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Movie Reviews : Animation in ‘Bambi’ Deer to the Child in Us

Walt Disney’s “Bambi” (in rerelease citywide stands out as a rare example of communication through visual imagery in an era dominated by stiffly moving cartoon characters that chatter incessantly.

In telling the powerful story of a young deer coming of age, this 1942 animated feature needs only 900 words of dialogue. Complex changes in the attitude, self-image and relationships of the characters are shown rather than described. When Bambi rubs the velvet off his first antlers against a tree, the audience doesn’t need to be told that he’s proud of his new maturity: It’s evident in the way he moves and stands.

Based on Felix Salten’s 1935 novel, “Bambi” ranks as the most atmospheric of the Disney features, with the camera lingering on shots of a deep, misty forest. The Impressionistic backgrounds, inspired by the watercolors of painter-production designer Tyrus Wong, contrast with meticulously observed details: The animators capture the delicate patterns of raindrops striking the surface of a pond, the rhythm of a field mouse’s frantic scamper, the gentle motions of wind-borne autumn leaves.

This realism provides the necessary setting for both the dramatic actions and the cartoon antics of the characters. When Bambi and a rival stag duel for the affections of Faline, the young doe, their bodies are reduced to starkly lit semi-abstract forms. Before the rabbit Thumper drums on a log, he warms up by rotating his foot in full circles (which would break a real rabbit’s ankle). The audience accepts these distortions, because those carefully rendered details make the forest and its inhabitants seem real.

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But “Bambi” owes more of its enduring appeal to the charm of its characters than to its visual wizardry. The studio artists transformed a minor rabbit character in Salten’s book into Thumper, one of the most endearing figures in the Disney canon. Peter Behn’s unaffected voice blends perfectly with the deft animation. When admonished by his mother, Thumper moves with the body language of a small boy who’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. His merry, self-assured glide across the ice offers a hilarious contrast to Bambi’s spindly-legged awkwardness.

Despite all the good fun, “Bambi” remains a potent story that touches deep fears and emotions. Few scenes in animation--or live action film--match the poignancy of the death of Bambi’s mother, a sequence that still moves children (and adults) to tears.

One of Walt Disney’s daughters reportedly reproached him for killing the mother deer; when he said that the scene was in the book and he couldn’t change it, she replied that he had changed other things in the book and he could have changed that as well. He was wise not to: It’s the mixture of genuine tears and laughter that distinguishes “Bambi” from the one-note animated features of recent years.


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