Original US release date: August 21, 1942
Production budget: $858,000
Worldwide gross: $267,447.150
It was only four weeks ago that I did a #ThrowbackThursday on the third animated feature film to come from Disney, Fantasia. Now, I’m taking a look at the film that followed that one, Disney’s fourth – Bambi. Fantasia was unique in the sense that – outside of the introductions to each short by the conductor – there was no dialogue in the film. What is easy to forget is that Bambi is much the same. There are approximately 1,000 words of dialogue throughout this entire film. Based on the Austrian novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, the film tells the simple story of the coming of age of Bambi, a deer who relies upon the support of his friends to help him grow and learn about the triumphs and tragedies of life.
The film is very much a product of its time. As I mentioned, there is very little dialogue and the lack of a hook prevents it from being especially engaging. There is no single, driving narrative to propel the film along towards a long-building climax, as we’re used to seeing in modern filmmaking. Instead, Bambi is more of a sequence of learning experiences for the title character in which he becomes more exposed to the realities of the forest and the mysterious world outside of it. A movie like this would likely not capture the imagination of today’s audiences. Attention spans in kids (and adults, let’s be honest) are not what they were 75 years ago. I can just imagine viewers seeing this movie today and then jumping on their favorite message board to type in all caps, “WHAT’S THE POINT?!” Truth be told, it does drag a bit, and that’s even with coming in at a brisk 70 minutes in length.
At the same time, there’s no rulebook for this sort of thing and experimenting with narrative structure is an admirable risk to take. It actually wasn’t uncommon for these early Disney films to struggle with filling time. Remember, feature-length animation was brand new. Nobody had a template from which to work. Disney created this art form and they took the responsibility for inventing those rules and thrust it all upon themselves. Filling time with musical numbers was one of their early go-tos. And there’s a little bit of that in Bambi, but this film is one of the less-musically-inclined of the Disney animated features. Rather, time is mostly killed with Bambi’s playful adventures that are character-building, but irrelevant to the overarching plot and message of the film.
Where Bambi takes its biggest risk and truly steps outside its comfort zone is with the dramatic events that unfold around Bambi, himself. There are lighter moments and there are some truly dark moments, as well, with which you are likely familiar. The film’s goal seems to be to serve as an ice-breaker for parents and their children to talk about the different aspects of life and the challenges that come along with growing up. Potentially touchy and difficult subjects are given full attention – especially death, first loves, and the idea of romantic rivals. Despite the traditional storytelling methods being thrown out the proverbial window, there are numerous powerful and poignant moments that could absolutely lead to some important parent/child discussions. These are very sophisticated topics and including them in a film that was marketed primarily towards children shows just how ahead of its time Disney has practically always been.
Of course, having those important conversations with your children would hinge entirely upon reaching that far into the movie. Whether or not that happens will vary on a case-by-case basis. It would be nice to think that more people of all ages could stay off of their phones long enough to share a movie at home together, but that sadly just doesn’t seem to be the reality in most cases, these days. So, generally speaking, with contemporary audiences, mileage will vary when it comes to Bambi. It’s not among my very favorite Disney films, but I can still appreciate all it brought to the table – especially in 1942, decades before Disney and Pixar were doing this sort of thing on a regular basis. The art style and characters definitely found their place in the mainstream consciousness and have managed to remain recognizable by most people to this day. Even if someone hasn’t seen the movie, they can probably still name Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Owl when they see them. So, even if this isn’t the ideal film for a new-millennium moviegoer, there’s no question that Disney did something right, here, and crafted a film that left an impression on generations of families.
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