The first thing everyone remembers about Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic Bambi is that Bambi’s mom gets shot, traumatizing generations of America’s youth, from Baby Boomers to the present. And yes, the moment is still shocking, even though it happens offscreen and the body is never seen again. Yet Disney showed a willingness to go to dark places in his previous films—the “Pleasure Island” sequence in Pinocchio, the elephant’s alcohol-fueled hallucinations in Dumbo—and since Bambi is fundamentally about life, it must also include the reality of death. The studio revisited the same territory half a century later with The Lion King, but the differences between the two films are stark: Unfolding with minimal dialogue, Bambi doesn’t need to explain away its themes with a “Circle Of Life” production number. It simply illustrates them with a quiet, subtle, and ultimately reassuring touch.
Bambi opens with the birth of the eponymous fawn and ends with him becoming a father himself. Along the way, we watch as he learns about the world around him, from simple things like what flowers and birds are to harsher truths, like man’s encroachment on nature, and the fact that everyone dies and life carries on in their absence. The gorgeous, inviting watercolor backdrops go a long way toward mitigating the occasional menace of hunters (and fire) breaking up this forest idyll, and the film supplies more than enough adorable images to beat back the scary ones. (Though Time cheekily included Bambi on a Top 25 Horror Movies Of All Time list.) Watching Bambi today, what’s most surprising is how unambiguously dubious it is about man’s presence in nature; no humans appear, but they’re the force that disrupts the peace in the forest.
Not surprisingly, American sportsmen didn’t react well to Bambi at the time, but the film really isn’t about the relationship between man and nature so much as a universal treatment of life itself. It’s a beautiful film about innocence lost and knowledge gained, and while the tragedy of Bambi’s mother’s death hits hard, it’s all part of the rite-of-passage every creature takes into becoming a mature, self-aware adult. More than any self-declared masterpiece in the Disney catalog, Bambi has earned the right to be called timeless, because its concerns are transcendent and universal.
Key features: Two deleted scenes that never got past sketch form, including one where Bambi gets caught in a reed, and another where the last two autumn leaves interact. There’s also a deleted song, and a referral to a “second screen” application for iPads and laptops. But the real jewel is a dramatic reading of actual transcripts from Disney’s story meetings for the film.