Favorite screenplays: Bambi part 4

Without ceremony or warning, Bambi must leave his mother lost in the snow and go off — somewhere — with his father.  Wherever he goes off with his father, whatever he learns there, Disney withholds.  The trauma of Bambi’s break with his mother lasts only a moment before it is spring.

And look!  Bambi is big now!  Is this the same spring that was promised at the end of the "harsh winter" sequence, or is this perhaps a year later?  Regardless, Bambi is well and truly "mature" now, and so are his friends Thumper and Flower.  Because it’s spring, all the birds are going sex-crazy — except the owl, for some reason, who seems to be past romantic leanings.  Sexually, Bambi is finally on a level playing field with his friends — they’re just as suspicious and adolescent about females as Bambi is.  In spite of all the evidence in support of it, Bambi and company refuse to mature — nothing is going to break up their friendship.

Except, of course, something does.  One by one, Flower, Thumper and Bambi all get picked off by seductive, twitterpated girls.  How strange, that not one of this trio of boys even once gets an aggressive thought in his head.  Is Disney seriously suggesting that Thumper — a rabbit, after all — has never once thought of mating?  Even in the bloom of maturity, Bambi‘s protagonist remains resolutely passive, a victim to a predatory female who cajoles and teases him into action.  And again, the moment Bambi gets used to the idea of romantic love, just when he’s literally dancing on clouds, here comes Nature to slap him in the face and change the rules.  Another buck, a brand new character, challenges Bambi for Faline’s favor.  A "tough guy," who wants Faline for a trophy.  Now Bambi, who, five minutes ago, didn’t even want to know Faline, now he has to defend her honor from an aggressive rival.  Given no choice, Bambi fights.  The movie turns violent and expressionist, dramatizing Bambi’s inner mind as he finds, somewhere within the mystery of himself, the will and the skill to fight and win.

Where are the scenes showing Bambi practicing?  How did Bambi suddenly become a good fighter?  Why is there no "Eye of the Tiger" montage, with Thumper as Bambi’s trainer and Flower fetching his water?  Well, that’s not how life is — one doesn’t set out to become a fighter, one gets into a fight, and finds out whether one is a fighter or not.  Confronted with a fight, some crumple or flee, others stand their ground — one never knows who one is until the thing happens.  Which is another way of saying what Bambi is about — Bambi never really gets a sense of "who he is," because life keeps upping the ante on him, saying "okay, but then who are you now?  Who are you now that there’s nothing to eat, who are you now that your mother is gone, who are you now that a girl is batting her eyelashes at you, who are you now that you have to fight for something you want?"

But Bambi kicks the ass of his rival and he and Faline have their "bella notte," with the wind on the long grass under the moonlight. 

Bambi is now, unannounced, the watcher.  He now does the thing his father must have done before he was born.  Something tells him that all is not right in the woods, and his instincts (or the smell of smoke) lead him to a cliff overlooking an encampment — man is back in the forest.

Bambi’s father re-appears, silent as a fog, to tell him to flee.  He outranks Bambi, but Bambi doesn’t follow his orders — instead, he goes back for Faline.  Bambi’s father is looking out for preservation of the entire species, but Bambi is more concerned with his new love.  Who is "right?"  Who can say?  Bambi’s father carries the "big picture" in his head, but he’s also cold and remote to the point of opacity.

The hounds come.  We never see Man, but we do see Man’s hounds — animals who, horrifyingly, work in the service of Man.  Once again, Bambi is at a loss — what could prepare him for an animal that works for Man?  The dogs attack Faline, but Bambi stands his ground, defends his mate, and kicks the dogs’ asses.  Did his father once do something like this?  Would he admit to it if he did?  Bambi’s father seems to be one of those men who feel that action is all that matters, that words are for weaker men.

Bambi is shot while defending Faline.  Or is he?  If he is, his wound is not serious.  But it does knock him down, just as the forest begins to burn from a stray coal from Man’s campfire.  His father appears, again.  "Get up, Bambi.  You must get up," he says.  Again, his advice is simple, direct and action-oriented.  It doesn’t matter that you’re hurt, it doesn’t matter that you’re tired, it doesn’t matter that you’re frightened, it doesn’t matter what you want to do, the fact is you must get up.  And I am reminded that being brave and pretending to be brave are actually the same thing — courage is not the absence of fear, courage is action in spite of fear.

And so Bambi has a second journey with his father — the first was through snow, this one is through flames.  And I’d guess that his journey through the snow was as silent and directed as this — follow me, do what I do, don’t ask any questions, and when we get to the other side you’ll be a man.  No one can explain it to you, the journey from boyhood to manhood, it’s something you must experience.

Faline waits on an island with all the other forlorn, miserable creatures.  Bambi saved Faline from the dogs, now Bambi’s father delivers Bambi to Faline.  Which is, in brief, all a father can hope to do, deliver to a mate a man who was once a boy.

And now, here it is, yet another spring later, and the owl is once again being awoken by news of the birth of new forest royalty (strange how these miraculous births all happen at night — the better to make them more mysterious and unknowable).  Thumper, now an adult, shows up to bring the news — and brings his children with him!  And look, here’s Flower with his boy, whose name is Bambi.  Thumper and Flower, for some reason, have not followed in their fathers’ footsteps, they aren’t absent, they’re right there, taking care of their kids.  So maybe something has changed in the forest this spring, maybe the cycle of distant fathers needn’t be inevitable.

And yet, when the camera finds Faline and her two new fawns, Bambi is nowhere nearby.  Instead, he is now the distant father on the distant bluff, standing next to his own father, who looks at Bambi, lowers his head and slinks away into the forest, presumably to grow old and die alone, his use in this life fulfilled.  Bambi has, literally, taken his father’s place.

The question I have is: did Bambi ever get what he was after?  Did he ever learn, did he ever become wise?  We never saw a scene where Bambi was presented with a problem and knew what to do about it — his entire life was one long series of curveballs and losses.  He never went looking for love or responsibility, those things came to him — everything came to him, and, what’s more, caught him unawares.  One of the starkest, most daring aspects of Disney’s Bambi is that it suggests that there is never a place in life where one can rest, where one can look about oneself and judge things, where one can be comfortable, knowing that wisdom and experience will get one through.  Bambi, rather, suggests that one never gets used to anything, that life has a constantly-shifting set of rules, that adults know nothing more about life than a child does, that an adult is just as lost, just as confused, just as frightened as a child — if not more so.  The mysteries of life never get solved in Bambi, they only perpetuate themselves.  Bambi is only a traveler on this line, never the engineer.

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Comments

13 Responses to “Favorite screenplays: Bambi part 4”
  1. littlewashu says:

    I don’t remember Bambi, as I haven’t seen it since I was five (or younger.) But this essay describes something that is beautiful and true, and it brought me to tears. (And on my birthday, even, traditionally a day of introspection on Growing Up.) Thank you Todd.

  2. Before I wander off into my own thoughts and forget to say it, this series has been a great read and a highlight of each day a new part of it showed up.

    If anyone ever needs proof that Disney movies were not intended as safe, predictable kiddie fare, all he or she need do is to watch the scene with the pheasants. Three terrified pheasants huddle low to the ground as the never seen “man” approaches. One of the birds is becoming increasingly panicked. She wants to take to the air, but her two friends tell her that she must not fly. Finally, scared out of her mind, the frightened pheasant races out of her hiding place and gets airborne, screaming “I can’t stand it any longer!” The other two birds look up and cringe at the gunshot that follows seconds later.

    This is not a scene for children. This is not a movie for children. Not to say that children can’t enjoy it, but it was not made solely for them.

    Speaking of which, Todd, have your kids seen Bambi yet or is it still not down on their shelf?

    • Todd says:

      It’s down on their shelf, but neither of them have asked to watch it. I’ve offered it many times, but they’ve expressed disinterest. I don’t want to force it on them, for fear they then report to their friends for the rest of their lives that their dad “forced them to watch Bambi.”

  3. curt_holman says:

    “Wherever he goes off with his father, whatever he learns there, Disney withholds.”

    My guess? Deer whorehouse!

    Could the whole absent father motif simply be a reflection of actual male mammal behavior?

    • Todd says:

      It could be, but Disney disposes with “actual behavior” any time it suits him — he kept this particular plot point because it meant something to him.

  4. foryourfyi says:

    I haven’t seen the film in decades, but I watched a few clips the other day when you started writing about Bambi. My impression is that when Bambi ignores the Prince’s advice and goes back to find Faline he demonstrates that he has gained wisdom. And when he returns and finds her cornered by dogs, he does know what to do. He immediately understands the advantages and disadvantages: He knows that while he’s outnumbered and more vulnerable, he’s also bigger and faster and can do more damage to them if he is aggressive and mobile.

    He knows he has to keep them busy until Faline can escape, and when she does, he scales a cliff and kicks a pile of rocks down upon them. Whether he’s a good planner or a canny improviser, I’m not sure, but he has gained a measure of wisdom.

    I think the transition to adulthood takes place when he does get up and follow his father out of the burning forest. Lying on the ground, hurt and exhausted (and a newly-minted hero), it seems the one thing he had left to learn was that he could keep going when it felt like he didn’t have anything left.

    • foryourfyi says:

      I can’t undercut your point about never being confortable or able to take refuge in strength or wisdom. Being an adult doesn’t protect Bambi from the forces of nature and man, but surviving and procreating is an achievement in the wild. That’s all there is to achieve, being comfortable is impossible.

      • Todd says:

        This is very true. And yet, the act of procreation, according to the rules of Bambi, separates Bambi from the ones he loves. His mother dies, his mate will never speak to him again, his children may never know him, and his father slinks off to die — he’s triumphant but utterly alone.

        • foryourfyi says:

          Maybe his father’s taking a promotion to *King* of the Forest; it looks like there might be a lot of openings in the organization following the fire.

          If he does follow in his father’s footsteps, he will certainly be remote. It’s puzzling that he would withdraw from his friends and family; as you said, he never demonstrates a desire for solitude until the very end. I suppose he accepts (or is forced into) responsibility as a guardian over those friends and family and sacrifices closeness to them to do it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Now you’ve done it: I didn’t even have to watch the movie again to cry my head off.
    –Ed

  6. A must read…

    Any chance of written commentary on Bambi vs Godzilla?

  7. therrin says:

    Disney released what I presume to be the first, and hopefully the last ever midquel as Bambi 2. It occurs entirely in the middle of Bambi 1. It is all about the time where Bambi goes off with his father and stars Patrick Stewart as the voice of Bambi’s father.

    I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s really bad and Patrick Stewart sounds like he can’t believe the lines he is reading.