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75 Years After Its New York Debut, ‘Bambi’ Remains Underrated

An impressive masterpiece of art and environmentalism, Bambi remains underrated, 75 years after its New York City debut, which happened on this day. That this is possible in an epoch of exponential global warming and mass extinction is tragicomic, as theater multiplexes swell with lesser works and Earth swelters, afire just like in Bambi’s climax.

The irony may be that Walt Disney had to take pains to water it down. Felix Salten’s source text — Bambi, A Life in the Woods, published 1923 in pre-Nazi Austria — is as lyrically epic as its author’s geopolitically turbulent life. Hitler banned Bambi because it was a popular book-of-the-month standout from a well-published Jew, whose abrupt immigration from Austria to Switzerland set loose a chain of events that landed the American film rights to Bambi in Walt Disney’s lap.

And there it lied, a green rallying cry, anticipating the cli-fi apocalypse to come. That is, until another immigrant with a complex backstory — Chinese-American artist and Bambi production designer, Tyrus Wong — transformed his own geopolitically turbulent experience into one of the most artful expressions of nature ever channeled into animation.

Temporarily incarcerated as a child in California’s notorious Angel Island, and plagued by racism throughout his career, Wong and his poetic, meditative Chinese-influenced paintings, spare yet still expressive in scope, set the style and tone for Disney’s Bambi.

"Bambi" concept by Tyrus Wong.
“Bambi” concept by Tyrus Wong.

As much as Wong’s childhood trauma was about the demythologization of America as a mythical “Gold Mountain” with streets lined with money, his Bambi was about the denaturalization of nature, whose complex details, which had stalled Disney’s production for so long, were stripped and rendered with surprisingly more feeling. Although Disney added comedic characters and elements that could cross over to popular American cinema — some of which can be dissected in a slate of newly included extras on Disney’s recently released Bambi: The Signature Collection — it was emotional response that Salten and Wong and Disney wanted most when it came to communicating what it is like to live and die in the woods.

Because then — like now, but in exponentially accelerated fashion — there is (so) much dying to discuss. Salten’s novel has much slaughter, of animals and men, gun-crazy terrorists known only as He. Translating such death and destruction from book to screen sent Disney himself down some weird streets.

“Suppose we have Bambi step on an ant hill and we cut inside and see all the damage he’s done to the ant civilization?” storyman Mel Shaw recalled Disney asking during a brainstorming session.

“Daddy, why did you have to kill Bambi’s mother?” Disney’s daughter Diane cried as a child. “There were plenty of things in the book that you changed. Why couldn’t you change that?”

Walt Disney also suggested setting fire to the stupid humans who set fire to the gorgeously drawn forest in Bambi’s destabilizing finale, an impressive apocalypse painted directly to cel, which stuns to this day. But then, as today, the cries of burning Earth and its biodiversity, which bring both Salten’s beloved novel and Disney’s decorated film to brilliant life, are just more noise in a global cacophony.

"Bambi" concept by Tyrus Wong.
“Bambi” concept by Tyrus Wong.

Bambi bombed at the box office, 75 years ago, lost in the fog of World War II. In America — a nation, like Germany, whose war machines were empowered by oil, climate change’s catastrophic fuel — the environmental message of Bambi, hated by hunters and ignored by masses arraying for combat, was collateral damage at home and abroad.

Wong was out of a job at Disney by 1941, and Salten was dead six months after Hitler shot himself in 1945. Bambi’s cultural impact would stay suppressed until 1947, when it started recouping losses in post-war reissues — a practice, judging from vault exhumations of The Signature Collection, that continues to this day.

And yet Bambi’s overall legacy remains stunted by the same toxic emissions found in the film — from genocidal humans who should know better as they burn everything down around them. It’s a sentimental education of the highest order, struggling for breath as movies about emojis and minions and other distractions drown it out, in a cartoon marketplace experiencing an economic boom, if not much else. A cli-fi pioneer anchored by the apocalyptic collision of man and nature, Bambi would today perform a public service if it was freely accessible, as a harrowing yet hopeful warning of what happens when we push the environment past its heart-breaking point.

  • SisypheanPellinore

    Great article. Not only makes me want to re-watch the film, but read Felix Salten’s book as well.

    Thanks for this.

  • eh i dunno. I never saw Bambi as a kid, but in pop culture, you always heard it was the saddest movie ever. Saw it many years later as an adult, and din’t think it was nearly as sad as one of my childhood favorite movies The Land Before Time, when Little Foot’s mother dies. I can still bawl my eyes out over that. Also, in Bambi, as soon as the mother is killed, the movie does a time skip and everything is sunshine and rainbows. In the Land Before Time, we see Little Foot grieving over the death of his mother in several scenes before finally moving on when he befriends the other dinosaurs.

    I’ve only seen Bambi once and while I can still remember what happens in it for the most part, Bambi meeting his lady friend deer, the forest burning, Bambi’s baby being born…but yeah…not very memorable for me compared to so many other Disney movies that have had a emotional impact on me and have stuck in my memories forever. It’s a simple film sure, but I don’t think it holds a candle to other Disney films despite it being such a popular film in pop culture History. I mean, even if they haven’t seen the film, most people know what Bambi is

    • Anonymous

      ” in Bambi, as soon as the mother is killed, the movie does a time skip and everything is sunshine and rainbows.” <- Its an event in the life of the forest and the life of Bambi… and as the whole movie its not exploited more than needed. The movie is an impresionistic work of art… plenty of strokes that paint portraits of the life in the forrest. Exactly like que main theme song: "Life may be swift and fleeting, Hope may die yet love's beautiful music comes each day like the dawn". You see an entire life in 70 minutes, not a "normal" narrative story, nothing simple about it.

      Just my two cents :P

    • Inkan1969

      My personal favorite Disney movie is “The Fox and the Hound” with its own violent death of a parent. I love the way the movie uses that scene as its opener, but I’ll admit that this scene along with similar scenes in films like “The Land Before Time” and the “The Lion King”, are following the trope defined by “Bambi”.

      One more point about appreciating “Bambi” as an adult. That death scene now makes me want to cry. But I didn’t cry at all when I saw the movie as a little kid. My context was this, in fact: cartoon characters frequently are the victims of violence. Usually cartoon sight gag violence, but sometimes they die. Or they play dead to fool someone. But when I was a little kid, I noticed that scenes like this only happened to male characters, and the bias really bugged me. So when I saw “Bambi” as a kid, the tragedy of that scene passed over my head. Instead, I thought it was actually really cool that a death scene happened to a female character instead of a male one; I distinctly remember feeling disappointed that they did not show her body. I wonder if anyone else had a similar reaction when they saw the movie as a kid.

    • rolo

      You only saw it once and you knew you were seeing the saddest movie ever…so it is a wonder you took the effort to throw a stick at it. You do know that the Land Before Time and The Lion King all got their emotional mojo from Bambi. To avoid being a simpleton- watch it again.

  • Gabi Vallu

    felix salten’s book was and is one of my favorite books ever. and the disney movie, even though it tells a bit less than the book, is a delicate and poetically deep work as well. definitely gotta buy a copy of the movie. it’s been a long time since I watched it! and also gotta restore my old bambi book. it is so old all the pages are falling apart!

    • Inkan1969

      The article’s line, “The irony may be that Walt Disney had to take pains to water it down” seems absurd, though. Like the Disney studio watering down a dark story is something unusual.

      • RCooke

        Disney didn’t “water it down.” He “distilled” it, captured it’s essence, and made an invigorating motion picture out of a wonderful, if wandering novel. The movie is as “dark,” if not darker than the book, and was a daring film to make then or in any time.

  • WanderPony

    I recently got the film on VHS, and it became one of my favorite films of all time.

    I think the reason I like it so much is because it doesn’t feel like it’s being forced to follow a formula, unlike the Renaissance films or even some of the modern films. Back when this and the other early films were made, there was no established Disney formula yet, so they were allowed to experiment with whatever they wanted. Unlike during the 90’s where they were constantly forced to churn out princess films with goofy sidekicks and “I want” songs.

    Too bad every time I bring Bambi up with other people, they always respond with something along the lines of “Oh! You mean that cutesy film about the deer whose mother dies?” There is so much more to this movie than the mother dying, you know.

  • Inkan1969

    In my opinion, you have to be an adult to appreciate “Bambi”. I saw the movie as a kid and I liked it then for the adventure and the pretty colors, about the same way I liked most every other cartoon. When I saw “Bambi” as an adult, I was really struck by its pacing; very lyrical for the “April Showers” and “I Bring You a Song” sequences, and so ominous for the second hunter attack near the end of the movie (odd how they actually showed the shot-dead quail on screen). And as an adult, I was intrigued by how abstract the artistic depiction of the forest setting would get. I never even began to pick up on these aspects as a kid.

  • Wow, I never thought of Bambi in this way. it’s one of my favorite animated movies, but I haven’t watched it in a few years – clearly I need to get that DVD out again. I greatly dislike re-buying the same film in another format if the one I already own is still viable, but the animation alone might warrant me getting the blu-ray… and my hippie tendencies. Augh, internal conflict.

  • rolo

    It takes a patient mind to take in the pace of the film. It is soft, observant, and wildly beautiful. It puts humans on notice to be aware of the real feelings and life of the creatures around us as every day we learn how close animation’s empathy of animals is to reality. Bambi is funny and beautifully animated (think of Frank and Ollie’s ice skating sequence.) It is a masterpiece and a precious time capsule.