have been a vague caution, even a wartime necessity, but in 2019 it’s more a bitter truth. Millennials know better than perhaps any generation that sometimes life doesn’t always give you a dad. Bambi is now an allegory for play in a broken home, a poetry of loneliness that hits harder the better you know it. Its fragrance has evolved; the flower smells wilted, even though it's new. Why won't Bambi come down from the cliff and help raise his children? Because he’s a dad now.

But I mean this in the best possible way. No, Bambi is not all prancing through flowers and skating on ice, Thumper ratcheting up Bambi’s spindly legs like a precarious car-jack. It contains death and sex and life, maybe not to make sense of them, but to make the most of them. The old owl describes attraction to the teen animals like a superstitious safe-sex counselor; of course, they immediately all get erections (the imagery is unmistakable, embarrassingly so, when the animals stiffen up real tall and literally fill with blood).

They never act like friends again, since they have their mates: a tiny ending to this myth of childhood. It happens so fast; they don't even think about it, or say goodbye. Bambi’s courtship is more perilous, since he has to fight for Faline against another buck, whose brows furrow into eyeshadow. The fight is full of cymbal crashes and silhouettes, stabbing and thrusting and manly stamping; the backgrounds devolve into blurs of feelings, all swathes of red and cutting black. It’s like the Star Wars of Disney films. Like the rest of the film, it’s complex behind the visuals. Since Bambi has no quarrel with this other deer except the desire for sex, the fight is obligated and brutal and barely heroic. Meanwhile, Faline waits to be won, hoping her new lover will be the gentle one. Make no mistake: Bambi is not a sexist film. It has the courage to display strength as the natural world’s only moral compass. It does so without aggrandizing it. Bambi does not get a chance to rise above his nature or win in a more sensitive way. He can either kill his opponent or have no children and he chooses as an animal would, guided by his instincts to win violently in a violent world.

This balance between a cognizant Disney cartoon world and the animal kingdom is the dark wit inside Bambi and perhaps why it has had so much influence on anime (Osamu Tezuka, the grandfather of manga and anime and creator of “Astro Boy,” cited Bambi as his favorite film, reportedly seeing it in theaters over eighty times). Nature is often unforgiving in anime, deep-hued, insensitive, and beautiful. Look at the similarities between Bambi’s father and the king of the forest in Princess Mononoke, not only in appearance but in framing, in the camera’s distance from glimpses of a wise and omnipresent protector figure. That film gives him a human face because it asks, as much of Studio Ghibli’s work does, that people see themselves in the world around them, particularly if they plan on living in it. Disney didn’t need human faces to get this across. Like nature itself, seventy-five years later, Bambi still has the power to make us grow up.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

David Hand (supervising director)

James Algar; Samuel Armstrong; Graham Heid; Bill Roberts; Paul Satterfield;
Norman Wright (sequence directors)

Perce Pearce (story director)

Larry Morey (story adaptation)

Vernon Stallings; Melvin Shaw; Carl Fallberg; Chuck Couch; Ralph Wright (story development)

Felix Salten (book)


Bambi Bobby Stewart

Donnie Dunagen

Hardie Albright

John Sutherland

Thumper Peter Behn

Tim Davis

Sam Edwards

Bambi's Mother/Pheasant Paula Winslowe
Flower Stan Alexander

Tim Davis

Sterling Holloway

Friend Owl Will Wright
Faline Cammie King

Ann Gillis

Great Prince of the Forest Fred Shields

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