This review published, belatedly, in memoriam of the death of animator Tyrus Wong at the ripe old age of 106.
Back in the halcyon days of early Disney Animation, the grandfatherly egomaniac at the acme of the company had not yet been exposed to the tumult of swaying company profits. (Or, at least, he had not yet developed any compunctions about doing what he wanted even if it was destined to fail at the box office). Still jejune in the animated feature film department, Disney was at this point a heart of a grand old moralist and an eye for galloping into new technological experience, both organs loosely stitched around a hard shell of a capitalist overlord who was not always sure how to mediate his personal artistry with the need for money in the American capitalistic tradition. This early era was bittersweet for Disney: his first masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a commercial monolith devouring all comers, was followed by three more masterpieces, all more adventurous, and all comparative (or outright) failures. Although Fantasia was his most personal casualty, the failure of Bambi no doubt seemed a malfeasance at the time. Barring Pinocchio, it is undoubtedly the most beautiful of all Disney feature-length films, and for his technical and even aesthetic radicalism, Disney was rewarded with the collective yawn of the unflinching, disinterested American public.
One cannot clearly trace the logic of America’s neglectful treatment of Bambi. Perhaps it was Disney’s willingness to present the audience with presentiments of mankind’s endless turpitude, or even worse, a disinterest in the munificence and glory of nature. Or perhaps the public didn’t cotton to Bambi because Disney had no qualms about sabotaging the audience’s insatiable impulse for narrative conflict and conclusion. Instead, the relatively placid story of a deer is more a mental frame than a narrative, expunging quests and arcs and solutions and the stability of conquering protagonists who fulfill the Liberal drive for individual agency. In return, Bambi trucks along on waves of emotion, peaks of exultancy, troughs of despair, and crests of chaos as its contours swivel with mental and emotional experience rather than a narrative arc.
Whereas Fantasia and Pinocchio were almost willfully disjointed beasts where narrative had gone awry into clearly demarcated sections, Bambi flows with the grace of an impressionistic painting or a study in silence and stillness. Vanquishing the need to move the story forward, the film instead ingests the convivial atmosphere of experience in nature, from birth to education to friendship to death defrayed only slightly by future companionship. It is a film of moments, no doubt, but they form a tapestry of emotional moods and perceptual experiences that approximate life itself, even its regrets.
Death is only slightly anesthetized here. The minimalistic, unseen visual touch applied to the death of Bambi’s mother, the film’s claim to fame, certainly doesn’t mollify the terror of Bambi’s silent realization that she will never return, and that some unseen, almost cosmic force exists in the universe that Bambi is not yet privy to. For all its restful nature and lack of overt tension, Bambi is no jejune motion picture or a social pariah for audiences who claim that Disney was merely a carnival barker for children. The film doesn’t emphasize the cold-blooded murder so much as keep the darkness at bay by acknowledging it and then, perhaps more tragically, acknowledging the need to move on to keep with the unending flow of life that only has an un-melodramatic moment or two to spare for any one death.
Oh, and lest I forget, it’s gorgeous, and not in an empty-handed, stylistically specious way either. Although often discussed as Disney’s beacon of realism, the real apex of the film is the ecstatic flow from realism to impressionism depending upon a character’s comfort with the landscape around them, a style courtesy of art director Tyrus Wong who was unceremoniously ousted or minimalized in the company due to his Asian background. On one hand, much of Bambi recalls the American landscapes of the 1800s (mostly the Hudson River School), emblematic of a time when American painters found American exceptionalism in the impossibly mythic expanse of untouched land. But it is telling that the pasture and various other spaces in the film are visualized in hazier, deliberately ambivalent gestures. The pasture where Bambi’s mother is killed is not only a marker of humanity’s unthinking volition, almost reflex-oriented, to deface a physical biome and an ideological and imaginative space of new revelation and hope for the future. The pasture is also the beacon of new revelation to begin with, Bambi’s canvas for discovering new worlds. Suggesting the furtive first steps into any first experience, the impressionism expresses in its formal principle the tentative beauty of a sight that has not yet fully solidified as real tactile geography, a place evoked in the mind as an impression or a collection of emotions more than anything.
A sort of primordial innocence is found within this impressionist mental space, the sort tarnished by the eventual capriciousness of having to acknowledge that a space is real, besieged by all the tensions and strains and complications that any earthly space is beholden to. All of this is impressionistic down to its very bones, not simply in the alluring, elusive charge Wong’s animation brings to the table but in the momentary flow of images and sounds that do not adhere to parochial narrative norms of beating us over the head with the causal links between moments. Twenty years later, and you’d have some miscreant impulse to inundate the entire film with a shaken, shuddering awareness that the mother’s death wounded Bambi’s dark heart and wracked his soul, leaving him a shell of a person (deer?) unable to cope with the world. He would possibly even be primed for psychosis or even near-villainy. An overstuffed tragedy, though, Bambi is not; every image does not need to connect logically or narratively so much as poetically and experientially. In narrative slightness, the film manages to stuff itself with the visual energy of life itself. Personally, I would not stack it up to Pinocchio or Fantasia for earth-shaking emotional rapture of artistic profundity, but Bambi boasts a room to breathe lacking in any other Disney feature, and I for one would not trade that for any narrative in the world.