Favorite screenplays: Bambi part 1

We start in a forest.  And not just any forest.  A dark, gorgeous, ancient-growth, primeval forest.  This forest, we can see, has been around forever, untouched.  The untouched quality is important: this is not the realm of civilization, this is the realm of nature.

It’s morning.  An owl heads to bed.  A squirrel and chipmunk wake up.  A trio of baby birds fight over berries.  A mouse awakens and washes its face in a dewdrop.  The actions are gaggy, in the Disney style, but gentle and loving.  Gentleness is a key word for Bambi.  It does not assert, does not insist, does not demand.  It sits back and observes.

A bluebird comes with an alert: the "new prince" is born!  Everyone scurries to the birthplace.  Everyone seems to know where that is.  Raccoons and moles and birds and mice all scurry to the same place.  The owl, in honor of the occasion I suppose, does not stop to eat any of the small rodents.  The Disney studio would later pay homage to this sequence at the beginning of The Lion King.  On balance, I’d say that the two sequences are evenly matched.  Bambi‘s has tenderness and humor to it, The Lion King‘s has spectacle, grandeur and punch.  The Lion King‘s sequence also makes a little more sense: the lion is, after all, the top of the food chain in its world; why a deer is the Prince of the Forest is a little harder to justify.

But the point of the "gathering of animals" sequence (which accounts for the first eight minutes of the movie) is not that Bambi is a born a ruler of forest creatures, but that he is born, period.  And that’s why the sequence shocked me at age 28 — Bambi is not a deer at all, Bambi is a baby, and the forest creatures are his family, his community.  It’s a metaphor — everyone wants to see the new baby, no matter whose it is.  Once Bambi matures, the forest creatures lose interest in him and eventually don’t even give him a second glance.  When he’s no longer new and cute, who cares?

Bambi’s mother, a paragon of grace and patience, accepts the compliments of the community, but since they’ve gathered, she nudges her child awake.  It’s showtime.  Bambi awakens, frightened at first at all the attention, then charmed.  First, "They’re all looking at me," then "They’re all looking at me!"  Knowing that something is expected of him, but having no idea what it might be, Bambi tries to walk a few halting steps.  Thumper, a young rabbit, notices Bambi’s clumsiness and criticizes it.  He’s not being mean, exactly, he’s just being observant, in the way of a child who can’t quite keep from speaking his mind.

His few steps exhaust the young prince, and he curls up again in the safety of his mother’s shadow to go back to sleep.  The community departs, having gotten their look at the new baby.  The owl shoos away a lagging chipmunk, with a look that suggests that he’s marking him for dinner later.  High above the forest floor, on a nearby bluff, a stag appears to look down upon the scene.  This is, of course, Bambi’s father.  Why isn’t Bambi’s father there with the mother?  Metaphorically, I’m not sure, but a lot of the other woodland creatures also seem to be absent fathers.  We never meet Thumper’s father, although we hear tell of him.  All the other young creatures are led around by presumably the mother of the brood.  Where are the fathers?

Two possibilities strike me: one, Disney’s idea of "the home" means that the mother attends to the care and the development of the child while the father is remote and inaccessible; two, there is some sort of metaphor for WWII happening here — the fathers are all away fighting in Europe.  I don’t buy the WWII metaphor — Bambi came out in 1942, I can’t imagine that Disney was thinking too much about WWII while he developing it.  Rather, I think Disney’s vision of family means that Dad is out "doing something" while the Mom stays home and does Mom stuff.  And that was, certainly, the predominant model of mid-20th-century America.

After this eight-minute introduction, we jump ahead a few weeks.  Bambi is out and about, always with his mother, acquainting himself with his world.  Everything — everything — is new to him.  Plants, animals, weather, everything is baffling and exciting and sometimes frightening.  Which is, of course, how a child sees the world.  A young child doesn’t think "Aha, the world, I’ll go out and get it."  A young child thinks "What the hell is all of this, and what am I supposed to do with it?"  The world unfurls for Bambi — he does not seek, he has no quest, he merely moves through the forest and beholds.  The animation of these sequences is just gorgeous, and reminds me of one of the greatest aspects of Disney: his ability to make us see common things through the eyes of his animators.  When you watch Lady and the Tramp, it’s as though you’ve never really seen a dog before.  It’s like the animators just found out about these things called "dogs" and can’t wait to show them to you.  Long-time WADPAW-reader The Editor mentioned to me that Bambi is like "an animated nature documentary," and indeed it is that, but even Disney’s nature documentaries are narrated and laden with plot and incident.  Bambi, on the other hand, unfolds as simply and quietly as a blossom.  Felix Salten’s Bambi books, though gorgeously written, are also emphatic scolds against hunting.  Disney’s Bambi emphasizes nothing and lets events speak for themselves, and is all the more shattering for it.

For a few minutes, the movie is simply about "the world presents itself to Bambi."  Now it shifts to "Bambi makes his first steps toward living in that world."  He attempts a first word: "bird."  He gets it wrong several times, but Thumper, his older friend, pushes him until he gets it right.  Once Bambi finally gets it right, he can’t stop saying it.  He’s so proud of himself, he prances about.  Then he misidentifies a butterfly, and must be corrected.  Different flying things have different names!  He calls a flower a butterfly because it looks like one, then calls a skunk a flower because it’s in a flower patch.  The world is a complicated place — everything has a different name, for reasons Bambi can’t begin to understand.

(The young skunk, of course, is charmed by Bambi’s misidentification, and names himself "Flower."  We don’t really see what Flower does when he’s not palling around with Bambi, but we can see that he owes his elevated sense of identity from him.  I can imagine that Flower has been made a prince of skunks because Bambi has misnamed him.  Either that, or the other skunks make merciless fun of him due to his sissy misnomer.  But I think the former — Flower moves with confidence and ease through life, secure in his sexuality.  He’s the kind of boy who’s not ashamed to say that he likes flowers.)

Again, the drama of the sequence is "What Do They Want Out of Me?"  We could call this sequence "Bambi’s first day of school."  No child understands why suddenly, after a lifetime of hanging around the house with Mom, they are suddenly thrust into society and expected to perform tasks that they don’t understand or care about.  But the child eventually understands that he or she has to deal with other people and makes a go of it.  This transition is an act of will, and Bambi dramatizes it in real time.

Just as Bambi gets a hang of the language thing, a storm strikes and he runs back to the safety of his mother’s flank.  The rainstorm sequence is impressive in narrative terms because, while Bambi quivers and stumbles on his way back home in his mother’s shadow, all the other animals, from the hardiest raccoon to the tiniest quail, already seem to know what to do.  What a precise observation of childhood, that moment when it looks like you’re the only one who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.  And I suppose you could make an argument that that is a symbol of Bambi’s quest: he wants to know what the hell is going on.  He wants to know what the hell is going on, but he’s not a detective, and he’s not even really curious.  And just as soon as he gets a handle on something, life comes along and changes all the rules on him and he’s a little newborn baby again.  Learn what to call a bird, and life, as life will, shoves a thunderstorm down your throat for your trouble.  Nature, here in this primeval forest, is capricious and wild, at one moment peaceful and gentle, the next moment brutal and loud.  Nature in Bambi is one bipolar motherfucker, and one of Bambi’s problems is learning to deal with her mood swings.

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

    Todd, I really enjoy your breakdowns. They take me back 20 years to college, where an academic exercise like this was a daily occurrence among my crew.

    Breaking down VENTURE BROS is something I still do, in an effort to explain to the newbies why it’s *so damned good* — but it has never really occurred to me to wonder why BAMBI works, why it resonates, why it’s still a classic almost 70 years later. Those things that are relegated to our childhood memories tend to silently become part of our makeup without our realizing it.

    As for nature being a bipolar motherfucker, the hot ones seem to always be a little crazy. (Case in point: I live near Baltimore and we got nearly four feet of snow this month. Crazy.)

  2. I think Beckett did some ghostwriting on this picture.

    Also there is a whole sequence that was cut out after a poor screening in Pamona, where Thumper leads a crack squadron of forest animals on a stealth mission to get revenge on the hunters, but Bambi steps in front of them and preaches a 10 page monologue about the danger of killing and thus turning into that which they fear the most (and something about a pocket watch?…)

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    Bambi’s the Kawaii Kronprinz. He doesn’t live in a primeval forest, he lives in Cute Forest. Primeval forests are icky things. His parents are at the top of the cute chain.

  4. That opening shot is pretty much the establishing shot for the entire movie. It is so dense and so detailed that if you came across it out of context – like catching a glimpse of it while flipping channels – you could be forgiven for failing to recognize it as animation rather than live action. If you look at some of the film’s other backgrounds, such as the ones in Todd’s previous post, you’ll notice that many of them are far less detailed. The chief influence behind this look way an artist named Ty Wong, who painted with a very soft, impressionistic style. These more nebulous suggestions of the forrest setting both kept the backgrounds from drawing too much attention from the characters and made the task of animating a film set in a forrest more manageable. If every shot was as detailed as that first one, Bambi would still be in production. But that first shot is necessary, to establish that the movie takes place not just in a forrest, but in a real forrest. The fantasy of this film does not go much further than the animals speaking English. If Bambi gets into trouble, he cannot ask his fairy godmother for help, be awakened by Love’s First Kiss, or sprout wings and fly away. This is partly conveyed by the generally realistic animation of the animals. But the first indication we get that this is a film set in a real forest and not the world of fairy tales. Because we have this highly realistic first shot, the rest of the movie can have backgrounds that are basically a log and a few blades of grass among nondescript green forms without the audience getting confused about the setting.