In the history of storytelling, there have been endless coming-of-age stories of a boy becoming a man. Bambi is a little different, though, it's the story before that one: the story of a baby becoming a boy, of a child discovering the world.
"Story" almost doesn't even seem like quite the right word for Bambi. We're simply following a character during the first year of his life. Watching as he discovers what it is to be alive and experience the change of the seasons. Our protagonist, Bambi, has no real goals save the vague instinct to survive and to learn, and there's no real antagonist either. The presence of man is a danger, but not really a villain. Man is as unknowable a force to Bambi as the wind or the rain.
You might not think that would make a very good formula for a feature-length film, and yet Bambi is always interesting, always entertaining. There is, of course, plenty of funny business going on. The Disney animators were at the top of their game at this point when it came to filling screen time with amusing bits of animal funny business. Simple scenes like showing the variety of woodland creatures waking up in the morning or watching as Bambi and Thumper have very different experiences walking on ice for the first time are full of moments that are both amusing and delightful without ever seeming forced. Thumper, by the way, is possibly the most genuinely adorable sidekick in Disney's history.
Thumper... ON ICE!
In the decades to come, Disney would at times add unnecessary "funny" animal sidekicks who might seem out of place or their humor forced. They seemed to feel obligated to try to recreate the moments that Bambi seems to present so effortlessly.
Also, Bambi's story is both completely alien to us, and utterly relatable. He's a different species, learning to manipulate a very different kind of body. He lives among a variety of animal creatures, and must deal with the changes of weather and the seasons in different ways than we do. But for all that, the larger story is the same one we've all experienced and have seen every child experience: he's born into a world in which he understands nothing, and must learn to walk, to speak, to interact socially, to take risks, to seek shelter, to trust, to distrust, to love, and to deal with loss. In the broadest sense, Bambi's story is probably the most relatable of any of the Disney animated features.
Speaking of dealing with loss, it's also among the most heartbreaking. The death of Bambi's mother is so shocking and sad it remains somewhat controversial even today - close to 70 years since its initial release.
But what is Bambi without the loss of Bambi's mother? Without that central tragedy, the whole endeavor would become too uneventful, too cute, and too light a trifle - still lovely and entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. Without the loss of Bambi's mother, we would still watch the little deer grow, but we ourselves wouldn't grow at all.
Hi, I'm your dad. Now that your mom is dead I will start caring about you.
I've come close to making a couple of absolute statement about Bambi above. "It may be the most relatable Disney animated feature." "Thumper is possibly the most adorable animal sidekick. Let me come out and make on definite, absolute statement about Bambi: It is the most beautiful of all of Disney's animated features.
Look at the light touch on those flowers and the watercolor background.
From the first frame to the last, Bambi is a gorgeous movie. The soft-edged, light touch Disney had pioneered with Snow White reaches its zenith here in the lush forest setting that is Bambi's world. Every instant is full of rich, gorgeously rendered detail. It all seems completely realistic, and yet is stylized enough to be art rather than meticulous scientific recreation.
Then, at key moments, the animators make bold choices in both form and color, using a more representational style to underline key moments. Take a few looks:
Sadly, Bambi is the last Disney animated feature to use quite so gentle, soft, and lush an approach to its art. There are many beautiful animated features that followed, but none quite so lovely as these three, especially Bambi. Afterward, the studio had to become more mindful of every penny during the war years, and never quite returned to the rich storybook style of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi. It's been a very, very long time, but part of me still holds out hope that they might try again someday. Until then, it doesn't get better looking than Bambi.
If I were forced to say something negative about this movie, I'd say the only thing that I don't love are the voices of Bambi, Thumper, and Flower in the final scenes, their second set of voices. They had to change, of course, but the switch is always jarring to me. Flower's new voice in particular, just doesn’t seem to fit.
But what a minor caveat this is about a great masterpiece of animation. Deceptively simple, unapologetically sentimental, endlessly endearing: Bambi is one of the greats.
I give it nine out of ten Mickey's: