Animated by a return to the enchanted forest

Beatrix Campbell
Tuesday 27 July 1993 23:02

ONE evening in what seems a lifetime ago, my nephew did something he had never done before - he went to the pictures with his grandma, his mam and his aunt. We have never forgotten it. He was four, the first child of a new generation. Going to see Bambi was a great event in his childhood - it was also meant to be a memento, created for our collective memory.

The prelude provided the first thrill: going out at night, with grown-ups. We went to the Palace, an ancient warehouse of public pleasures, where we had to pay a lady in a glass box who gave us tickets. He didn't know that we were paying to see, he thought we were paying to get in and wondered whether we had to pay to get out.

He thought we were very good for sitting quietly in the dark with all those other people. In the convivial company of strangers we were entranced by the fawn's efforts to become Bambi. Then we watched, taut, wondering how our boy would behold the terror of Man's threat to the forest.

The cartoon had the great themes: co-operation, love, loss and a newly-contemporary representation of Man as destroyer. The catastrophe at the heart of Bambi - his mother's death at the hands of Man the hunter - is not only one of the most dramatic moments in animation, it is one of its most disciplined. Animation allowed audiences to contemplate what they could never see in 'live action'. However, we hear but we never actually see Bambi's mother being shot as they flee from the magical meadow. For all his saccharine excess, Walt Disney knew how to handle dignity.

My nephew brought his own will to what he saw. He was so desperately involved in the story, it seemed, that he changed it - he decided that the mother was not dead.

Fifty years after it was first shown to a war-time audience, and 15 years since we last saw it, Bambi has been re-released. My nephew and I went to see it again. Now 19, the beautiful boy is big and bearded, and a film fan schooled in Reservoir Dogs, Delicatessen and The Silence of the Lambs.

Bambi is an epic that has recruited audiences across generations and so produces different perceptions and pleasures. Would we enjoy the repetition? Or would we see a Bambi we had not seen before?

We were re-united with the blushing skunk called Flower and Thumper, the bold bunny. The commitment to character that Disney imprinted on the cartoons is, of course, what constitutes the genre. It is what makes the the cartoons more than comics, and creates creatures with charisma that transcends their inanimate form and claims them for stardom.

But my nephew complained about the all-singing, all-dancing, cutesy courtships that consummate the cartoon's reassuring sense of life's seasons. What gripped us this time was exactly what was revolutionary about the film - the spectacle of landscape as action, of fire and rain, birth and death. The glorious April rainstorm that widened our eyes was one of the formative episodes that weaned Disney away from gags and formation dancing.

The internal studio struggle that took place during the film's seven-year gestation reflected our own feelings as viewers. Something about our two trips to Bambi mirrored the different Disneys. The cartoon began when the studio had just started experimenting with Snow White. According to the animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, while the director Sidney Franklin, who had the original idea to screen Felix Salten's story, saw 'the grandeur of the forest and the majesty of the creatures who lived and died there', Disney saw 'an entertaining cast' who would exercise his artful artisans. But it is the ambient forest that finally encourages Disney and the animators to let go of their cast of a thousand creatures and focus on a new form.

It did not come easily, for Disney and the animators resisted the very thing they were creating. The work of Chinese migrant Tyrus Wong, who had been going crazy toiling on Mickey Mouse, was what made the technical transition. He offered sketches, stripped of clamourous detail, that were dense with shadow, mist, suggestion. This quintessentially Western art form depended on his Eastern aesthetic for its graphic innovation.

Bambi is a story of cinema as creative democracy - both for the creators of the spectacle and the spectator. What we loved when we went again, when we acquired our second sight, was the state of the art. Animation grew up with Bambi. His animators discovered atmosphere as well as action. In Bambi both get through.

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