Bambi was the last film in what was considered to be Disney’s First Golden Age. After this, the studio favoured cheaper films with established characters, instead of riskier films like Fantasia. Yet the films that followed – starting with Saludos Amigos that will be covered next week – have not entered public memory or consciousness in nearly the same way as these first five films. Each film from the Golden Age has at least one iconic scene, one moment that most films can only dream of. Some of them are positively bursting with such shots or sequences, establishing each one as a classic in some capacity. As a run of films, it’s almost unparalleled in the sustained quality of each entry into the canon. Even Dumbo, which I had some reservations about, has one of the greatest animated animals ever on film. Bambi ends this age in spectacular fashion, a film chock full of unforgettable moments and stunning images. These films are iconic for a reason: they are works of art, rich in aesthetic beauty and universal themes; they are great stories.
Bambi follows in the footsteps of Dumbo with an animal baby being born at the very beginning, and asks the audience to invest in a cutesy young creature and all his animal friends. Yet it pushes some of the key ideas from Dumbo even further, making it a more dramatic experience. So instead of the men being faceless silhouettes, as in the previous film, Bambi turns them into an almost entirely invisible threat. The menace is always there, seen in a drift of smoke from a fire, or heard in gunshots that ring out across the meadow. You only ever see the effects of man, never the face of him, making the danger more palpable; a feeling compounded by some of the gunshots finding their mark. There is a sense that no character is safe, intensifying the final scenes as hunters stalk the forest creatures, and fire begins to wreak havoc on the woodland.
Another key development from Dumbo is that instead of just looking at the main character’s childhood, it spans his full growth from fawn to stag. Whereas Dumbo was just a moment in one animal’s life, this is a series of events, from first words to first love, giving the film a more expansive arc compared to the intimacy of Dumbo’s story. Yet the story is more than just a coming-of-age tale, as the imagery is concerned with Bambi’s emerging status as an iconic hero. Early on in the film, Bambi is shown in bright, colourful detail. The animators show even his smallest reactions to everything, his movements are skittish and awkward. This is Bambi as an explorer, seeing the world for the first time and filled with wonder at everything within it. It’s a similar experience for the audience, left wide eyed at the softly coloured, pastoral landscapes that Bambi ventures into. It walks a fine line between saccharine and idyllic, and sometimes it crosses over to the wrong side of it, but this is largely a magical world, made all the more special by the feeling that everything is new and exciting.
As Bambi grows older, some of the intimacy is lost, and crucially the death of his mother causes a distancing between the audience and the hero. It’s a haunting, traumatic moment, as the gunshot rings out and the baby deer skitters, alone, into the woods. There’s something immensely distressing about the way the newly orphaned fawn calls out for his mother, who is shortly to be venison. The last shot of Bambi as a fawn is him becoming a silhouette in the snow, following his regal, mysterious father into the fog. This is the first time we see a major (good) character die in a Disney film, and while it’s something they will return to more than once, this death remains one of the most powerful. The unseen nature of the violence is what gives it the power to traumatise children around the world.
This upsetting moment is an essential part of Bambi’s development. When we next see him, something is different; there’s the obvious change of a deeper voice and some adolescent antlers, but there’s a new attitude, and the audience sees him a bit differently. The image of him in silhouette is never shaken off after the scene in the snow, and when Bambi has to challenge another stag to a fight, the animators taking away all the details in the frame, reducing it to a clash of colours and shadows; Bambi is slowly becoming more than a character, he’s turning into an icon. The final shot of Bambi is the most distant yet: the camera has finally removed any sense of intimacy with the hero, and he instead stands on a rock, watching the birth of his children from afar. The camera pans out, showing nature in all its glory with Bambi at the centre. The image is majestic, epic, iconic. Shown in just an outline, the myth of this character is now greater than the details. His arc is complete, and he has emerged as a hero.
Interestingly, The Lion King follows almost exactly the same arc, as a mischievous, adventurous prince of the animal kingdom is transformed by the death of a parent, before taking on his role as king. Some shots from Bambi have almost exact replications in its ’90s counterpart, and Bambi’s final position atop the rock, surveying his kingdom, is mirrored by Simba’s triumphant roaring on Pride Rock. The Lion King is obviously a much lighter film than its predecessor, but it wears its influences on it sleeve, taking Bambi’s ideas about mythic heroes and placing them in a new story. It’s a sign of the success of the first Golden Age that film makers continue to return to the images and themes of these films.
The sense that Disney are deliberately creating iconic images is perhaps what makes the Golden Age so resonant even to this day. Each one of the films ring with universal themes, transcending their status as children’s cinema to become works of art. They each take on different forms – fairy tale; morality tale; musical; family story; hero myth – but are united by gifted storytelling and stunning, hand drawn animation that marks each one out as a classic. Bambi may have been a financial flop, and the last film in this amazing era of animation, but it’s a moving, memorable and beautiful way for the period to end.