This a 3-part series as a model for student work.

Bambi in Boyland: How Disney’s Fawn Reflects American Morals

Part One:

Commerce Drive-In Theater, 1968

A boy is introduced to movies and Disney’s Bambi, and the initiation teaches fear.

I admit my memory is cloudy . I was five. My father and mother drove me to my first movie, the story of a Disney fawn stumbling his way through youth and tragedy. Our blue Ford Galaxy, its windshield spotted with dust, rolled up to the rusting post in the middle of the field. My father unhooked the small speaker that dangled there from a cord and perched it on the driver window; static peppered the thin sound, and the image on the screen before was dim, the occasional moth shadow stark and quick. But for me it was pretty magical. Bambi etched its complex purposes into me: fire, fear, violence, and something else more powerful still.  

In my memory, the parts of the movie skip about, blur together.  Bambi is practicing words:  “Bird. Bird.  Bird.”  Thumper laughs at him. But then the gunshot and the father’s voice: “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.”  I think it was Bambi’s first year of life—but for me he was five.

I don’t remember feeling any fear that evening. My own mother tells me that I cried. And looking back on that scene today, more than 40 years later, I wonder at it.  What was Disney up to?  Ralph Lutts, in Forest and Conservation History, reports that Disney initially considered putting the death on screen. He set up details so that the audience would feel Bambi was“more helpless and everything.”    Did he know about me, squeezed between the two front seats of my father’s Galaxy, 25 years later, inscribed by this horror? Did he know about the millions of children who would watch it? Think about the millions of dollars it might make? Or did he have some other idea about writing the American culture?

While Bambi is now culturally responsible for so much of our thinking—everything from Smokey the Bear  (“Bambi or Bear?”)  to Ann Curry’s scandalous firing in “Operation Bambi” (Markinson) —it may also echo some of our national trauma. Rated by Time as one of the Greatest Horror Movies of All Time (“Top 25 Horror Movies”), it’s a hell of a movie to put in front of your first-born child.  And if I was terrified by the  forest fire, the loss, the vulnerability of Bambi, so too might we all be compensating for those same terrors. In the end we are destined to become Prince of the Forest, resolute and proud Americans.  Just like Simba about 50 years later

I guess I’ve always felt that an abundant show of strength is too often a narcissistic mask for our insecurities.  Behind every Forest Prince is a lonely and helpless fawn. That night in 1968  I didn’t need Bambi to tell me that I was afraid of fire, afraid of losing my mother, afraid of gun violence, perhaps even afraid of growing up. Detroit was on fire in ways I did not understand, and my parents spoke in whispers and half-sentences with anxiety.  Batman was on most weekdays, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World would give me hours of nature movies and cartoons every Sunday night after grilled cheese sandwich dinners.  Bambi was different from the Sunday night Walt. I could watch my parents laugh at Carol Burnett and not feel afraid.  I could watch Disney’s The Ugly Dachshund or Pablo and the Dancing Chihuahua and not worry too much about adult ideas.

The Commerce Drive-In is gone now, and my initiation into Bambi is over 40 years ago. My mother lives gently on a farm in southern Michigan. But as that child in the back seat that night, Bambi reminded me of how fragile my innocence was, and it taught me how sternly as an adult I would need to defend it.

NEXT WEEK:  How Bambi’s lessons might have helped a hip-hop idol .

Works Cited

“Bambi or Bear?” Smokey Bear.  27 Mar. 2014.

“Bambi’s Mom Dies.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Feb. 2008 . 27 Mar. 2014.

Lutts: “The Trouble with Bambi.” Lutts: “The Trouble with Bambi”   27 Mar. 2014.

Mirkinson, Jack. “Ann Curry Firing Plot Called ‘Operation Bambi’: NYT.” The Huffington PostTheHuffingtonPo., 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

“Top 25 Horror Movies.” Entertainment Top 25 Horror Movies Comments.  27 Mar. 2014.

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