For the Birds Radio Program: Movie Review: Bambi
(Recording of “Love is a Song”)
When I was in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department at Michigan State University, the wildlife managers used to ridicule people with any reservations about hunting as victims of “The Bambi Complex.” This was apparently the nastiest epithet they could come up with for people whose philosophies might be different from their own, and it accomplished a neat trick– instead of feeling some obligation to defend their sport with reason and logic, they managed to place their questioners on the defensive by ridiculing them. When I asked about studies that showed that a large number of male deer were not growing antlers in heavily hunted areas of Michigan, possibly because hunters were selecting for antlerless males by killing ones with antlers, I was accused of having the “Bambi Complex.” When I expressed concern about pintail and canvasback populations and questioned why hunters weren’t outright prohibited from shooting threatened species, when I expressed concern that management practices were displacing native Babwhite quail with exotic pheasants, all I heard was “Bambi Complex.” Now that “Bambi” is again showing in theaters, it’s time to examine what this “Bambi Complex” is all about.
“Bambi” is based on a book with the same name written by Felix Salten in Germany in 1929. The book was an elegant if emotional statement against hunting at a time when virtually every game animal had been extirpated from the Black Forest of Germany. At that time there were absolutely no bag limits, people hunted all year, including the breeding season, and there were no laws protecting rare and threatened species or songbirds. Hunters were free to kill any and everything that moved. The book was clearly anthropomorphic, but the characters of the animals were based on Salten’s keen observations of them in the field as a naturalist–he wanted to show people that although animals are not human beings, they share many traits with us as fellow living creatures. And Bambi is more than an emotional plea to regulate hunters–it’s fine fiction as well, about a boy coming to manhood.
When Walt Disney read “Bambi,” he was enthralled by its simplicity and grace and decided to do a movie of it. He wanted to capture both the book’s beauty and its careful portrayal of animals. He required his artists to spend many hours observing real animals which were flown in to the Disney studios in California, and the effort shows–Of all the Disney animated films, Bambi is the one that most accurately portrays the movements of animals.
It’s also the most beautiful of all the Disney movies. The artwork is rich–the film was painted in oils, rather than Disney’s usual watercolors. And unlike most Disney films, Bambi has a strong theme that pervades the music and every frame–a theme about birth and death and the regeneration of life.
Of course, the movie has serious inaccuracies. When Bambi’s mother is killed at the end of the winter, he’s still a tiny spotted fawn, although he’s a full year old. His father looks a lot more like an elk than a deer, with oversized antlers and thickened neck complete with ruff. Pileated Woodpeckers have three toes in front instead of the normal two, and yet several songbirds have two toes instead of three. The quails are hybrids between Bobwhite and California Quail. The Great Horned Owl neither breeds nor eats–Disney clearly couldn’t handle the thought of natural predation. And a lot of the sweetest scenes are based on the fantasy world of Disney rather than the harsh world of nature. But nonetheless the film is charming and beautiful. If it displeases hunters with its message, they should use reason to explain why game management and hunting regulations legitimize their sport. Rather than chastising anyone with concerns about hunting as victims of a “Bambi Complex,” decent hunters should defend their sport with reason and integrity.
(Recording from “Bambi”)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”