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Bambi’s mum had to die Walt Disney was working through guilt and grief

Did she die for nothing?


August 31, 2022   6 mins

When Sergei Eisenstein saw Bambi, he was highly impressed. The great Soviet film director, responsible for such world classics as Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky, pronounced Walt Disney’s fifth feature-length animated film “a shift towards ecstasy“, which represented “the greatness of Disney as the purest example of the application of the method of art in its very purest form”. Disney, said Eisenstein, was on a par with such master creators as DaVinci, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.

I suspect that not even the biggest Disney superfan would go quite that far today, although Bambi, which premiered 80 years ago, is still held in high regard. And of all his films, Bambi was Walt’s favourite. In 2011, it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, alongside Chaplin’s The Kid, Porgy and Bess and The Big Heat. Bambi, in fact, is more than a film: it’s part of our cultural fabric. Like Sherlock Holmes or Superman, you don’t need to engage with the source material to know something about it. Specifically, the crucial plot point: Bambi’s mother dies.

When I was a boy in Scotland, it was impossible to watch a Disney “classic”; they would not be released on home video until I was in high school. As a result, I knew Bambi from clips on the insipid compilation show Disney Time. Bambi was represented by the scene where Thumper pounds his foot on the forest floor; yet still I was aware that Bambi’s mother died. It was in the air, like Kryptonite, or “elementary my dear Watson”.

I was in my thirties and living in Texas by the time I finally saw the film, which I watched with my son, who was three or four at the time. It was obvious from the painterly backdrops and acutely observed movements of the deer that Disney was going for “art”, but when is his mum going to die? I wondered. And then, around halfway through, it happened: having escaped the hunters once already, and endured the harsh winter, Bambi’s mother has finally led her son to a source of food when the baddies return. Mother and son flee, a shot rings out, and Bambi is alone in a world gone silent. A stag appears before him: “Your mother can’t be with you anymore,” it says. Later, the forest burns down.

This was heavy stuff, and not just by Disney standards. I looked at my son, who had become quite upset when the “Heffalump” faced mild peril in a terrible straight-to-DVD Winnie the Pooh sequel. But the Bambi death scene was too subtle; it had gone over his head. This felt like a narrow escape, that I had dodged a conversation I didn’t want to have yet.

It’s not that I was against death in children’s cartoons. Like everyone else, I had seen many animated characters meet their demise, but these were usually “good” deaths, the kind where evil is obliterated: the villain falls into the sea, dies by the sword or plunges into molten lead. Dead parents were not uncommon either; children’s stories teem with orphans, but the parents are almost always long dead before the action begins. Those deaths are backstory; their purpose is to remove protection from the child heroes and so expose them to risk and adventure.

Bambi was different. Most of the film up until the death scene was dedicated to establishing the bond between mother and son; and then when the death came it was starkly materialist in its finality and meaninglessness. It was as if “Uncle” Walt wanted to torture Bambi and, by extension, his audience of little ones. What was he up to?

One clue lies in the source material, which was not aimed at children at all. Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by the Austrian author Felix Salten, provided Disney with the basic structure of the narrative — Bambi’s journey from birth through childhood and adolescence to fatherhood — but also featured scenes of animal-on-animal violence. “Friend Hare”, on whom Thumper is based, loses his son to a murderous pack of crows; a pheasant is torn apart by a fox; Bambi gives another deer such a drubbing that it almost dies. The Nazis banned the novel, regarding it as an allegory for treatment of Jews, but Salter’s actual goal was to articulate the truth about the animal world.

This shows through even in Disney’s sanitised version. Unlike all other talking animal cartoons, where the lions, dogs, cats and fish are analogues for people and have human conflicts, Bambi is a poem about animals, and its protagonists live animal lives centered around birth, death, rutting, raising children, finding food and dodging predators. This is why, once Bambi’s mother dies, she is gone forever. Of course, Disney could have bowdlerised that aspect and made a completely insipid film if he had wanted to, but he may have had a personal reason for keeping death at the heart of the narrative. In 1938, the year that Disney bought the rights to Bambi, his mother died after workmen from the studio botched a repair of a leaking gas furnace in the house he had bought his parents.

Was Disney working through his own guilt and grief when he inflicted the traumatic scene on his audience of small children? Surviving storyboards show that initially he planned to go further, and depict Bambi’s mother’s lifeless corpse on screen. The businessman in him knew that this was too much; the film implies the death, and then leaps forward to Bambi as a horny teenager annoying an owl with his equally horny friends. Anything more than that would have derailed the narrative and turned it into what Stephen King once joked that it was: a horror movie.

In fact, it would be another 50 years, long after Disney’s own death, before the studio he founded depicted parental death inside a film again, in The Lion King. This time it was a father, Mufasa, who died, but now all restraint was cast aside: not only did the animators depict him falling, screaming to his death in a stampede, but they also showed the traumatic aftermath as Simba, the hero, first attempts to “wake up” his dead dad before climbing under the corpse’s lifeless paw for one final hug. And yet in a significant way, The Lion King is the softer of the two films. Whereas Bambi lives in a materialist universe where death is final, Simba is equipped with a metaphysical system which holds that dead kings live on in the stars, and he is later addressed by his father, who appears in the clouds, smiling benignly down upon him from the clouds. It’s OK children, he didn’t really die; his spirit lives on.

The success of The Lion King seems to have liberated Disney’s screenwriters to start getting into death. Although films from Disney proper still tended to feature “traditional” cartoon deaths, the studio’s Pixar division greatly expanded the territory, to such an extent that I suspected the studio’s original boss John Lasseter must have mandated at least one death in each film for maximum pathos. In Up, for instance, the hero’s wife suffers a miscarriage, grows old, and then dies. In Inside Out, Joy’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, disintegrates in front of the audience’s eyes. In Coco, almost everybody is dead, and some face a second death in the afterlife as the living gradually forget them. As for parental death, after waiting so long between Bambi and The Lion King to dip a second toe in those waters, Disney killed off parents inside the story at least three times between 2003 and 2015, in Finding Nemo, Frozen and The Good Dinosaur.

After a while, all the onscreen deaths we were witnessing started to irritate me: Why is this ruthless multibillion-dollar corporate behemoth banging on about death so much? It was as if The Lion King was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of children’s animation. Just as that latter film had rendered all the old Universal monster movies featuring Dracula and the Mummy quaint, so the spectacle of Simba nuzzling the corpse of his dead dad had desensitised a generation to cartoon death. In particular, the death of a parent was now just a plot point to be got out of the way early in the film; then the fun stuff could start. It felt manipulative and exploitative: no longer shocking, Disney had made death boring.

I didn’t doubt that the filmmakers thought they were helping children by introducing them to the idea of mortality, but my kids already knew about death. I thought it more valuable to encourage them to think about the wiles of large corporations that emotionally manipulate children and their parents in order to sell ever more toys, pyjamas and lunchboxes, and in particular to foster scepticism about Disney and its subsidiaries, intent as they are on flooding the world with a seemingly infinite spill of formulaic pabulum: adolescent power fantasies, pointless sequels, prequels and spinoffs, princess after princess, and endless shitty remakes.

And yet. Bambi — Bambi I still respect. I think it’s the absence at the heart of the film that gives it such power, even after 80 years. Disney knew that the grief over the loss of a parent was too vast and all-encompassing to reduce to a plot point. He could only draw a veil over it and move on.


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

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Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

“And yet. Bambi â€” Bambi I still respect. I think it’s the absence at the heart of the film that gives it such power, even after 80 years. Disney knew that the grief over the loss of a parent was too vast and all-encompassing to reduce to a plot point. He could only draw a veil over it and move on.”
Possibly the reason the author still respects Bambi is because it was produced by an individual, a person with feelings and a history, and not a corporation. Therefore the presentation of death still had a human quality to it. The death was enough, then draw a veil over it. It didn’t lessen what had happened, nor did it need to be dramatised. Disney is now a machine. What do machines understand of death and being human?

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Very well said.

mimi McHale
mimi McHale
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Disney used to be Disney. So many of Disney’s movies are about non-mothers. Dumbo, Bambi, The Little Mermaid. Never thought about it until after they went nuts – WOKE.

Mike Sevilla
Mike Sevilla
1 year ago

I am in the role of the evil doer…. I am a hunter…
I think about this movie every time I enter the woods…
It’s an animated movie… but it resonates deep in side of me… going into the woods to end a life… to sustain a life
Thinking about Bambi as I pick out a deer trail… is it a Buck or a Doe. Is there a fawn with her… is she pregnant….
I don’t take a life for sport or joy…. that’s disrespectful and disdainful…
I feed my family with the bounty of nature and my harvest… to help save money for fuel and bills…
Bambi makes and made me a more conscious aware of my actions hunter….
The movie made me accept accountability for what I was doing ..
It’s why I stop in the middle of the road to pick up turtles as the cross… regardless of the traffic behind me…

Michelle Perez
Michelle Perez
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Sevilla

What a wonderful comment! Bravo Mike!

F K
F K
1 year ago

According to the 1958 Disney documentary ‘White Wilderness’ lemmings committed mass suicide every few years (supposedly when population numbers became too large) by throwing themselves off a cliff. Except they don’t and the scene was faked with the wrong species of lemming for the area and they were actually thrown into the sea, and off a turntable into a river, by man. And yet we grew up saying “oh, they’re like lemmings all ridiculously committing suicide by jumping over a cliff’ when we wanted to highlight a bizarre aspect of group behaviour – yet that was based on poor research, leading to doctored documentary footage – and a myth was born. Or was Disney maybe making a point, especially as memory of WW2 began to fade? Was he saying: How do we end up where we often do? Does film/propaganda now set the narrative for what we believe and then guide us on our way to make those ‘dreams’ come true
. Powerful stuff media.

N T
N T
1 year ago

Most loved attraction at Disney parks?
The Haunted Mansion
Most loved after-hours/holiday party? Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, hosted by Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Maybe you are looking in the wrong place. Maybe death is good for business.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  N T

Not death, but the thrill without the risk.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
David Sharples
David Sharples
1 year ago

Hated that movie. The absolute worse scene in Bambi was this line of Thumper:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

For:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do (and Say) nothing.” 

Last edited 1 year ago by David Sharples
Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  David Sharples

But that expression from 1938 had staying power, being still heard a lot in the 1960s and 1970s. And it seems to have been reborn in the hypersensitive American college scene, where people feel “threatened” by mere words.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Wim de Vriend

What it really means is just be nice to people.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  David Sharples

That’s funny. You insert the word”say” where it doesn’t belong to make it work.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H