Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bambi (1942)

Director: David Hand, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Graham Heid, William Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright
Writer: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright
Score: Frank Churchill, Edward H. Plumb
Producer: Walt Disney
Starring: Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright, John Sutherland, Paula Winslowe, Peter Behn, Tim Davis, Sam Edwards, Stan Alexander, Sterling Holloway, Will Wright
Distribution: RKO
Length: 1 hr. 11 min.

The most immediately striking thing about Bambi is its beauty; the fine attention to detail, the way light bounces off objects, the way we seem to be looking into a space with actual depth, and the colors that shift with the weather all come together to form some indelible images. Moreover, these images evoke a coherent, solid environment. When you see Bambi's handsomely rendered settings and the turning of the seasons, you understand that you're watching a depiction of many different moving parts that amount to a greater whole.

The film's narrative is nothing more than a record of the titular character's life from infancy to adulthood. It begins with Bambi's birth, then shows us his childhood development, then his gaining an understanding of his environment and the circumstances of living in the forest. After that the film moves on to his adolescence, in which we see his attainment of sexual maturity (to put it less euphemistically than the film does), and the extent of his physical development since childhood.

All the characters go through a similar sequence of events. If they were humans, the film would be a pastoral: they find peace in being in balance with nature, in terms of both their physical and mental well-being. They move with the seasons, and with the turning of their own biological clocks. They pass through natural cycles and, almost unconsciously, go through the motions to keep those cycles going.

But the film keeps us at something of a distance; we don't identify with the animals as we would humans, because they are certainly animals. The animators studied the anatomy and behavior of real animals firsthand to create them, and while they are anthropomorphized to an extent, the character animation in that vein doesn't quite make up the gap between us and them.

The effects animation outshines the character animation, in a way that illustrates the animals' subjection to nature. In one scene, character animation and effects animation are almost indistinguishable, and it gives us a sense of the instinct-driven, impulsive manner of Bambi's state of mind. There is no dialogue in this scene, nor any anthropomorphism; it's just formalism, constant motion and expressive shadows that convey intensity without conveying any sense of character or narrative. It's the cinematic realization of the exchange between Bambi and nature, in which natural urges call on him to take action, and he does, which in turn perpetuates nature itself.

There are many scenes like this in the film, scenes that do not explicitly tell us anything that can be put into words, but are made up of extremely expressive imagery (sometimes complementing the rhythm of the background score) that portrays nature as a process and illustrates the relationship between that process and the many different creatures in the forest.

The passage of time is another dominant force over the animals' lives. Consider the scene in which Bambi's mother is killed; it's certainly tragic for Bambi, and his fear, confusion, and grief are plain to see. But the scene ends abruptly, cutting to a brightly colored and cheerful depiction of the forest during spring - time has subsumed Bambi's tragedy. The scene is both a time lapse and a cut from winter to spring, and we see that the motions of nature are a far stronger force in Bambi's life than even the loss of a parent.

"Man" is the closest thing Bambi has to a villain. Humans are an alien presence in the film, one that is distinctly outside the forest's life cycles. The film does not suggest that humans are malevolent, but it does demonstrate how much more powerful they are than animals due to their relative freedom from natural processes. In this way, it's almost the inversion of a pastoral; rather than appealing to a desire for the peace of moving with nature, it shows that the ability to move out of joint with nature involves incredible power - and that power's potential for destruction.

Time film critic Richard Corliss described Bambi as a horror movie, and there is something frightening about how the options open to humans are closed to the animals of this film when disaster strikes. The intensity of these scenes gives us a glimpse of a different mode of living than the human one. It does not demonize humans for having ambitions and concerns beyond the seasonal cycles of life; it does, however, attempt to give us a fuller perspective on our own influence.

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