I really needed to get back into writing here and after several failed attempts at anything, my epiphany came when I remembered Disney. So here’s my shot at rebounding with another classic: Bambi from 1942. Like the previous entries, the animation here sometimes is really stunning, using an impressionistic style at times and working with silhouettes and colors in a really innovative way. They story is quite boring and the movie feels much longer than the short 69 minutes it is.
The movie starts with a ridiculously long pan on a forest, just a forest without any movement for one to two minutes. This is followed by lots of cute animals who are sleepy and are just waking up to a new day. Their morning routine is interrupted when there is an announcement of the birth of the new prince. Yes, prince. While the movie seems to depict a disneyfied version of a normal forest, suddenly there is an aristocratic system in place. The “Great Prince of the Forest” is a majestic deer who hovers with his presence over the other animals. I don’t want to discuss why one species is granted royal status while the others are just peasants, since that is par of the course for Disney movies. It is their way of instilling an idea of authority and a hierarchical society in young minds right from the start. One birth being more special than others also has some religious inclinations, of course, that basically steer into the same direction.
Bambi, the new prince, slowly starts to walk and grow and when Thumper, a young baby rabbit (and later best friend) points out to Bambi’s mother that he isn’t good at walking, he is reprimanded by his own mother right away but not directly. All she has to say is “What did your father tell you this morning?” because that is the black pedagogy that was the main force in child rearing at the time (and still is in many places today). She doesn’t tell him about their values or traditions but forces him to feel bad about himself for forgetting that. Don’t forget, his mistake was to be honest! But he has learned not to speak up against his parents and recites his father’s lines “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” That of course doesn’t sound like a nice thing to say to your child and it is clear that Thumper didn’t intend to make fun of Bambi, but all that matters is that the authoritarian presence of the (absent) father is reinforced. He laid down the rules, the mother is enforcing them and the child has to obey them. Later there is another scene where Thumper has to recite a line about eating flowers and he does, but shows some sense of a rebellious nature when he adds a line, which he only whispers to Bambi.
Bambi’s mother is no better. Bambi, who is scared of many things throughout the first part of the movie, at one point wants to run into a meadow but is stopped in his tracks by mother. She tells him that it is dangerous because they can’t hide in the meadow. While I respect the movie’s attempt at showing that animals live in danger because of man (with some reservation, more on that in a moment), the child rearing still includes a lot of fear. Bambi is very curious, but his curiosity is strongly limited by his mother, while his fear is increased. This also increases the dependence on his mother of course.
When Bambi meets another young deer, a female one named Faline, both kids are told by their mothers how to deal with each other. It is a lesson in manners which seems very awkward and adds another layer of anthropomorphism on animals that already are modeled on human behavior to an extreme. Instincts seem secondary to those creatures.
In the next scene, The Great Prince reappears, making all the grown up deer stop in their tracks as he loftily walks across the meadow. Bambi is a bit confused but his mother explains that everyone respects him because he is the oldest and “very wise.” Although it was clearly implied earlier, she doesn’t mention that he is also Bambi’s father. Instead she talks about him like some far-distant figure, like some concubine who has to sleep with the king but is not actually allowed to talk to him. As a depiction of animal behavior, this would seem less strange but that is why the mixture of animal and human behavior makes all of this so weird and problematic.
So, about the depiction of animals being hunted here. I’m all for showing that animals don’t need to be killed for no reason and to show sport hunting as a stupid and unnecessary activity. The movie does that well enough for its time. One of my problems is with just naming the big evil here “Man” as it tells the audience that the problem isn’t a culture of hunting or using animals for leisure or not respecting nature. No, the problem is us. If you’re human, you are a potential deer killer. Yes, even you, little kid watching this movie, could be killing Bambi’s mother because you are human and humans are inherently bad and flawed. How about that for teaching kids some self-worth?
This is just one aspect that makes the movie’s infamous scene of Bambi’s mother getting killed so disturbing. It’s sad and tragic but there is more behind it. Another aspect is guilt. Bambi, now older, is depicted as somewhat spoiled as he complains that winter is too long and he is hungry. So his mother, for a change trying to listen to her kid’s wishes, takes him out to find some food. And once they find something and Bambi is eating away at some delicious grass, Man sneaks up on them and kills Bambi’s mother (who never even got a name, not even The Great Concubine). So, if Bambi wouldn’t have been so greedy (or hungry), his mother might still be alive. The movie doesn’t emphasize that but the implication is there.
And all of that beside the fact that showing a mother’s death is always traumatizing for a young audience and although Disney movies have always been doing that and continued to do so for decades, this one might be one of the most disturbing. When the Great Prince finds him he just tells him that his mother is gone. No comfort, no empathy, just the “strong fatherly figure” that doesn’t deal with emotions of course.
There is a time jump and suddenly we’re in spring, all the three friends of Bambi, Thumper and Flower have grown up into teenagers and Friend Owl warns them that they might fall in love now and that it would mean that they basically become crazy. He describes it like a danger, like a sword hanging over their heads and while the movie ultimately doesn’t follow through with that idea, the thought is still placed into the young audience’s mind. What the movie does follow through is depicting the three friends falling in love with female counterparts who all use their looks to screw with the boys’ heads (or the phallic symbolism of some body part stiffening or twitching). The females all are seductive, show off their beauty and kind of enchant the poor guys. It’s pretty disgusting if you think about it. Boys will think that love is a scary thing you have to be wary off and girls will think that it’s their job to seduce the boys.
In another disturbing mixture of human and animal behavior, Bambi has to fight with another deer over Faline. Animals do that of course but since the movie follows our idea of romance, Faline and Bambi are “meant for each other”, so when another deer (drawn in dark colors and evil red eyes) shows interest in her, it becomes a rape vs. love conflict. Faline, who was kind of a strong female character as a kid, now becomes a victim that needs to be rescued by Bambi, a role she now inhabits for the rest of the movie, completely discarding her previous personality once she becomes Bambi’s partner. Don’t show this movie to girls. Or boys.
The movie ends with another attack of Man, in which seems like an army of hunters is shooting up the forest like the crew in Predator with their minigun. The stylistically interesting decision to never actually show a human being (or a hunter) reinforces Man as an idea. It’s not “the hunters” or “this character with a gun”, it’s humans in general. Humans kill mothers and cute birds and they burn forests. You are human. Go figure, young child.
In the final scene, Faline gives birth to two new deer, which again is celebrated by the forest’s animal citizens. Like in the beginning, the father is absent at this birth. Instead, he is standing high above and far away with his father, while his partner, who just gave birth, can only look at him. Bambi himself can’t enjoy his moment as the new patriarch and demi-god, since his father walks away without a word, leaving Bambi longing for a moment. But the moment passes and Bambi takes over the position as adistant father and husband whose position of power is more important than being part of your family.
And that’s it. Let’s summarize:
- Listen to your parents and do what they say (even if you don’t like it).
- Animals are like us unless they aren’t.
- Humans are bad.
- Fathers don’t take care of their children, that’s a job for mothers.
- If you’re a boy, love is scary.
- If you’re a girl, you have to fulfill your duty to find a good partner and bear his children.
- Mothers can die at any moment, so don’t attach yourself too much to her.
- Some people/animals are better than others.
- Killing animals is sad.
Would you still show this to your kids?