Friday, April 13, 2007

"Bambi" (1942)

No, it doesn’t make me cry and yes, I would admit it if it did. “Dumbo” still gets to me and “Pinocchio” turns me into a quivering mass of reconstituted childhood trauma every damn time, but “Bambi” is just too obviously manipulative to work on a big, tough bruiser like me. Besides, venison is delicious.

Okay, we had to get the deer hunting joke out of the way, but honestly I don’t remember ever becoming misty-eyed over “Bambi.” How can that be? Disney used to re-release the animated films every seven years or so on the theory that that time span allowed a new generation of kids to crop up. “Bambi” was released originally in 1942, which means I could have seen it around 1956, when I was seven. Since the movie is a checklist of childhood horrors—random violence, separation from the mother, death of a parent, a distant and aloof father, being cooked and eaten—not being affected by it seems unlikely. Maybe it was just too frightening.

The picture opens with a moving multiplane shot that takes us into the forest, where all is lush, damp, and deeply verdant. You can feel this place in your bones. It’s nature stunningly realized until Friend Owl flies into the frame and suddenly we’re in the midst of a cartoon.

The animals of the forest—the nice ones, anyway (no bears or wolves; just cute bunnies and birds and moles)—gather to see the new young prince, the fawn that will turn out to be the title character. Special interest is taken in him by Thumper a young rabbit who was modeled, they say, after the child actor who supplied the voice, Peter Behn (no other credits). Behn’s over-done voice acting is one of the reasons the movie is considered by many to be too precious. It’s a cutesy performance that, to give the young fella credit, is exactly what Disney wanted, but every time Thumper opens his mouth you can sense the glee with which the certifiable cynics at Termite Terrace—the shack in which the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes were concocted—rubbed their hands together and dreamed of parody.

The script is by Larry Morey, who had already written the lyrics for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Morey’s observation of the behavior of children is very sharp as portrayed in Thumper. Always offering advice and making politically incorrect observations about Bambi’s clumsiness, Thumper is every slightly older know-it-all.

Bambi ages and the seasons change. There is no real narrative to the movie, again at Disney’s behest. We see a series of vignettes of life in the forest and on the meadow, places that are Paradise for the animals until the arrival of man, who brings his fall from grace with him.

As new spring grass pops up, Bambi and his mother venture out into the meadow. All seems well, but then Edward Plumb’s music darkens and the camera creeps closer to mother and son in what may be one of the earliest uses of the stalking camera technique later used so effectively by Bob Clarke in “Black Christmas” and then popularized by John Carpenter in “Halloween.” Shots ring out. Bambi runs back to the woods but his mother doesn’t make it. We don’t see her bloodied body, although that was originally included in the planning stages, but we know she is dead.

Then, with a sprightliness that seems almost callous, a perky little song springs up and all is joy again, as if grief passes in the blink of an eye. Certainly the death scene is powerful and for many viewers it’s the only one they remember, but it passes quickly and isn’t referenced again.

But now Bambi is a young adult and he meets again Faline, the doe he knew as a child but developed into a Cervidae Rita Hayworth. He battles for her with another lusty young buck and then the hunters come back, this time with dogs. Disney began working on the film in 1936 so it’s unlikely he had Nazi collaborators in mind, but if he did they would be hunting dogs. If Bambi lost his mother to a lone shooter, this hunt is like Custer sweeping through an Indian village. And then, when the dogs are evaded, a fire begins in the hunters’ camp.

But we’ve had all the death we’re going to get and the forest will emerge from the conflagration for an spell of rebirth.

As is usual with Disney animated features from this period, the actors are given no screen credit. Donnie Dunagan, who played Peter von Frankenstein in “Son of Frankenstein,” voices young Bambi. Ann Gillis, who was Becky Thatcher in 1938’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and whose last role would be as Poole’s mother in “2001,” is the mature Faline.

David D. Hand was the supervising director, each sequence being directed by a different animator, and the source novel was written by Hungarian Felix Salten, who would also contribute the books Disney later filmed as “Perri,” a live action movie about a squirrel, and “The Hound of Florence,” which would later emerge as “The Shaggy Dog.”

“Bambi” was and remains a miracle of 2-D animation. It was intended to be Disney’s second animated feature but its creators took such care with the details it was beaten into theaters by “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo,” and that perfectionism shows in every cell.

Its lack of a strong narrative structure hurts it, leaving sentimentality to do the work usually performed by story, but taken purely as a year in the life of the forest and its denizens it’s still hard to beat. See it as a child and when the memory of it ceases to haunt you, see it again.

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