If John Ford made an animated film it might be this one, a tender and dreamy romanticization of the majestic North American forest and wilderness and arguably the best animated film Disney ever made.
Bambi (1942) dir. David S. Hand
Animated voices by: Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Peter Behn, Tim Davis, Donnie Dunagan
By Alan Bacchus
In terms of Disney chronology, by release date, Bambi was Disney’s fifth feature film, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Dumbo, but more importantly, it was the last in the remarkable ‘Golden Age of Animation’. Bambi's closest relative in the Disney canon might just be Fantasia, more an visual/tonal essay than a traditional fairytale or other narrative story. There’s very little story to be told at all here, instead, using a dance of image, sounds and music Disney shows us the cycle of life of the creatures of the forest, specifically the majestic deer.
Over the course of four seasons we see the titular Bambi, birthed by her mother into the ecosystem of rabbits, skunks, birds under cover of the enormous trees which look upon these animals. As each season passes, Bambi moves through each stage in his lifecycle, learning to walk, playing with friends, learning the pack hierarchy of his fellow deer, and even procreating for the next generation.
Disney compartmentalizes his scenes in distinct set pieces not unlike Fantasia. The magical work of the handdrawn animators is exquisite, the ice-skating sequence for instance, each movement of Thumper's to teach Bambi how to stand and move on the ice in time with the music creates a touching and delightful dance. Tonally Disney masterfully moves the audience between moments of pure cuddly cuteness to dark and heavy emotional turmoil. The death of Bambi’s mother is a legendary moment in animation – a scene which has stayed with all of us who watched it as children. Looking back with adult eyes, it feels a lot different, quicker than I had remembered. In fact we don’t even see the mother die, the moment is played entirely off screen, leaving us only with Bambi's heartbreaking tear rolling down his face to tell us what happened. A moment so powerful it ranks up with Chaplin’s smile at the end of City Lights in terms of tearjerking moments in cinema.
In between Disney takes time to craft a number of scenes of just pure visual delight. The storm sequence for instance feels right out of Fantasia, and the stag sequence, that is, the running of the male deer through across the plains is like Howard Hawks' cattle stampede sequence in Red River, or the Buffalo Hunt in Dances With Wolves.
It’s interesting to note on the Disney Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, the year of the film’s original release is never stated. Obviously it's a conscious choice by the studio to not place Bambi in a specific era, literally creating a timelessness to its products. Indeed although children may notice differences in animation styles between now and then, Bambi is a film for the ages, adaptable for each new generation. Disney has always done this well, timing their re-releases of their films so that each time it comes back on the market it’s as if we’re all seeing it again for the first time.
Bambi is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment