One of the criticisms I've often made of Steven Spielberg is that, in his 'serious' films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, there is a jarring mismatch between the portentous, dark tone of the subject matter and his attempts to win over a wide audience through needless sentimentality. This is not a problem in his better, more popcorn efforts like Jurassic Park and E.T., which embrace sentimentality as a key part of the story and character development.
But Spielberg is by no means the only filmmaker or brand which you could accuse of jarring emotional mismatches. Disney has a proud history of it, and there is perhaps no more illuminating example than Bambi, a film which embodies both this uncomfortable mismatch and Disney's reputation for softening the edges of its source material. It's a film which foreshadows several of the problems that future Disney films would develop, and like Spielberg's E.T. it is all-too-often dismissed as a reeking pile of schmaltzy, sentimental claptrap. But in spite of everything, we keep watching it, and it still has much to offer.
For starters, the visuals of Bambi are magnificent. The film is notable for being the first Disney film to utilise oils rather than watercolours for its background paintings. Tyrus Wong's background designs were revolutionary since their detail was concentrated at the centre of the paintings rather than the periphery, leading the audience to always gravitate towards the spot where the characters would be positioned. While a lot of the backgrounds are very obviously paintings (you can see the brushstrokes in the long grass), the detail and breadth of colour on offer is fantastic.
Bambi continues where Snow White left on in anthropomorphising the forest. But since Bambi is not rooted in European folk and fairy tales, the woods are a lot brighter and less creepy than they were before. And like Dumbo, the characters are beautifully drawn so that we have some idea of how they going to move or speak even before they have moved a muscle. Much of the film is silent, and in fact it could have been entirely silent if Disney had wished so: the story isn't overly complicated, the emotions are conveyed at the forefront and the pacing is reasonably good.
When the film was selected for preservation in the American Library of Congress' National Film Registry, the citation included praise for its "eloquent message of nature conservation." Coming from the generation who grew up with Ferngully and was whipped up into a frenzy by Avatar, you could point to Bambi as the film which created many of the clichés of mainstream environmental filmmaking. There is the rose-tinted depiction of the forest, the anthropomorphic protagonists, and the characterisation of 'man' as the distant, intangible embodiment of all evil. Such is its influence that its depiction of 'man' was voted the 20th greatest villain by the American Film Institute in 2003.
Regardless of whether this claim has any merit, there is no denying that Bambi is unbelievably cute. Outside of any environmental message it may have, the film is on one level about new-born children finding out how the world works. Bambi is naturally overwhelmed by everything he comes across, and his mishaps have to be played for comedic value to a great extent to keep him sympathetic. You can't criticise it for being soppy or sappy any more than you can criticise E.T. for being these things: that's their entire raison d'etre, and they fulfil their purpose with energy to spare.
One thing you can always rely on with early Disney is the soundtrack. The film contains the final work of Frank Churchill, who won an Oscar for his work on Dumbo but committed suicide during Bambi's post-production. While none of the individual songs are as distinctive or memorable as 'Heigh-Ho' or 'Someday My Prince Will Come', the score is beautifully arranged and timed to perfectly match the animation. The scenes of rain falling drip by drop upon the forest are brought to life through a variety of deep wind instruments including clarinets and bassoons, adding weight to all the wonder surrounding the central character.
While its influence isn't as high-profile as Snow White or Pinocchio, Bambi was a highly influential work on animation whose influence grew through re-releases. Aside from its legacy in environmental filmmaking, we can see hints in Bambi of what Hayao Miyazaki would achieve in Princess Mononoke. While direct comparisons are likely to be strained, both films depict deer as the commanding presence in the forest, whose actions influence the wellbeing of all other creatures. There are also aspects of Bambi in later Disney efforts. The cantankerous owl re-appears as Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone, and the device of a child losing his parents and coming back years later is a clear foreshadowing of The Lion King - as are the later shots of the stag duel and the characters being surrounded by fire.
The Lion King comparison does, however, illuminate some of the narrative problems with Bambi. As I mentioned in my review of Dumbo, the majority of classic Disney works are relatively short, with only Fantasia being significantly longer than 90 minutes. But even though it only lasts an hour, Bambi takes 40 minutes to get to the famous unhappy event, and there's only so much cavorting in meadows and clumsy ice-skating that we can take. At least with The Lion King we got an insight into Simba's development in the wilderness, while all we have to go on here is our suspension of disbelief (and a pointless midquel).
This brings us on to the most famous part of the film: the death of Bambi's mum. This scene has a huge reputation, being the first time that baby boomers were exposed to death through popular culture. Sir Paul McCartney was so moved by the scene that he credits it with starting his interest in animal rights. But whether through desensitisation or the film dating poorly, the scene in 2012 seems relatively tame. Since the mother wasn't constantly around Bambi, we don't feel quite as emotionally connected to her, so that even though her fate is worse than Dumbo's mother, it's the 'Baby Mine' sequence which remains the sadder.
This famous section is followed by an equally famous (or infamous) lurch in mood, as we move from the sad poignancy of father and son in the snow, to the bright colour of spring and multi-part harmonies telling us everything's okay. Having accepted that this film is essentially sentimental, it would be hypocritical to accuse Bambi of nakedly pulling on our heartstrings. But even outside of our emotional response, it's a huge and cumbersome lurch in tone which makes us feel like we have started the film all over again. It's like a Cecil B. De Mille film in reverse, where we start with God's great creation and then evil Man turns up at the end to ruin everything.
After the off-screen death and the resulting lurch into forced merriment, we come to perhaps the oddest, most questionable part of the whole film. The love section involves Bambi, now grown up, re-encountering Faline and falling in love with her. Sounds straightforwardly mushy - or at least it would be were it not for what precedes it. This involves the owl spinning his head around like Regan in The Exorcist, before launching into a cautionary speech about love so preposterous that it could have been included in Reefer Madness.
It might seem silly to complain about the sexual politics of a children's film, but they are a little telling when you come to think about it. Bambi depicts a world in which men get to fight, wander off and grow horns with little regard for their offspring, while the women are either protective mothers or incessant teases. This would be fine, if the film didn't overegg the teasing nature of its female characters by making them initiate all the romantic moments - not to mention the bizarre and grotesque decision to cover all the female rabbits in rouge.
Bambi is a film which deserves to be admired for its visuals and legacy, but which should not escape derision for its creative choices. Even without the questionable manner in which it depicts love, it takes an awfully long time to get going and some may still find it all too cute to bear. Ultimately it's redeemed by its extraordinary visuals, great soundtrack and up to a point its cheerful innocence. It's good but by no means great, being neither as rewardingly sad as Dumbo, not as ambitious as Fantasia, nor as all-round appealing as Snow White.