BLAM!

Cut to this day in 1942, when Walt Disney’s Bambi premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The huge audience was delighted; “from all over the darkened house childish laughter broke forth continuously.” Reviewers also typically appreciated the film. The Times, for instance, gushed:

In colors that would surprise even the spectrum itself, Disney’s cartoon craftsmen have re-created a woodland that shimmers and glows and darkens altogether magically. The wind over a green field, the morning light on the meadow, the hushed naves of the forest inhabited by all sorts of hidden folk, the artists have made with a simple and loving touch.

Still, many critics, even those wowed by the wonders of Disney’s spectacular animation, were somewhat put off by an animal cartoon that lacked madcap hijinks. And after its splashy release, even though Bambi ran successfully throughout the nation, it didn’t recover its enormous production costs. The film was, initially at least, a commercial failure. In the wake of World War II, though, subsequent releases and shrewd marketing made it into one of the top grossing pictures of the era. By 1988, it had earned its distributor more than $47 million. By comparison, Casablanca, also released in 1942, had earned less than a tenth that.

Returning for a moment to Radio City Music Hall on this day in 1942, the Times also noted that, scattered amidst the laughter, there were a few “tears and boohoos.” Which doesn’t surprise. Because, as the above clip suggests, Bambi‘s an extraordinarily sad movie. Given that, it seems odd, particularly with the war ongoing, that no contemporary critics wondered if children viewing the film could handle the thought of Bambi losing his mother. In subsequent years, this has become the pivotal question about the film. Pauline Kael suggests:

It is one of the paradoxes of the movie business that the movies designed expressly for children are generally the ones that frighten them the most. I have never heard children screaming from fear at any of those movies we’re always told they should be protected from as they screamed at Bambi and Dumbo Bambi’s mother is murdered, Dumbo’s mother is goaded to madness and separated from Dumbo; those movies really hit children where it counts.

It was almost much worse. Walt Disney originally wanted Bambi’s mother shot onscreen as Bambi ran away to safety. Bambi later was to have returned to the spot of his mother’s death, where he would have found only the imprint in the snow where the hunters had dragged away her corpse. Disney, of course, reconsidered. And so we are left with the relatively bloodless version above.

Perhaps more interesting, at least to an erstwhile environmental historian like me, is Bambi‘s depiction of the natural world. The film is based on Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods, originally published in 1926. Salten was a classic “nature faker,” an author who relied on anthropomorphized animals for his main characters, creatures who talked and imparted important life lessons to readers. Disney, even though he aimed for realism — he had one of his animators spend half a year sketching deer in Maine’s Baxter Park and later imported a pair of fawns to his studios so that his artists could study their movements — stripped away much of the ecological grit present in Salten’s novel. Disney denatured Bambi.

Disney’s animators famously cutified the animals they drew by exaggerating the size of their heads and eyes and shrinking their muzzles, giving them the proportions of human babies. Initially, Disney resisted this tactic with Bambi. But after his artists had trouble imparting dramatic expressions to Bambi and his friends, they reverted to form: “a smaller muzzle and much larger cranium finally created the new design.” Anthropologist Elizabeth Lawrence writes: “With a huge head dwarfing its trunk and a pair of oversized eyes with pupils and lashes Disney’s Bambi arouses sympathy and nurturance and a sense of parenthood.”

At the same time, Bambi’s is a woodland without predation. Whereas Salten’s Bambi encounters ferrets killing mice, crows killing a baby rabbit (the offspring of the character who inspired Thumper), foxes killing pheasants and ducks, and owls killing mice (mice don’t fare very well in Salten), in Disney’s Bambi, Friend Owl is best buddies with Thumper — unlikely bedfellows indeed. The only two instances in which nature appears to be even remotely red in tooth and claw are the difficulty of winter and the competition among bucks during mating season.

More telling, humans are entirely set apart from the natural world. Although they are never seen in Bambi, people wreak havoc throughout: hunters kill Bambi’s mother, they set fire to the forest, and their dogs attack Faline. The warning Bambi’s mother gives her son before she dies hangs in the air for the remainder of the film: “Man is in the forest.” Salten also depicted hunters as dangerous. But at the end of Salten’s story, Bambi’s father leads his son to view a dead poacher, the wound in his neck still fresh, “a small red mouth. Blood was oozing out slowly.” Bambi’s father, himself nearing the end of his life, then explains:

He isn’t all powerful as they say…Everything that lives and grows doesn’t come from him. He’s just the same as we. He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers in the same way. He can be killed like us, and then he lies helpless on the ground like all the rest of us, as you see him now.

In Salten’s work, then, human and non-human animals alike are part of the natural world. Disney, too, hoped to end with the complex scene above. But test audiences reacted poorly — “four hundred people shot straight in the air” — to seeing a human corpse on screen. Thus ended Disney’s flirtation with a complex conclusion for Bambi. Commerce, as ever, trumped art in the Magic Kingdom.

Assessing a film’s impact is always difficult. But there’s little doubt that Bambi has shaped the culture. No less an authority than Kiefer Sutherland recalls that Bambi was the first film he ever saw and that “it taught [him] about — I guess on a broad scale — sexuality.” Getting into a bit more detail than may be necessary, Sutherland admits: “I was in love with Thumper’s girlfriend from the time I was seven until I was ten. She’s got all that eye shadow on and she’s looking real good.” Any movie that can make a furry out of a man like Jack Bauer is strong stuff.

More seriously, Bambi‘s portrayal of a natural world in which there’s no place for humans props up a classic and destructive American cultural dichotomy. As environmental historian William Cronon argues in his brilliant essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, the ongoing opposition of the human and non-human worlds, the separation of people from nature in other words, often stands in the way of effective environmental stewardship. Only when people recognize that they are an inseparable part of nature, rather than fetishizing a nature set apart from themselves, will they begin to care for ecosystems ranging from gorgeous pristine wilderness to decaying urban landscapes.

In the meantime, though, that giant head, those huge eyes, so totally cute. No, I don’t mean Kiefer Sutherland, you sicko. I mean Bambi, the poor deer.