A childhood favourite for many, the legacy of Bambi 80 years on is complex. A symbol in the development of environmental ideologies as much as a tonic, the film grapples with the “wilderness trope” and gently introduces the world to “enviro-toons” – Eleanor Brady is here to explain.
The first time I saw Disney’s Bambi, I was four years old and spent more time hiding behind a pillow in terror than watching the film itself. Perhaps more than any other movie made for children, I remember Bambi for its moments of terror: not only the killing of the hero’s mother which left many young children in tears, but the forest fire that threatens all the animals with total annihilation. Stephen King famously referred to Bambi as “the first horror movie” he ever saw. Yet, 80 years on from the release of one of Disney’s most controversial classics, Bambi remains key to early articulations of the climate crisis that dominates public rhetoric today.
Unlike other Disney adaptations, Bambi is not based on a fairytale. It was adapted from Bambi: A Life in the Woods, a 1922 novel by the Austro-Hungarian writer and critic Felix Salten, which was banned in Nazi Germany and considered a parable for the treatment of Jewish people across Europe. The film follows the life of a young fawn named Bambi who is chosen to be the next prince of the forest, like his revered father. From birth, Bambi is guided through life by his loving mother and a diverse group of woodland friends. The young fawn gets to grips with the beauty of his natural surroundings. However, as Man begins to approach the forest to hunt – humanity’s direct threat to his environment, which results in the death of his mother – Bambi is forced to step into the role of Prince to protect his beloved forest home.
Bambi was released in cinemas in 1942, in the midst of World War II, and was Disney's fifth full-length animated film. The war was perhaps a contributing factor to initial poor box office takings, although the film did also receive mixed reviews. The New Republic deemed the film "unpleasant" and dubbed it a poor "attempt to ape the trumped-up realism of flesh and blood movies". In the 2008 book The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, author David Whitley refers to this historical/political background to argue Bambi is an allegory for post-war Europe. The bombing of Pearl Harbor had brought the United States decisively into engagement in World War II. And not unlike war-ravaged communities, human violence is a direct threat to the pure natural world Bambi and the other woodland animals inhabit.
The term 'enviro-toon' was coined by cultural critic Jaime Weinman to categorise animations with environmental themes. Weinman claims that enviro-toons "never preach" and "not only humanise nature but comment on abuse of nature and the natural, especially by humans" and engage with repercussions of such natural abuse in the real world. This threat to nature is highlighted by the film’s depiction of wilderness. Bambi opens at dawn with a slow pan into an idyllic setting on an early spring day. A sleepy-eyed, nocturnal old owl flies to its tree dwelling and as the camera rises in the tree higher up, a grey squirrel and a smaller chipmunk are just waking up. A mother bird flies to her nest to feed her chicks. A small mouse reaches for a drop of dew hanging on a nearby leaf.
The Wilderness trope, a key term within ecocriticism, depicts the environment as bountiful, a utopia for woodland creatures. As news of the birth of the “new prince” sweeps the forest, issues start to arise when “man” arrives. Man acts as a kind of omnipotent force and is never shown, rather there is a silent, intense fear and threat of destruction of the natural environment. Man is only ever referred to as “he”, and whether it's the same singular hunter haunting these woods or a faceless group is irrelevant. He represents all mankind. In contrast, the wilderness allegory depicts the environment as distinctly female. In the essay "Naturalized Woman and Feminized Nature" in 2000’s The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, author Kate Soper claims that the female metaphor identifies the environment with a body of scientific laws, principles, and processes. The arrival of man directly challenges the world’s natural processes and threatens the laws that make the forest a pure and peaceful society.
The arrival of man also leads to one of the most traumatic scenes in cinematic history. From birth, Bambi is raised by his mother and taught the ways of the forest. One spring morning, as they find new green grass to graze on, the usual close shot switched to a distant view – possibly the view of a human intruder watching them from afar. As Bambi's mother tells Bambi to run, a foreboding gunshot is fired. The death of Bambi’s mother takes place off screen, highlighting the sheer disregard for animal life. The mother forever remains nameless and Bambi is simply later told by his father, the Great Prince, that “your mother can't be with you anymore.” Bambi’s childlike innocence is forever tainted, as he learns about snares and how to avoid the traps of men. As man sets fire to the forest, vivid orange and yellow flames encompass the trees, bringing death and destruction to the paradise environment inhabited by the benign and gentle animals. Such images can be considered wholly congruent with what had become "the dominant ideological position by the 1930s and 1940s; fire seen as a destructive force with a detrimental and potentially devastating impact on wilderness environment," according to David Whitby in 2008’s The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. Humanity is the root cause of environmental degradation.
Bambi has had a long-lasting impact which has resulted in a clear shift to societal attitudes around nature, and in 2008, research from Cambridge University deemed the film to be one of the “unsung heroes of the green lobby.” Unlike previous Disney films such as Snow White, the studio chose to trial a new animation style here which was far more natural and realistic by studying the anatomy of deers in great detail. Conservation is so central to Bambi that the film is credited with having inspired many 1960s environmental activists at an early age. Matt Cartmill postulated in 1996’s A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History that Bambi had "deep influence on modern attitudes toward hunting, wildlife and the wilderness.” The film sparked protests from pro-hunting groups across America, fearful of its impact before it had even been released. After Bambi opened, Outdoor Life editor Raymond J. Brown called it “the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen,” and asked Disney to correct “slurs” against hunters. The growth in anti-hunter propaganda led to well-known phrases such as “the Bambi complex, Bambi factor and Bambi syndrome", which have been used to describe sentimental sympathetic attitudes towards wildlife. The realism and emotion of the animals throughout the film helped lay the emotional groundwork for environmental activism and the empathy given to animals in film today. The message is a jeremiad: an awe-inspiring natural balance is in peril because of human actions. Bambi can be read as a monologic enviro-toon that positions human species as the root cause of environmental degradation. It’s a continued reminder of how humanity itself remains the great threat to the natural world.