As you can see, Simba and Mufasa weren’t the first animal royalty to stand nobly atop a cliff. Otherwise known as “the one where his mum gets shot”, Bambi is pure vintage Disney and was released in 1942. It’s based on the 1928 novel by Felix Salten (born Siegmund Salzmann), a Jewish Hungarian living in Austria. Due to the author’s lineage, the book was banned by the Nazis in 1936, but fortunately Salten and his family managed to escape to Switzerland before things took another turn for the worse. I mention this because the book Bambi: A Life in the Woods is seen by some critics as an allegory of the treatment of Jews in Europe. The film was put together during a tumultuous time in world politics too, so perhaps Disney also decided to take a walk on the metaphorical (and literal) wild side. Or maybe they decided to make a montage of cute animals doing stuff in the forest. Let’s find out.
Birth and Lineage
One still morning, the forest erupts into birdsong at the news that a new prince has been born. The woodland animals all rush to a thicket where a mother doe is resting with her newborn son, and give “oohs” and “aahs” worthy of a firework display, because it seems that the king, whoever he is, doesn’t sow his oats all that often. The mother is congratulated, and she gently wakes up her fawn for the benefit of the entourage. A particularly playful little rabbit, called Thumper, looks over the baby prince as he tries to stand, but the prince flops over clumsily much to everyone’s amusement. This seems to take a lot of effort, so he then goes back to sleep.
After this energetic display, the other animals leave them to it after being swiftly ushered away by Friend Owl. Only Thumper remains for a moment, and asks a question no one else seemed concerned about – what’s the prince’s actual name? The mother says he is called Bambi, and she then snuggles close to him as they are left in peace. The camera then pans up, revealing a majestic stag stood on an overhanging rock, watching over his family.
Bambi’s mother gives birth all alone in a thicket, and the only spectator is a magpie who never shuts up. While she rambles on about the burden of looking after chicks, Bambi’s mother washes her son, and then allows her eyes to glaze over enough for the bird to get the hint and leave them in peace. There is not a sniff of the father anywhere, watching nobly from above or otherwise.
Soon after, Bambi goes to the meadow with his mother, and while there he encounters a grasshopper and a butterfly who seem suspiciously deferential. On another visit, they meet up with Friend Hare, who is extremely polite towards him and congratulates his mother on her “fine young prince”. Bambi barely even shrugs at this news, and continues being his usual skippy and curious self.
In the opening of Bambi, every other word seems to be “prince”, and the mass of animals gathering at the birth site hammers home the little deer’s noble lineage. Salten’s novel underplays this with Bambi’s birth being pretty much a non-event, and leaves us to discover incidentally, like Bambi himself, that he is considered royalty. Taking a more realistic view of deer behaviour, the father in the book is also conspicuously absent at this point.
The Way of the Woods
When he is finally able to stay upright (most of the time), Bambi goes walking in the woods with his mother. As well as meeting animals that hang upside-down or tunnel under the ground, he also has his mind blown by water falling from the sky with loud flashes.
Fortunately, for the most part, life in the woods is fun, as he meets Thumper again and plays with him and his sisters. He says his first few words, and when doing so manages to label a skunk as a flower. Luckily, said skunk is happy with his ironic name and keeps it for the remainder of the film.
It’s not all hijinks in the forest though. As a treat, Bambi’s mother takes him to the meadow, but she sternly warns him that he must never rush out in the open, as there are no trees or bushes to hide them from danger. Thumper also warns him of the dangers of eating that “yucky green stuff” instead of the flowers. I’ll give you a clue and say only one of these tips helps Bambi dodge a bullet.
During his first ever walk in the woods, Bambi sees a ferret killing a mouseand hears two jays arguing and threatening each other with a slow and painful death. Naturally, this leads him to ask his mother if they should kill a mouse at some point. His mother gently reassures him that they don’t ever kill or get angry with anything, and Bambi (fortunately) seems relieved at the news.
Before approaching the meadow, Bambi’s mother takes him to one side and warns him severely about the danger of rushing out in the open. She also says that if she tells him to run, he should run back to the thicket as fast as possible. If he sees her fall down, he must ignore her and carry on running, rather than say pointing and laughing. Once he is suitably frightened by this, she leads him on to the meadow where they chase each other around and graze.
In a subsequent visit to the meadow, they meet Bambi’s aunt, Ena, and her two fawns: Faline, a feisty little doe, and Gobo, a timid little buck. The three fawns play together and become firm friends.
For Disney’s Bambi, life in the woods is full of fun and wonder, with an occasional shadow of danger. For Salten’s Bambi, there are many unpleasant things in the world, but when they’re not looking, it’s possible to have fun. His closest friends are also other deer in his family, as opposed to other animals in the wood.
Not the Only Deer in the Forest
While playing in the meadow, Bambi is introduced to Faline, a little doe who takes great delight in licking his cheek when he’s not looking and chasing him through the grass. It’s at this point that the meadow is flooded with testosterone: the young bucks have arrived for the rutting season. Leaping and dashing about, the deer tussle with one another using their antlers, and Bambi is exhilarated watching them.
It’s then the bucks’ turn to be amazed, as a stag with the most pimping pair of antlers ever seen suddenly wanders into the grasses. Everyone stays stock still as the Great Prince makes his entrance, and he fixes Bambi with a curious stare. He finally moves off again, leaving behind hushed and awed whispers. Bambi asks his mother what the fuss was about, and she explains that everyone respects him because no one has lived half as long as him, and because he is extraordinarily wise. This is indeed fortunate, because while the whole forest was busy gawping at him, the Great Prince was the only one able to detect an approaching hunter. He warns all of the deer who scatter in a stampede, separating Bambi from his mother. The Great Prince comes to the rescue by guiding his young son out of the meadow, followed by the mother, just as the first gun shots echo across the plains.
Bambi’s mother, Aunt Ena, Faline and Gobo aren’t the only deer making use of the lush grasses in the meadow. One morning, when they are playing together, a group of noble stags break out of the trees and parade past them without sparing them so much as a glance.
Bambi’s mother explains that they are the Princes – presumably the fawns’ respective fathers – brave and wise stags that have lived longer than most. The Great Prince, who is the largest and oldest, is implied to be Bambi’s father.
As time goes on, Bambi’s mother seems more eager for Bambi to go off and play with his cousins – on more than one occasion when he snuggles next to her, she bats him away saying he is “not a little baby any more” and to leave her be. The reason for this is soon discovered; Bambi wakes up one morning in the thicket alone, with no sign of his mother anywhere. He desperately searches the forest for her, and runs into Faline and Gobo, who have been similarly abandoned. It turns out that it’s rutting reason, and both mothers have left for their respective booty calls.
When Bambi is crying for his mother, all alone, he suddenly runs into the Great Prince again, who scolds him for not being able to stay by himself. Eventually Bambi’s mother reappears to look after him, but she continues her shady rendezvous throughout the summer.
Such a large gathering of deer can only invite trouble, and this group are also attacked by the hunter. On this occasion, one of the Princes is shot and killed as he was either too important to listen to the birds’ warning, or was otherwise distracted.
In both versions there is a feeling of segregation between the sexes and offspring. However, in the film, the Great Prince is still caring towards his son in the face of danger. In the book, not only are the males distant from their fawns, but mating season also seems to make the hitherto doting mothers into neglectful parents. In the film, Bambi’s mother remains very loving, and other than talking to Faline’s mother, she doesn’t seem to have much contact with the other deer. Bambi is her whole world, and as we know, this kind of relationship is destined for disaster in a Disney film. The hunter’s attack foreshadows what is to come, and even though the outcome in Salten’s version is already more severe, in both the film and the book, the situation only worsens.
The Winter of Our Discontent
While Bambi’s first winter starts off pleasantly enough, with ice-skating, chasing show drifts and waking Flower up during hibernation (regardless of the inevitable blow to his metabolism), it soon begins to outstay its welcome. Food becomes scarce, and Bambi and his mother are forced to eat the bark off trees to stave off their hunger. After devastating half the trees in the forest this way, Bambi concludes that winter is rubbish and feels really, really long. His mother explains that this won’t last forever, and sure enough, a few days after this revelation, the first shoots of spring grass begin to appear.
It’s when Bambi and his mother are grazing on said grass that we are treated to one of the most famous deaths in cinema. A death which, strangely enough, occurs entirely off screen.
Bambi’s mother suddenly looks up, ears pricked, and in an urgent and humourless voice tells Bambi to run for the thicket. The two deer bolt for safety, as gun shots spray flurries of snow either side of them. Bambi’s mother tells him to keep running and not to look back, and we then hear an incredibly meaty-sounding gunshot (no pun intended). Bambi continues running, and finally reaches the thicket, alone.
He then realises his mother is no longer behind him, and sets out in the heavy snowfall, calling for her. All of a sudden, the Great Prince appears. Instead of scolding him for being a mummy’s boy like in the novel, he gently tells him that his mother can’t be with him any more. He then addresses him as his son and indicates for him to follow, and the two walk off together into the snow.
In the book, Bambi’s mother is just one casualty in a forest-wide spray of hunter bullets.
For Bambi, winter begins with a resounding “meh”, and he spends his time playing with his cousins or looking for food with his mother. As the weather begins to bite, Bambi sees some of his forest acquaintances, such as the pheasants, get brutally snapped up by a fox, and realises that desperation brings out the worst in the other animals.
Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to the deer, who huddle together for survival and in so doing make friends.
Joining the group are Old Nettla, a cynical older doe, Marena, a young new-agey doe who believes the hunter will one day approach them in friendship, and two of the younger aforementioned Princes, Ronno and Karus. While they are discussing the mysterious hunter and his dreaded “third hand” that produces thunder, they suddenly realise the hunter is actually approaching, and seemingly from all sides.
There is a mass stampede in a hail of bullets, where Bambi not only sees his mother fall down, but also Friend Hare’s mate get shot in the hind leg and then die of shock bleeding in the snow. The remaining pheasants take to the air in a panic, and a handful also get a beakful of lead, one of which lies across Bambi’s path and groans in a twisted mess. As Bambi runs on, he finds Gobo lying in the snow. He was always a weak fawn, and apparently Faline and his mother had to leave him behind as he couldn’t keep up. He urges Bambi to do the same, and by the time Bambi twigs that he should probably say goodbye to his friend, he has already run another few acres through the forest.
Eventually the survivors meet up, consisting of Bambi, Faline and Old Nettla, at least for the moment. Old Nettla feels extremely put upon but agrees to look after them for the rest of the winter. Bambi’s mother is never seen again, and when they go back to look for Gobo, all they find are the footprints of the hunter and his dogs.
Before I compare this section, please take a moment to enjoy this picture of the real-life Bambi and Thumper.
So, Disney did stay true to the book in that Bambi’s mother gets gunned down, and the impact is devastating as this is the one constant in Bambi’s life that has been taken away. Not that the mother in the book is any less sympathetic, but she was already starting to drift away from Bambi as he grew up, so he is not as alone as he is in the film when she catches a bullet. Instead, the book is more horrifying because it includes an utter massacre of a large number of forest creatures, and is intended to show the unstoppable and merciless power of the hunter. Disney’s Bambi shows the hunter as an occasional threat, but the book gives the situation an aura of complete and utter helplessness, where everyone is a potential target. Also, it’s another doe who looks after Bambi after his mother’s death – despite the carnage, the Great Prince still has very little to do with his son.
When Nature Calls
Immediately after the death scene, in a rather jarring transition, we are treated to a happy springtime scene of birds nuzzling each other and chirruping. The next time we see Bambi, he’s sporting a competent pair of antlers; Thumper suddenly has more pronounced whiskers, and one of Flower’s testicles has dropped. They are listening intently to Friend Owl’s warning about being “twitter-pated” like the rest of the forest – the joys of spring are in full flow, and the birds and the bees are getting busy, but not necessarily with each other – and agree that such undignified behaviour will never affect them.
With these famous last words, Bambi, Thumper and Flower all march off into the wood together. One by one, they meet a respective female and are irresistibly drawn to her charms. In Bambi’s case, it’s Faline that he bumps into, and unlike the last time she licked him on the cheek, he suddenly goes on a hallucinogenic trip through the clouds and starts prancing around after her.
The other buck tries to nudge Faline away with him, but then he and Bambi literally lock horns. In the ensuing fight, Bambi manages to hurl the other buck down into a ditch before strutting off with his newly won mate. They prance across the meadow in the moonlight, and remain inseparable for the rest of the film.
Bambi is now a handsome young buck, and is inwardly excited and thrilled due to rutting season. Faline has recently become shy around him, and whenever he tries to approach her, he is chased off by a suddenly vicious Karus and Ronno. When he makes another determined approach, he ends up battling both of them, after which Faline emerges from the bushes and declares her love for him. The pair then wander off together, presumably getting it on in between grazing.
At one point during the season, Bambi is very nearly caught by the hunter, who mimics Faline’s mating call to lure him closer. The Great Prince intervenes and tells him to think with his other brain once in a while too.
Once rutting season has ended, Bambi decides he’s had enough of Faline, and instead he wants to find out more about the Great Prince and share his wisdom. Faline asks him if he still loves her, and he pretty much responds with “meh” before disappearing into the bushes after the great stag.
The film has a more conventional idea of couples, and implies that Bambi and his friends have found their true loves. True love most be fought for of course, hence the battle with the other buck, but this serves only to strengthen the bond between Bambi and Faline. In the book, it’s much clearer that the attachment is really a result of mating season rather than anything deeper, and once it’s over, it shows once again the segregation between male and female deer.
One evening, Bambi wakes up next to Faline and senses something odd afoot. He follows a scent to the edge of a cliff and sees smoke rising into the air from a hunter’s camp. Many hunters have arrived this time, accompanied by dogs, and to put the icing on the cake, their fire gets out of control and torches the entire forest.
Faline wakes up and goes to search for Bambi, but is then greeted by an over-enthusiastic pack of hunting dogs that corner her on a ledge. Bambi comes to the rescue and charges them, and while making his escape gets shot in the shoulder. As the fire consumes the forest, he and the Great Prince manage to escape to a small island in the middle of a lake, where Faline and the other animals have also taken shelter.
So the hunters in the film not only make an orphan of Bambi without batting an eye-lid, but they are also stupid enough to let their own campfire go out of control. Apparently, the American Rifleman Association vehemently protested the portrayal of the hunters in the film, but whether this was because they looked heartless and stupid or because they are never given any actual screen time is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the Association never so much as glanced at the book.
Whenever the hunter appears in the book, there is always a foreboding atmosphere, and the animals refer to him as He or Him, and that he is inescapable and all powerful. Bambi actually comes face to face with him when looking for his mother during rutting season, and is terrified and transfixed by the tall, thin creature with the pale face. When the deer are sharing stories in winter, they all compare notes on how they can neither look away nor run from the hunter when they see him, even though they should.
The manipulative and heartless side of the hunter is further emphasised by the fate of one of the characters. During the rut, Bambi comes across another strange young buck who seems both inexperienced and socially inept. When he goes to attack him, he realises it’s Gobo, who was apparently taken home and raised by the hunter before being released. Gobo insists that the hunter is all powerful and good, and that he has nothing to fear from him. These words make Marena, the new-agey doe, fall in love with him. Shockingly, when the hunter visits the forest again during the season, he guns Gobo down mercilessly when he trots over to say hello, and Marena barely escapes.
The woodland massacre and Gobo’s opinion of the hunter’s power also hammer home the idea that he is a mysterious and evil force. Later on in the story, Bambi and the Great Prince are hiding when the hunter’s dog is chasing a fox. The fox is exhausted and cornered, and as the dog goes in for the kill, he berates him for “betraying his cousin”, and the woodland birds all join in and scold the dog for helping the hunter. The dog responds with the same opinion as Gobo did, that the hunter is great and unstoppable, and that those who are loyal to him will be spared. He then tears out the fox’s throat.
I think you can see why Disney left out these parts, and arguably gave a more matter-of-fact, “this is nature so deal with it” image of the man who goes shooting in the woods. Salten instead chooses to use the hunter as a symbol of persecution or for the terrible acts of evil that go on in the world. Bambi’s survival in both versions relies more than once on the Great Prince, so let’s now move on to the less traumatic aspects of the stories.
The Great Prince of the Forest
The Great Prince is a constant benevolent presence in the background of the film. He watches over his son’s birth, leads him to safety when danger strikes, and he also takes care of Bambi in winter when his mother dies, and possibly loses a lot of stag street-cred for doing so.
He’s also the one who tells Bambi about the hunter camp and the fire, and when Bambi gets shot, the Great Prince helps him get up and escape the encroaching flames despite the crippling pain in his shoulder.
When the forest has recovered from the fire and most of the trees have grown back, Bambi has become a father himself (of twins, no less). Thumper and his many children, and Flower with his young son, Bambi, all rush to the thicket where Faline is resting with her young children. Bambi (the deer one) stands watching with the Great Prince. The older stag then retreats, presumably passing the torch on to his son. Bambi then becomes the new Great Prince, and the film fades out with him assuming his father’s position on the overhanging rock above his family.
As the novel progresses, the Great Prince shows off more and more of his vocabulary as Bambi becomes increasingly worthy of his conversation. After rutting season, Bambi seeks him out as a source of guidance and wisdom (and fascination, it has to be said), and eventually the Great Prince allows him to travel with him.
Bambi discovers that the old stag uses forest trails that no other deer uses, and lives in a deep ditch under a dead tree trunk, hidden from view and consequently rarely seen by the other woodland creatures. He shows Bambi that in order to be safe and long-lived, one must live and travel alone, and imparts wisdom such as how to free Friend Hare from a snare trap, and, when one is inconveniently shot in the shoulder, he must keep on walking in a very long circle so as to throw the hunter and his dogs off the scent.
Again, Bambi is the one who has been shot in this case, and the Great Prince takes him back to the ditch once the hunter has gone so he can rest and recuperate. When Bambi is as jumpy as a spring lamb once more, the Great Prince tells him he has one last lesson left to teach him. He leads him towards the scent of the hunter, where they find him lying on the ground with a gaping hole in his throat (it’s implied he was either shot, or one of the dogs got him). The Great Prince asks Bambi what he sees, to which he replies that the hunter isn’t all powerful, and that there is another, even more powerful being that watches over them. Once he has said this, the Great Prince says his work is done, and he must now find a place to lie down and die. He calls Bambi his son for the first time, and says he loved him dearly. He then walks away into the trees.
Bambi assumes the role of Great Prince, and remains on his own for the rest of the book. He gets a fleeting glimpse of an aged Faline, and later comes across two twin fawns who are crying for their mother during rutting season. Once he has scolded them for not being able to stay on their own, he notices the female fawn looks a lot like Faline used to, and then retreats into the forest for the rest of his days.
Both Bambi and Bambi: A Life in the Woods follow a royal yet humble young deer as he grows up, showing us the harshness of nature as well as the warmth of friendships and family. However, the Disney version shows much more of the latter, and the threat of the hunter or environmental disasters are only occasional, and generally don’t have a lasting effect (the forest growing back for one thing). As the film ends with Bambi watching over his flock, you get the feeling that he will be the new wise custodian of the woods, and that this is his responsibility.
In Salten’s novel, on the other hand, the threat of persecution by the hunter is held constantly over the animals’ heads, and in the end, Bambi realises he can only live long and survive if he depends on no one else but himself and lives all alone. That, and by being aware that there is a more powerful force than even the hunter watching over him. Friends and family are transient, and his goal is to become wise and survive as long as possible – he is no protector of the woods but does occasionally help those who cross his path.
In short, Disney took out (most) of the nasty elements and replaced them with cute and fluffy animals playing together, and when it was absolutely necessary to show the bad parts, they quickly dissolved to a jolly scene where everyone’s happy or everything is just like before. Salten’s novel, by contrast, has a feeling of finality when it comes to grief and danger, and doesn’t pull its punches when depicting animal behaviour. Simply put, Disney’s message is that nature can be cruel, but as long as you stick by your family it’s all roses and bunny rabbits. Salten’s message is that strife is a part of life, and you may have to make sacrifices if you want to survive it.
To finish on a lighter note, here’s another picture of the real life Bambi and Thumper, because fluffy animals make everything okay.
1) Bambi, 1942. Film. Directed by James Algar, Sam Armstrong, David D. Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Norman Wright, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Salten, Felix. Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Aladdin Paperbacks, U.S.A. 2002. ISBN: 978-0671-66607-1
3) University of Minnesota, 2001. Felix Salten:Deer Bambi – Authors and Books for Children. [online]