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Review by Joel Bourgeois
Bambi needs no explanation, no grand thesis or deep thematic explication. It can be understood immediately, not only at the cognitive and emotional levels, but at the most basic: from within the unconscious. It is a story about growing up and coming of age that can be understood by anyone immediately. It is a basic guide to becoming a man. Of course, it does lean towards the cultural understanding of its creators - that of 1940s America - but it applies to any culture in which a boy at first clings to his mother, is guided by his father, is forced to strike out on his own, and finally takes the place of his father. Bambi tells this story so well that my most basic summary of it has already over-complicated it. It is art in its purest and simplest form, and can therefore be scrutinized from every angle, with meaning being derived from it not solely by its creators, but just as much by its viewers. Just as all of Creation was given to man so that he could understand it in his own way (“Now out of the ground the LORD God has formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” - Genesis 2:19 ESV), art such as this is ultimately similar (and in this way we are like God, being made “in [His] image,” after all).
What is interesting about Bambi is that it flips our perspective of civilization. The animals are the civilized ones and man is nature - or perhaps more accurately - Chaos. And not only are the animals in the forest civilized beings, they have a hierarchical structure that orders them properly. It’s not some fictitious utopia where everyone is equal and does whatever they want, nor is it a culture based around the food chain (predators here - other than Man - are non-existent). The culture of the animals is based around wisdom and respect - strength and power may play a role, but this is not explicit - making it similar to the best human hierarchies (and therefore the reality of human civilization) and the ones that work the best, tend to last the longest, and that the modern person is most familiar with. How do we know this? Because it starts with a “New Prince” being born. It is a major event for which the entire forest civilization seems to have been waiting. Later we see the stags come out in the meadow and instantly understand they are higher in the hierarchy, and finally we see the Great Prince - the top of the hierarchy - who Bambi’s mother says is the “oldest and the wisest creature in the forest,” and that is why he commands respect.
It is implicitly understood that Bambi must take his place at the top of the hierarchy, both from the parallel language (“New Prince” vs “Great Prince”) and the attention the rest of the forest animals give him (as well as his protagonist status). So not only does Bambi have to grow up from boy to man, but he must grow up to be the greatest man. He starts off hiding behind his mother. From the beginning, she is his whole world, but that cannot continue. Curiosity and companionship (in the form of Thumper, who is a rabbit, the most playful of animals) drive him to explore the world. He finds nothing to fear yet - his mother is careful and knows that he is in no real danger - and thus is able to exhibit the qualities of the Nietzschean child: “Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, p. 14). But as I stated earlier, he can do this only because he has found nothing to fear - he is not permanently the Child - and as soon as lightning strikes from the heavens, Bambi returns to the safety of his mother. The Nietzschean concept of the Child is his last metamorphosis, but child-likeness is also everyone's beginning, and like a wheel we must move backwards at some point, to go forwards.
Bambi continues to bounce between his mother and wherever his own playful curiosity takes him until he is brought to the meadow. Here he is confronted with three instances of the Other. The first is Faline, a female deer the same age as him. She wants to play with him, but he is timid, running from her at first. Eventually his mother forces him to confront his fear asking if he is afraid of her. Bambi is forced to make a choice between cowardice and confronting the Other, and chooses the latter - his second major step of growing up and his first encounter with the Other. Not long after he and Faline begin a game of chase, a herd of stags commands their attention. Bambi is in awe and bounds around in an attempt to imitate them. Suddenly they all stop as the Great Prince comes out of the forest. He commands everyone’s respect - even the younger stags - and even Bambi’s, though he does not know why. The next instant, a foreboding theme begins to play and gunshots can be heard - “Man was in the forest.”
These three encounters are very important. Faline is the Other which he must learn to live with, and eventually love. The stags, and particularly the Great Prince, embody the Other which Bambi must constantly strive to become. Finally, Man represents the Other that he must learn to cope with: a chaos that cannot be overcome, but that must be confronted eventually. It is plain to see that the Other defines who Bambi is, and who he will become. It is the Hegelian dialectic shown as simply as possible, but moving beyond Hegel to Nietzsche and Jung in its recognition of the Other being a part of the Self as well. And now that Bambi has seen himself for the first time (quite literally, as he sees his reflection and then Faline’s for the first time in the meadow, confusing her for himself for a split second), he is ready to begin facing true hardship in life.
Summer passes quickly and in just a few minutes Autumn becomes Winter. At first Winter is a time of joy for the young fawn. He bounds around gleefully as he experiences his first snowfall. But soon he begins to realize that winter is cold and harsh. The only thing he and his mother have to eat is the bark off of leafless trees. Bambi knows what it is to be hungry. He also learns to have patience, for this too shall pass and it will be spring again. One winter day he and his mother happen upon “new spring grass,” the first real food either one has had for months. For a moment, it is bliss, but if there is anything that one remembers about Bambi it is that the ominous theme begins to play and the fawn and his mother must run for their lives: Man is after them and this time only Bambi will escape.
Bambi searches for his mother, frightened and alone, only to be greeted by the Great Prince - his father - and told that “Your mother can’t be with you any longer.” It is not necessarily mourning, but an acceptance and moving on which Bambi must go through next. It is also important to note that this is the second time he is guided by his father, the first occuring when he encounters Man in the meadow and does not know which way to run. His father shows him where to go then, and he does the same thing this time. And it is with this guidance that Bambi can make the change from the Nietzschean Child as I mentioned above, into the Lion - the second metamorphosis, continuing the backwards trend.
In the final act, an adolescent Bambi and his pals - like any group of teenagers worth their salt - attempt to reject the norms of society. They are given the birds and the bees talk by “friend owl” (my favorite tertiary character) and stick up their noses (quite literally) at the prospect of settling down with a woman because they get some funny feelings inside of them. This perfectly embodies that of the Nietzschean Lion: “the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, p. 13). Of course, one by one, Flower, Thumper, and Bambi give in to the charms (and civilizing effects) of the fairer sex. Bambi falls for Faline, no longer afraid of the Other, but drawn to her, prepared to love her. Before he can do that, he must prove himself in single combat. Another young buck tries to usher Faline away from Bambi, and the two males brawl - the buck with the stronger will shall be with the one he loves, and the other will be cast out. Bambi manages a narrow victory, and all seems to be well. The two deer go off and make love in the only way Disney can show that kind of thing - with a song.
It would seem that Bambi is at the end of his journey into manhood. He moved from childlike curiosity, to hardship, to rebellion, and finally a return to the family unit, but Bambi needs to overcome himself. He must transcend deer and become the uberhirsch (Super Deer), like his father before him. He has confronted the Other in the form of the opposite sex and affirmed it, he has confronted the Other in the form of an antagonist and negated it, but the Other in the form of Chaos will always exist, and he must learn to confront it and not run from it.
Bambi encounters Man for a third time. This time He is responsible for setting the forest ablaze. All the animals must find shelter from the flames as Man hunts them, this time accompanied by their hounds - it is Hell. Bambi protects his family (Faline) and is shot by the hunters. Again his father appears to guide him in his confrontation with Chaos. “Get up, Bambi,” he says. “You must get up.” And he does. Bambi gets himself, Faline, and seemingly all the forest creatures to safety. The film ends with Faline having given birth to two fawns (framed exactly like Bambi’s mother was), and with Bambi and the Great Prince looking over the scene from high above. The Great Prince turns his back and walks into the forest. Bambi has taken his place and the circle is complete.
To move back to my Nietzschean interpretation, this is the completion of the metamorphosis in reverse: Bambi has become the Camel, a “load-bearing spirit.” Nietzsche writes “What is heavy? So asketh the load-bearing spirit and kneeleth it down like the camel and wanteth to be well laden” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, p. 13). It is not that what Bambi has done is move backwards in his development however, rather it is that the process is circular: one must first become a camel before he can truly become the lion, and truly become a lion before he can be a true child. To see this second transformation, you would need to watch another film. 2001: A Space Odyssey would probably do the trick.
- Release DateAugust 21, 1942