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Bambi in 2018

[Content note: The whole movie is spoiled herein1]

Bambi is old. It’s a 1942 film produced by Walt Disney. As in the physical man named Walt Disney.

The movie was an initial disappointment costing $1.7 million. It failed to make budget at the box office, grossing only $1.64 million. I think it’s fair to say things worked out for Walt though. To give a sense of the legs on the film, Bambi II was a terrible direct-to-video movie that nevertheless sold 2.6 million copies in the US in its first week.

I heard my first Bambi spoiler something like 32 years ago—that’s 32 years before seeing the film for the first time with my daughter tonight2. One might think that I’d have had the opportunity to forget that tidbit of information along the way, but I hadn’t. If anything, it’s loomed larger knowing that I’d eventually see it with my very sensitive and caring daughter.

Like many old movies, Bambi takes its time just introducing settings. This is a movie intended for the youngest of children, but it might be five or more minutes of run time into the film before the first bit of dialog and plot point occurs. The camera regularly hangs on scenes in a way that could never happen now. There’s no time these days to watch leaves blow and reflections in ponds. If I were to watch the movie again, I’d do so with a notepad to count how many times they thought they were doing something clever by showing an animated reflection of something.

Much of the screen time is occupied solely with exploring the setting. It’s about looking at objects, and not even necessarily through a character’s eyes. It’s about playing on ice and smelling flowers, because it’s a movie about life in the thicket, and the thicket itself as a setting is important to life in the thicket. It’s about faux camera bokeh to focus on one layer of animation rather than others. Someone, perhaps Disney himself, thought this was cool and important to work on.

All this is to say that in some ways the movie feels slow, like a great many movies from the 1940s.

But if it is slow, it is not because it doesn’t go places. Bambi’s mother dies. Even if that were the only thing to happen in four hours, that’s a lot, and it puts other films with more obvious action sequences to shame. Perhaps knowing 32 years ahead of time built it up in my head, but my daughter had no such excuse and was predictably devastated. And it makes the stakes real for the rest of the movie. If the film was willing to do that to her, what else might it do? Later dramatic scenes don’t feel safe for protagonists in the way that cartoon conflicts often are. This movie has menace that a lot of films intended for adults lack.

Also running counter to the slowness is the transition from his mother’s death. As soon as the Great Prince of the Forest speaks the words that seals her fate, we cut to black and we hear cheery springtime music about love. The Owl is explaining why love is terrible, and each of the main characters are non-consensually kissed by their long-eyelashed female clones who they immediately fall for. My daughter was still reeling from the blow, but I chose to let the film continue, trusting the filmmakers to guide the transition. better than I.

In the moments after watching Bambi, I couldn’t help but make parallels to Gone With the Wind. Both films paint sympathetic portraits of characters living a harsh life. Neither film wastes any time trying to understand the motivations of the antagonists. The camera tells you who the good guys are, and it stays with the good guys throughout. There certainly is drama, but retrospectively the purpose of the drama is to give a sense of the lives of the characters, not to tell one particular story. And the lives depicted in both films are mostly nasty, brutish, and short.

Yet, in 2018 the way of life celebrated by Gone With the Wind is gone, celebrated only in parties thrown by Paula-Dean-types. Bambi, and the untold number of deer Bambi represents, is timeless. One must ever be watchful when venturing out from the safety of the thicket.

Bambi photo

Image by Au Kirk Bambi in 2018

  1. To my knowledge, there is no live-action Bambi in the making. []
  2. in Chinese with English subtitles []

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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17 thoughts on “Bambi in 2018

  1. Bambi is older than Walt Disney’s 1942 movie. It first appeared as a book written by the Austrian Jew Felix Salten in 1923. Recent scholarship reveals that Felix Salten wrote Bambi specifically for Jewish children and that the entire book is supposed to be about the conditions faced by European Jews at the time with the deer being the Jews and the humans the Gentiles. Its also a Zionist or Jewish nationalist tale because the Great Prince of the Forest is allegory for Theodore Herzl, the man who organized the desperate Jewish nationalist groups into a coherent organization. Bambi is a Jewish children’s book that got universalized by Disney.

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    • That was a really interesting article, thanks for linking. I would suggest that given the book’s widespread international best seller status before Disneyfication, its universally appealing qualities were recognized by many non-Jewish readers before Disney got hold of it.

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  2. This morning I woke up to 9 F temperatures and hunks of dead deer puked up all over the living room floor, related to an obvious deer carcass outside the window that wasn’t there last night. I’m not sure what went on, but Bambi must have had a rough night.

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  3. The problem with depicting deer as cute these days is that nearly every place I have ever lived is currently struggling with the problems of deer overpopulation. So the deer die of starvation in the winter, or of disease, or by getting hit by a car. Since we’ve done away with all the other top predators, population control falls on us. The county in central New Jersey where I lived three decades ago collected 999 deer carcasses from along roadways in 2016. Fontenelle Forest, 1400 acres of heavily wooded park bounded on three sides by the Missouri River and on the fourth by the city of Omaha, sometimes requires that as many as 100 deer per year be removed to maintain the herd at a size that the area will support. Getting the annual cull started was an extremely difficult job, mostly because, “But, but, Bambi…”

    When is Disney going to do a proper remake, with a bloody-faced mountain lion explaining to her kits that killing deer to maintain habitat health is a moral obligation?

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    • Bambi wasn’t the first film where Disney had their multiplane camera running, but it was the first film where they had its full capabilities available. While the multiplane does some things incredibly well, speed is not its forte — so those long, lingering shots. Disney Studio’s solution to the speed problem didn’t emerge until their Deep Canvas software for Tarzan.

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