Thursday, September 15, 2005

Five Reasons Why BAMBI is Disney's Most Hitchcockian Film





Lately I've been taking a break from Alfred Hitchcock to watch Walt Disney DVDs with Liza, my five-year-old daughter.1 We are currently up to about 12 viewings of Bambi. Her choice, not necessarily mine. Disney and his fellow geniuses each gave this masterpiece six years of their life. If the best eyeballs in the industry could repeatedly watch the movie, so can I.

Since Bambi's release in 1942, this young deer has been the poster fawn for nature lovers everywhere, haunting NRA conventions and other gatherings of so-called Bambi slayers. But there is more to Bambi than Thumper, Flower and a singing raindrops. It is a heartfelt, psychologically rich drama. It is worthy, in its own way, of Alfred Hitchcock.2

1. Bambi as a Cycle of Life Film
Hitchcock's films often concern themselves with life's circular nature. The cycle of birth and death. The changing of the seasons. Think of Poulenc's "Perpetual Movement" that accompanies the seemingly continuously-filmed Rope.

The Skin Game (1931) -- a film about an ambitious developer who wants to industrialize a pristine plot of heritage land -- is also about those generational cycles and modernity's threat to them.

Similarly, Bambi starts out with the new-born fawn struggling to his feet. Within the year, however, Bambi loses his mother to hunters; finds a mate, Faline; does battle with another buck and with a pack of hunting dogs to protect her; and narrowly escapes a forest fire. The film ends as Faline gives birth herself. It's a scene that has all the religious overtones of a renaissance mother-and-child painting and it completes the cycle, repeating the birthing scene that opens the film. Is idyllic as this scene is, we know that this fragile newborn will soon face its own travails. As the viewer is pulled back and away to the proud young stag Bambi, who looks on from the distance, the film's theme song intones that

Love is a song that never ends
Life may be swift and fleeting
Hope may die yet love's beautiful music
Comes each day like the dawn

Love is a song that never ends
One simple theme repeating
Like the voice of a heavenly choir
Love's sweet music flows on

The tour-de-force transitional scenes, which mark the changes in the seasons with fluttering autumn leaves and multicolored blossoms, also point up the passage of time and the cyclical nature of life.3 Blowing leaves are a common signifier in films -- but usually merely to denote the passage of time. In the hands of Hitchcock and, here, with Disney, they take on an existential overtone.

Hitch frequently set his movies during the dying season of autumn. The Trouble with Harry4 (1955), features transition scenes that resemble those in Bambi. In this regard, Hitchcock author Ken Mogg makes a comment that could equally apply to either film:

"Transition-shots in 'Harry' sometimes look and feel like the work of the great Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu, another filmmaker who dealt in seasonal motifs. The most typical mood of his films is that of 'mono no aware' [sensitivity to things], comprising a feeling of quiet resignation that individual lives are so transient and the consoling thought that we're all in the same boat."

The Trouble with Harry may be Hitchcock's most direct comment on the cycle of life. Bambi did that for Walt Disney.

2. Bambi as a Film about Paradise Threatened
The forest in Bambi is pristine, natural. Untouched by man. In fact, Man, the film's villain, is never directly portrayed; instead, he is hinted at by the crack of off-camera gunshots, or a view of a distant spindle of smoke rising from a campfire.5 Nevertheless, Man looms large, and his menace is never far from this paradise.

It is a film about paradise threatened. And this was very familiar ground for Hitchcock. Few of his don't address that core aspect of the human condition.

In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) comes to Santa Rosa on a mission: he's there to upset the order of their idyllic small-town paradise.

Likewise, the plot of land under question in The Skin Game is frequently described in such terms as having "the prettiest spring meadows in the world." The land, which contains rich clay deposits, is slated to become the site of a pottery factory.6

While Hitchcock hinted at the paradise lost/threatened motif in his movies. Bambi, on the other hand, is an extended essay on the subject.

In one noteworthy departure from the Felix Salton novel on which it is based, "Bambi" is shorn of any "trials of life" conflict between the animals. No animal predators encroach in this world. The only enemy is Man with his guns, whose heedlessness sparks a forest fire. Otherwise, it is a forest world of harmony and peace.

But that paradisaic state of nature embraces more than pretty flowers and twittering birds. It has to do with an all-encompassing condition that the Romantic philosophers and poets called "oneness".7 Just like Hitchcock's films.

3. Bambi as a Film About Oneness
In many Disney films, the whole world is a land of enchantment. That Enchanted Kingdom mystique pervades Disneyland (and practically begs for an academic analysis or two). Unlike his other films, in Bambi, this enchantment is not played out as cartoon shtick. It comes across more as a state of simpatico that honors the element-in-itself. As Schopenhauer might say, Bambi honors the collective Will of nature. Even the wind and trees are endowed with personality. Disney's script instructions8 for the forest fire, for example, required that it be portrayed as "hungry and reaching -- not with actual hands, of course -- but in the way it devours the forest." Fire has a Will to devour, and Disney wanted to make sure that its essential destructive nature was given expression.9

Even the background art was animated with a life of its own. Larry Morey, who adapted the story from the original novel, said, "We should take our backgrounds and build them around the characters [not the other way around]. The background is a great character too."

One Disney contributor advocated using wordless Gregorian Chant-like chorals to underscore the blowing of the wind, for "just the quality of it gives you kind of a mysterious, spiritual feeling."

"We're trying to use music as part of the story," Morey added. "When those little raindrops sing, there's almost a spiritual side to it. … We should take the music, dialogue and color, even action and timing and [give] them [an] all-of-a-oneness." (Italics mine.)

Likewise in a Hitchcock movie, everything -- the props, the characters, the camera, the film itself -- is endowed with a special enchanted significance, as Hitchcock, like Disney, didn't distinguish between animate and inanimate objects when making his films.10

Hitchcock took great care to animate his props, at times magnifyinging them to the level of fetish. Think of the eery glowing glass milk in Suspicion or Francine's jewels in To Catch a Thief. In many cases, these props get passed from one person to the next. Think of the keys in Notorious and Dial M for Murder or the packet of money in Psycho. Even intangible objects circulate among the characters, such as the cold bug that goes about among the characters in The Skin Game, or the Merry Widow Waltz in Shadow of a Doubt that seems to jump from head to head.

In his scripting sessions for what was to be his final film, the unfinished The Short Night, he repeatedly turned his attention to the type of rope the lead character would use to escape from prison. "It should be jute," he said. Then he went on to repeat the word meditatively, "Jute… jute… jute…." His screenwriter, David Freeman, became impatient with this exercise. But perhaps this was how he approached all of his most famous props. How would the coarse texture of that length of jute feel in his character's hands as he scaled the prison wall? How would it feel under tension, or while slack? Perhaps he was recalling previous meditations on a similar prop from his 1948 film of the same name.11

Similarly, Disney's animators, who traveled to rural Maine to study animals and nature and who were sent back to art school to study animal anatomy and locomotion did so in order to get their characters just right for "Bambi".

In fact, Hitchcock went one step better than Disney with regard to the sense of oneness. By treating the actors, sets, props, camera, etc. as part of a single thing, Hitchcock movies often have a feeling that Ken Mogg upgrades to "at-onceness". That is, that an entire film can be viewed as a single action, event or moment. This is literally true, as the strip of film, once it begins shuttling its way through the projector, continues unstopped until the closing credits. As such, a movie is, indeed, a single event. And Hitchcock understood that Zeno principle better than anyone.

4. Bambi as Pure Film
"I deal in pure film," Hitchcock said. "Pieces of film put together like notes of music make a melody." Some12 have concluded that he was talking solely about the visual language of film. Montage. Camera angles. The subjective tracking shot. But Hitchcock elaborated on the subject himself. "I … care about the pieces of film and photography and the sound track and all the technical ingredients that make the audience scream." Psycho (1960), he felt, was a triumphant example of this. He added, "They [the audiences] were aroused by pure film," which included all of those other non-visual elements, such as Bernard Herrmann's slashing violins that punctuated the shower murder.13

If Hitchcock were alive today -- and if he wore Birkenstocks under his Brooks Brothers suits -- he might have described his pure film approach as "holistic", an aesthetic sense in which ambient street noise is as carefully selected as the neckline on the leading lady's dress.

As a self-styled practitioner of pure, he tended film tend to avoid the overuse of dialogue. he might choose to, as Brandon (John Dall) says of Rupert (James Steart) in Rope, choose "words more for their sound than their meaning." The intention is to create a mood or arouse emotions that transcend the literal meaning of the words being spoken.

Bambi is one of those films.

Bambi is told almost entirely without words -- there are a mere 950 words of dialogue in the film. And Disney begrudged even those few spoken words, complaining, that "it was still too gabby." His production notes reveal his insistence that the story be shown, not told. And dialogue was repeatedly cut from the screenplay, whereas music was continually added.

There are several moments in the film when Man's threatening presence occurs. Bambi and his mother stop and look around to their left, to their right, and straight at the "camera". In those moments, it is as if they are looking straight at the audience -- at me -- and I feel the full impact of their inquiring, remonstrating gaze. THAT'S pure film!

5. Bambi as a Suspense Thriller
When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) was killed halfway through Psycho, audiences were shocked, and for the remainder of the film they were kept in suspense; for now, with the star gone, anyone else could die at any moment. All bets were off.

Hitchcock received a mountain of praise -- and a bit of scorn -- for that surprise. But it was not the first time a leading character was killed midway through the movie -- to similar dramatic effect.

Like Marion, Bambi's mother was shot down at roughly the halfway point in that film. And from that moment forward, anything, as in a Hitchcock thriller, could happen. That's why, when Bambi leaps across the chasm to escape the hunting dogs and a shot is fired, viewers are willing to believe that he might be down for good. Disney stipulated that when the ensuing forest fire broke loose, the composer should "bring something out in the music and scare the pants off [the audience].

After Bambi's heroic leap, and as he struggles to his feet and to escape the forest fire, the suspense is terrific. And it has been built perfectly. The best ingredients for Hitchcockian suspense are there: the audience has thoroughly invested its emotions in this character's health and safety; previous scenes have demonstrated that no one is safe in this movie, and enormous dangers press close upon him. Beautiful. Scary. Suspenseful.

Disney's intention with Bambi was to show that Bambi's travails were, as he said, "just the way of the world. … The philosophy … is that things happen. … They're beyond our control and we've got to make the best of them. It's the way of life and everything that we're born into. Born to a life of surviving the forest."

Though Bambi has a happy ending, the pain, suffering and loss that it took to get there -- and the pain and suffering yet to come -- are not far away. It's an ending unlike that found in any other Disney movie, but its parallel is found in almost every Hitchcock film. Rarely do Hitchcock's moves end with an unalloyed happy ending. In Marnie, once the final credits roll, only then does the real work begin.

Although it is barely alluded to in Bambi, Man is destroyed by the fire he created. Disney's statement on the subject was that "Bambi learns that man is not God, but [that there's something else] with the power of life and death over everybody." Morey adds, "Somebody over all of us. Bigger than man." Again, this is a concern that crops up again and again in Hitchcock's films -- that there is something bigger out there that trumps our subjective wills.

In 1963, Hitchcock got to make a response to Bambi. He called it The Birds. In this film, the birds finally get to settle the score from Man's abuses. The movie even comes outfitted with animated birds, courtesy of Disney's celebrated animator Ub Iwerks. There is also a scene that parallels Bambi's mother looking accusingly out at the audience: in the café, a hysterical mother looks the camera straight in the eye -- at Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and us -- and says, "I think you're evil. I think you're the cause of all this!" And in a way she's right. The onslaught of the avian predators is triggered by the purchase of a movie ticket and bucket of popcorn.

Bambi is no fantasy film. There were no princes to kiss at the end and no magic wand to wave to make things right. Just fire, ice, wind and rain. Ithas been hailed as Walt Disney's most naturalistic animated feature.14 It may also be his most serious film, dealing with life on life's terms. That's a terrifying thing to do. As such, it stands closer on the shelf to Hitchcock's movies than it does to, say, Cinderella.




1.Some aspects of parenting are duties, while others are a pleasure. Cuddling with the cutest five-year-old in the world for the umpteenth screening of "Bambi" or "Snow White" falls into the second category. Don't ask me, though, about Liza's other favorite DVD: "Barbie in Barbietopia."

2. Both creative moguls were easily the most famous behind-the-camera creators of their era. The very names Disney and Hitchcock had currency unto themselves. No other director or producer came close to their name recognition.
Disney and Hitchcock are antithetical emblems of Postwar America. Uncle Walt was the purveyor of fantasy who played to America's self-perception as an enchanted land that always gets a happy ending. Postwar Hitch scraped beneath that veneer, poking around in the kitchens and seedy motels of that same America, finding things that we would all prefer to be kept hidden and forgotten about.
Naturally, their paths crossed. Hitchcock's first nod to Disney occurred in 1936 when he used a scene from the Disney cartoon "Who Killed Cock Robin?" to ironic effect in "Sabotage".
In 1945, Hitchcock hired Salvador Dali to create the dream sequence for "Spellbound". While that film was still in production, Disney heard about the surrealist's work with Hitchcock, which apparently convinced the animator to tap Dali to create "Destino", a cartoon that sat unfinished in Disney vaults until it was restored and released in 2003. (Earlier, in 1937, Dali wrote to Andre Breton, "I have come to Hollywood and am in touch with the three great American surrealists -- the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille and Walt Disney." This was two years before Hitchcock's arrival; likely the artist would have added the British director to that short list if he had been there.)
3. I'm reminded of Hitchcock's similar use of that motif in "Spellbound", which begins with an autumn breeze slowly stripping a branch of its dead leaves.

4. And, I could add, "Bambi".

5. As their production notes reveal, keeping Man off-camera was part of a strategy to further demonize the villain in this picture, as unseen dangers loom larger then the ones we can see. M. Night Shyamalan has learned this lesson better than perhaps anyone.

6. Conversely, when "Saboteur"'s (1942) Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) visits the blind man in the woods -- the only person who "sees" the truth of his innocence -- it is clearly a return to paradise. Innocence - and the paradise representing it - is a recurring theme/motif in Hitchcock's movies. He symbolizes it by using -- and reusing -- the classical imagery of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve's expulsion therefrom, and in countless other ways.

7. In this, too, Hitchcock and Disney had a shared world-view. Disney was a well-known nature lover. So was Hitchcock. When his dog died, the stolid British director was out-of-sorts for days. His daughter Patricia recalls Hitch and Alma standing in their kitchen, weeping after having seen "Born Free".

8. All quotes from Walt Disney and Larry Morey's production notes are from "Bambi 2-Disc Special Edition", Bonus Materials.

9. The rain sequence now accompanied by "Drip Drip Drop Little April Showers", originally called for the raindrops to sing the song themselves. "I like falling/have to keep falling…" they happily sang. These original lyrics recall the Schopenhauerian concept that rain has a Will that causes it to strive to fall. (Lyrics from "Bambi" soundtrack CD, track 16.)

10. Like the rest of his props, Hitchcock famously compared his actors to cattle who must be herded through the movie set, and he expressed his envy of Disney by saying, "Disney has the best casting. If he doesn't like an actor he just tears him up." Indeed, Disney was able to craft his movies entirely with pen and ink, and never had to deal the exigencies of inclement weather, egotistical actors, or other variables that at times compromised "live" directors' artistic vision. The best Hitchcock could hope for was a perfect script.

11.I imagine him mulling over the use of the house key in "Dial M for Murder", perhaps ordering up a typical key used in that type of apartment in that neighborhood in London and fingering the simple tool, fondling it, feeling its coolness in his hands, smelling it….

12. Including me from 1982 through 1997.

13. Taken from a television interview, unreferenced, and quoted countless times on blogs, and in university theses, books and newspaper, magazine and scholarly articles.

14. I cannot call "Bambi" a cartoon. That would be like calling Michelangelo's "Pieta" a statue.

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2 comments:

Ghustaf said...

That's so cool I didn't know all this. I am a BIG fan of both Disney and Hitchcock so it was really fun to read all this!

Anonymous said...

Really interesting and insightful analysis, really enjoyed the point about the devouring fire in the forest. Thanks for your inspiration