Bambi is one of Disney’s most iconic and memorable films. Pretty much everyone has either seen it at one time in their life or is at least able to identify all three main characters by name, which something you can’t say about most other films – not even some other Disney films.
From the classic scenes of Bambi discovering the world around him to the memorable storm sequence and song, ‘Little April Shower,” to the heartbreaking death of Bambi’s mother, just about everything in this film has become an iconic piece of not just this movie’s legacy, but Disney’s legacy as well.
The movie opens with “Love is a Song,” and a slow pan through the forest. We follow an owl as he flies back to his tree to go to sleep for the day, and we watch the forest awaken. Suddenly the forest explodes into a frenzy, and we hear Thumper, a small rabbit, and his sisters yelling to Friend Owl, who had just gone to sleep. The new prince of the forest has just been born!
Everyone gathers in the thicket to welcome the baby deer, and congratulate his mother. She wakes the sleeping fawn, and he struggles to his feet. Thumper exclaims how wobbly he is and his mother scolds him. After they’ve watched him for a while, the fawn starts to look rather sleepy, and Friend Owl chases everyone off. Before he leaves, Thumper asks what the baby’s name will be. “I think I’ll call him Bambi,” his mother replies. As Thumper leaves, the camera pans up and we see a stag watching them from afar.
When Bambi is a little older, the movie follows him as he discovers the world around him. Thumper and his sisters lead him through the woods introducing him to birds, butterflies, flowers, and a baby skunk, whom Bambi names Flower.
After meeting Flower, the sky grows dark and thunder and lightning flash across the sky. Thumper runs off, and Bambi and his mother curl up in the thicket. As they lie down, it begins to rain and “Little April Shower” begins to play in time with the rain. As the song plays, we follow the other animals in the woods as they head for shelter, and the music turns wilder as the storm worsens. When the storm is over, the music calms and the sun comes out.
The next milestone in young Bambi’s life is his trip to the meadow. Here we get the first hints that this beautiful life that Bambi has been born into may not be so idyllic. As they near the meadow, Bambi bounds ahead, shrieking with childlike glee; however, Bambi’s mother panics and bounds in front of him, warning that he must never run out on the meadow.There is no cover there to protect them there. She tells him to wait until she has made sure that it is safe for him.
When the coast is clear, Bambi’s mother calls for him, and they bound around the meadow joyously. Bambi meets Thumper’s family again, and he chases a bullfrog into a pond. As he sees his reflection, he realizes that he is not alone. There is another fawn there! A girl! Suddenly Bambi is too shy to speak anymore, and he goes to hide between his mother’s legs. Bambi’s mother coaxes him out and, after falling into the pond, Bambi and the other young fawn, Faline, become friends, chasing each other all over the meadow.
Suddenly their game of chase is interrupted by a massive herd of young bucks, racing everywhere. Bambi follows and watches them in awe. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they all freeze. At the edge of the meadow, a great stag has appeared. As Bambi watches him, he walks out of the forest and passes by him. The stag stops and looks at Bambi for a long moment before moving on. When Bambi asks his mother about him, she tells him that he is the Great Prince of the forest. No other deer has lived half as long, or is as wise.
The Great Prince leaves the meadow and we follow him as he goes back into the forest. Suddenly he hears the frantic warning cries of birds and he turns around and races back to the meadow, stopping in the middle of the deer. He doesn’t need to say a word, everyone knows what he means, and the herd rushes out of the meadow at top speed.
Faline’s mother calls for her and the two race away together. Bambi’s mother calls for him, and he for her, but they are far away enough that they do not hear each other. Bambi crouches low calling for her, but she does not appear. Suddenly the Great Prince appears, and they race from the meadow as Bambi’s mother sees and joins them. As they reach the edge of the meadow a gunshot ring out and they dive into the woods. When all is silent once more, Bambi asks why they all ran. “Man was in the forest,” his mother replies.
The year passes quickly and it’s suddenly winter. Bambi is enchanted with the snow and he and Thumper play together on the frozen pond. Bambi can’t seem to get his legs to work, so Thumper helps him, and ends up shoving him across the water. They wind up in a snowbank where they hear some quiet snoring from a little burrow. It’s Flower, hibernating. He tells them that all flowers hibernate in the winter, and he goes back to sleep.
Bambi soon learns that winter isn’t all fun and games, as he and his mother along with the other deer now have to work much harder to get food. They cross the woods in the blowing snow, just to find some scraps of bark to eat. One night Bambi sadly tells his mother that he’s awful hungry, and all she can say is “I know.”
At the first sign of spring they leave the thicket and are delighted to discover a small patch of new spring grass. Bambi hungrily devours as much as he can. Meanwhile his mother smiles, nibbling just a little. As they eat, Bambi’s mother suddenly begins to feel very uneasy.
She looks around fearfully and tells Bambi to run for the thicket. They take off as gunshots ring out around them. “Faster Bambi!” his mother cries. “Don’t look back! Keep running!” As Bambi disappears into the forest, another gunshot rings out. All is now silent, but Bambi keeps running.
When he gets back to the thicket, Bambi happily exclaims, “We made it mother!” But he soon realizes that he is alone. He tentatively heads back out, calling for his mother as it begins to snow. It gets darker, and Bambi’s calls sound more and more frightened. Suddenly before him he sees the Great Prince. They stare at each other for a moment, before the Great Prince breaks the silence. “Your mother can’t be with you anymore,” he says soberly. “Come my son.” Bambi slowly joins him, and the two deer disappear together into the blizzard.
A few years later. Spring is in the air. As the birds of the forest court each other, singing “Let’s Sing a Gay Little Spring Song,” Friend Owl is trying to sleep. Exasperated he flies away from the racket where he meets Bambi, who has matured into a handsome young buck. As they get reacquainted with each other, who should appear but Thumper and Flower. Both are quite grown up now as well. As they all talk, they are interrupted by more birds, flying around crazily. Friend Owl tells them that they are “twitterpated,” and that nearly everyone gets this way this time of year.
Even they are not immune to this springtime malady! They all insist that it will not happen to them, and they march into the forest. The trio’s resolve does not last long however, and Flower is the first to go. He meets a pretty young skunk and falls head over heels – literally. Thumper is next. As he and Bambi walk through the forest an adorable female rabbit clears her throat, freezing him in his tracks. His friends having now abandoned him, Bambi keeps going. However, he suddenly runs into his childhood friend, Faline. She gives him a lick, and he is gone.
He finds himself floating on air, leaping though the clouds in a heavenly dream. He chases Faline through the sky when, suddenly out of a cloud bank, another buck appears, shattering his daydream. The buck points his horns at Faline, who calls for Bambi. He leaps into action and the two deep battle through the forest until Bambi manages to throw the other buck down an embankment and into a stream.
Bambi and Faline head into the forest as a choir sings “Looking For Romance.” The two deer run through the woods, thoroughly smitten with each other. When the day ends, they find a small thicket and settle down to sleep.
In the middle of the night Bambi is suddenly awoken. He leaves Faline and walks to the edge of a cliff overlooking a small clearing where a campfire is smoking. “It is man,” the Great Prince says, suddenly appearing beside him. “He is here again. There are many this time.” They can see a large flock of birds flying up over the campsite calling out warnings. “We must go deep into the forest,” he continues. “Hurry! Follow me!”
The Great Prince dashes away and Bambi starts to follow him, but he suddenly remembers Faline. He races back to get her, but she has already fled into the woods looking for him! Suddenly the air is full of gunshots. Animals are fleeing left and right, and Faline and Bambi call desperately for each other.
Suddenly Faline is set upon by a pack of dogs who chase her up a hill. She climbs up as far as she can, just out of reach and cries desperately for Bambi. Hearing her cries he comes to her rescue, butting the dogs away with his antlers, and kicking them with his hooves. He yells for Faline to jump, and he runs up another hill, setting off an avalanche that knocks the dogs back down the mountain. As Bambi races away, he jumps over a deep gorge and shot rings out. He is hit. He collapses on the other side of the gorge, unable to get back to his feet.
Down in the valley, the campfire that had been smoldering before, has now grown out of control. It has consumed the campsite and spread into the forest.
As Bambi lies injured, he hears the voice of the Great Prince: “Get up, Bambi! Get up!” Bambi manages to struggle to his feet, and the Great Prince orders him to come with him. The two deer run as fast as they can, but they are soon surrounded by flames. They head for water, and race downstream, leaping over a waterfall to escape a falling tree.
On a small island, away from the main part of the forest, the surviving animals gather. Faline is there and, as she watches, Bambi and the Great Prince emerge from the river. The two nuzzle each other in the light of the flames.
Flashing forward again, we see that Thumper and Flower are now fathers. Flower has even named his own child after Bambi. All the animals of the forest are gathering again. This time for the birth of Bambi and Faline’s children.
Faline has has given birth to twins, and as she looks up to the mountain, Bambi and the Great Prince look down to her. The Great Prince leaves Bambi, symbolically passing on his mantle to his son.
The idea for a movie version of Felix Salten’s novel, Bambi, a Life in the Woods, started well before Disney and was first envisioned as a live-action film. In 1933 Sidney Franklin, a producer at MGM, purchased the film rights to the book, intending to film a live-action adaptation. As you might imagine, such an undertaking would be almost impossible back then and four years later he gave up and sold the rights to Walt Disney.
Disney had vastly different plans for the movie. It was, of course, to be an animated film, but Disney had originally envisioned this as his second feature after Snow White. Once work got underway, Disney’s team realized that this was going to be a much tougher undertaking than they had originally thought. For starters, Bambi, a Life in the Woods, is not a children’s book. It is a dark, sober, and sometimes quite grim look at what life is like for the creatures of the forest. Significant changes needed to be made before the story could be presented to an audience of all ages.
The next hurdle that the team needed to overcome was the challenge of animating deer realistically. The deer in Snow White had worked for the film, but they were not exactly realistic. In fact, one of Disney’s animators, Eric Larson, even said that he thought they moved, “like big flour sacks.” With this entire film focusing on deer, Disney wanted their movements to be as realistic as possible.
To this end, the animators visited the Los Angeles Zoo to study the animals, and Disney invited naturalist painter Rico LeBrun to visit the studio and lecture the animators on how their characters should move. Going above and beyond everything else, Disney even set up his own in-studio zoo, with all sorts of animals for the animators to study, including rabbits, owls, and skunks, and even a pair of fawns that had been named Bambi and Faline. Their up close and personal interactions with the animals allowed the animators to see first hand how they moved, and contributed greatly to the realism that ended up in the finished film.
With all this work on writing and research, production stalled out significantly. Animators who had been assigned to Bambi eventually paused to work on Fantasia, which was taking most of the studio’s focus at the time. When production on Fantasia was nearing completion, production on Bambi really began. However, their troubles were far from over. Due to the start of World War II, Pinocchio and Fantasia proved to be box office failures This forced Disney to cut the budget for Bambi, which meant cutting the film’s running time. Before the final animation had even begun, 12 minutes had been cut from the film, leaving it just 70 minutes long and one of Disney’s shortest features.
Finally, after years of work, Bambi was released to theaters in 1942. You can watch the original trailer here:
Sadly, like Pinocchio and Fantasia before it, at the time of its release Bambi failed to turn a profit. Thanks to the war, it was cut off from most of the European market and fell $60,000 short of its $1.7 million budget.
It did not help matters that there was a significant amount of criticism of the film at the time too. The fact that this was not a fantasy movie garnered the film some considerable ire, as Disney had made a name for himself by incorporating magic and fantasy into all of his other films up to that point. A review in The New York Times said, “In the search for perfection, Mr. Disney has come perilously close to tossing away his whole world of cartoon fantasy.”
In addition to this backlash, the film was also the subject of a considerable controversy in the world of hunting. The editor of a popular sporting magazine, Outdoor Life, said that the film was “The worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen.”
The fact that Disney opted to follow the book in regards to the fate of Bambi’s mother was also a controversial issue. Even Walt’s own daughter, Diane, was upset by the choice. Disney tried to explain that he was just following the book, but she countered that he had not shied away from taking liberties with the story in other places and he could have done whatever he wanted.
All this criticism was only temporary, however, and the film has since then become quite critically acclaimed, with a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the American Film Institute placing it in its Top Ten, at number three in animation.
After the war was over, the film also able to recoup its financial losses with six theatrical re-releases (although it fully recovered the loss during the first re-release). It has now made back its budget many times over, and has gone on to become one of Disney’s most beloved classics.
Bambi’s legacy goes far beyond just being a beloved film; to this day its message of conservation is still used to bring light to important issues like animal rights and the prevention of forest fires. This is not even anything new, as the characters from the film were used in public service campaigns not long after the film was released. Walt Disney loaned his characters to the government for a series of public service campaigns which ran for a year. Following the expiration of this agreement, the government needed a new spokesperson, which led to the creation of Smokey Bear. Characters and scenes for Bambi have since then been occasionally used in more campaigns, even as recently as 2006. You can watch one of these PSAs here:
In 2011, Bambi was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. They said that Bambi was one of Walt Disney’s favorite movies, and it was “Recognized for its eloquent message of nature conservation.”
Bambi is one of Disney’s most memorable films, and one that will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my favorite film as a child, and to this day is still one that I always love revisiting. It’s a beautiful film with a memorable story and a timeless message.
What about you? Was Bambi a part of your childhood? How would you rank this film against Disney’s other classics?
Jonathan North is writer, photographer, video editor, and animation fan from Iowa. He studied advertising and design at Iowa State University, and also has degrees in multimedia and art. His favorite movie is Fantasia, and his favorite cartoon is Gravity Falls. Or maybe Steven Universe. He can’t decide. You can find more of his work on his blog, as well as his Podcast and YouTube channel, where he reviews animation, movies, TV, or whatever else his guests feel like talking about. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, @jonjnorth.