by Joel Bocko
“Fixing a Hole” is a series whose purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on Wonders in the Dark. The theme for November is “Animated Animals.”
The Story: One spring, a little fawn is born into a world of sunshine and flowers – but as the seasons pass, and the young deer comes of age, neither he nor the world around him will remain so innocent.
“You’d be forgiven for picturing cute, wide-eyed little critters wandering through daisy fields and singing happy songs,” I wrote when introducing this month’s theme, adding pointedly, “Not so.” And I meant it – yet here we are! Well, let this prove that clichés obscure more than they illuminate. The cute, wide-eyed little critters of Bambi inhabit a violence- and sex-filled world of tragedy, stoicism, and carnage. Despite frequent light and happy moments, this is ultimately a very dark forest indeed. Why? To unearth Bambi‘s roots, I dug up the book that gave it birth.
Felix Salten’s Bambi was published in 1923, and it shares the qualities of much classic children’s literature: quiet, thoughtful, with a delicate playfulness, yet fundamentally somber, elementally instructional and subtly allegorical – simple yet deep. Walt Disney more scrupulously balances the dark and light, yet much of the book’s mood and atmosphere is effectively conveyed. Those majestic moments when Bambi and his mother cautiously approach a meadow, or tiptoe through the snow to hunt for food, admirably capture Salten’s spirit. Even those prototypical Disney elements – anthropomorphized chattering forest critters, resembling gossipy housewives or restless schoolkids – have their source in Salten, who devotes many pages to the silly conversations of little birds.
Most notably, the film delivers and even expands on the death of Bambi’s mother – more sentimental than the book perhaps, but also far more shocking and disturbing. In the original story, the little deer is distracted by other adults, and the chapter ends plainly, if chillingly: “Bambi never saw his mother again.” The film is more forceful, less forgiving – the thick snowfall, gorgeously animated, evokes a feeling of confused and anguished distress while Bambi calls for his mother. His mysterious, forbidding father emerges abruptly, silencing the score, and effectively repeats Salten’s sentence, but now to Bambi’s face. It’s a harsh, gripping moment: one of the most powerful, and most honest, in any “family movie.”
The movie departs more from the book in its portrayal of the old stag, and its depiction of Man. On the surface, these features are consistent with Salten’s story – both film and book make Bambi’s father an aloof, imposing figure, and mostly keep the hunters out of the picture. However, Salten allows us into the old stag’s mind, “humanizing” him so to speak, and giving him a more central role in Bambi’s education and survival. The burden and necessity of his isolation – and eventually Bambi’s as well – are also fleshed out and meditated upon in the book. The figure in the film intervenes when necessary, but we never get a sense of how he thinks and feels, or why Bambi should necessarily follow in his footsteps. As for Man, Salten calls him only “He” or “Him.” The Biblical connotations are clear, and indeed the animals regard this mysterious and deadly force as a (false) god, attributing to it mythical powers while also craving His acceptance and approval in certain circumstances.
The book has no Thumper or Flower, offering a tragic figure in lieu of comic relief: a hapless deer companion named Gobo, captured by a hunter as a fawn and presumed dead, only to reappear in the forest with a collar and tales of mankind’s beneficence. This newfound faith is rewarded when he is brutally slaughtered by a hunter – and a later foxhunt scene, in which animals accost the hound as “traitor,” “spy,” and “turncoat,” further underscores the notion that He is a manipulator as well as an executioner. Near the end of the book, the old stag shows Bambi a human corpse, revealing that He is not immortal – powerful perhaps, but made of flesh and blood like the other animals, and that there is Another above them all. The message is clear, and made even clearer when we learn that Salten was a Viennese Jew writing between the wars. The Nazis got it, and banned the book in 1938 – one wonders why it took so long. Bambi is clearly an allegory illustrating the fear, and condemning the faith, of persecuted groups toward their oppressors.
Movies have a way of literalizing allegory, so the antifascist/anti-imperialist element was bound to be diminished, if not lost, in translation. Disney’s Bambi streamlines the narrative, simplifies the character of the old stag, and undertakes that subtle semantic shift away from “Him” (a literary conceit difficult to translate onscreen). As such Salten’s anti-authoritarian subtext evaporates; the animals’ terror is at once more literal (Man, not Him) and more abstract (we never see Man’s face – admittedly a great cinematic device, because descriptions are more malleable than depictions). Additionally, the film softens or broadens the source material in several ways. The animals do not viciously attack and eat one another, as they do in the book (even as they unite in sympathy against the greater threat of man). The comic relief is far more pronounced and silly in the movie, and the depiction of animals in heat is outright cartoonish, veering into Tex Avery territory as Thumper and Flower hilariously turn colors and stiffen up (wink, wink) while wooed by sultry females – the film even takes a flight of fancy, as Bambi leaps among the clouds in an ecstasy of first love.
However, aside from the mother’s death, there is one respect in which the film is more brutal than the book. And timelier as well; the movie concludes with a massive Manmade forest fire. As the flames consume the entire woodlands, a few survivors gather on a tiny island in the midst of the now-orange river, watching as their homes are destroyed by a fearsome and all-powerful enemy. No revenge or resistance is possible, only grim, desperate survival: the metaphorical hunters of Salten’s book had become far more destructive and deadly over the course of twenty years and in this light, the gigantic bonfire resembles a natural blitzkrieg. With the birth of Faline’s twins, and an already greening (if noticeably damaged) forest, the film ends on a brighter note (albeit ambiguously, as we see Bambi take his father’s place on the cliff, far from his happy family). Yet the moment is short, almost perfunctory and indeed, upon reflection, many Disney classics make the cheerful conclusion almost an afterthought following the dark climax. Think Snow White and Fantasia as well as Bambi – when each movie ends, we’re still a bit shaken by the darkness that came before. The characters may live happily ever after, but the stories make sure they earn it…
Author’s Note: “Bambi” is easily one of the most visually impressive animated films of all time, utilizing rich technique and incredible skill to create a world at once naturalistic and impressionistic. However, I focused more on story than style in this piece – because I want to adhere to the short-form discipline of Fixing a Hole, because the adaptation aspect was what most interested me at this time, and most of all because I knew the animation aspect will get thorough, admirable and enthusiastic coverage in the commentary no matter what. So take it away, Dennis!
Bambi (1942/United States/directed by James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright)
stars the voices of Donnie Dunagan, Peter Behn, Hardie Alrbight, Paula Winslowe
written by Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright from the book Felix Salten • music by Frank Churchill, Edward H. Plumb • animation department: Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, and others • produced by Walt Disney
Last week’s entry: Who Framed Roger Rabbit