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.
With the release of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney has produced its 52nd animated feature film. This doesn’t include direct to DVD sequels, or anything by one of the companies they own (e.g. Pixar). This is their canon of classics, the ones that always cost lots of money in HMV and get re-released every now and then in shiny new formats. It started with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, went via some highs (their first and second golden ages) and some lows (mostly Pocahontas), as well as many films that have now been forgotten by many (who watches The Three Caballeros or The Black Cauldron any more?), and now it is at their most modern, technologically accomplished film yet. Over seventy three years the studio has: had financial booms and struggles; given up, resurrected, then given up again traditional 2D animation; created their own tween-friendly TV channel; had live action successes (Pirates of the Caribbean) and failures (John Carter); bought Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm; run several successful theme parks as well as EuroDisney; generally been everywhere, all at once. Mickey Mouse, that fairy tale castle, and the institution that they represent, have become famous all around the world. Yet the one thing that people keep returning to, beyond the High School Musicals and corporate takeovers, is this canon of fifty two films.
Everyone has their own favourite Disney film, whether informed by nostalgia, admiration for a particular style of animation, or the catchiness of the songs involved. I’m from the generation of 90’s kids who were lucky enough to grow up during the studio’s Second Golden Age, when they produced masterpieces such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and, my personal favourite, The Lion King. As such, these films hold a special value for me as they featured more prominently in my childhood than some of the studio’s older films. But even when approaching their first films now, the quality of craftmanship that went into them is astonishing. The Illusion of Life, a book by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men, shows the skill and artistry behind this studio that was blazing a trail of new animation techniques that still impress to this day. Then, as their First Golden Age died out, Disney went through a quieter period where they made more minor films that are nevertheless still loved to this day. Robin Hood and The Aristocats, for instance,are beloved by fans around the world. Hidden amongst these well known films are a whole load that we rarely watch these days, from films that centre on their figurehead Mickey Mouse, to even more obscure films such as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. I thought myself something of a Disney expert, but when seeing the breadth of their classics canon, I realised how much of their work I was yet to see.
With such a rich back catalogue and plenty of films waiting to be watched for the first time, working my way through the Disney Canon seemed like a good idea. So that’s the plan, and I’ll even watch Chicken Little. There are now fifty two classic Disney animations and, as with most years, there are fifty two weeks in the year. It’s a no-brainer to then watch one a week. That’s right, one Disney film a week for all of 2013. But wait, can I actually achieve this monumental task? Two massive problems raise their ugly head. Firstly, I’m a student with finals and a dissertation I need to do well in this year! Perhaps spending my last semester of study watching classic Disney films is not a good idea. Secondly, many Disney films are rather difficult to find nowadays, either locked away in Walt’s Vault, or prohibitively expensive because they only had a limited release on DVD. So there are problems, and this could well be a fools errand. But nevertheless, I shall endeavour to write something for all you loyal readers, once a week, about a Disney film, going in chronological order.
There will be check lists, trivia tidbits, artwork and personal stories along the way. I’ll approach each film with equal parts objectivity and subjectivity, trying to look at why these films are so beloved and adding the reasons why I, as a twenty two year old who should have grown out of them, keep returning to them time and time again. It should be a fun odyssey through decades of classic animated cinema, and will be a whole lot more light hearted than if I was writing a David Fincher retrospective for some reason.
Feel free to tweet and watch along, use the hashtag #Disney52. And if you live in Edinburgh and own any of these DVDs, let me know cause I only own about six. I hope you enjoy this journey as much as I plan to.