- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The 1942 animated classic “Bambi” is being rereleased Tuesday in the Blu-ray format, meaning a new generation of children will delight to the antics of Thumper and the gang.

And some will have nightmares for weeks as a result.

The film’s iconic sequence involves the death of Bambi’s mother at the hands of hunters. The action occurs off-screen, but the sound of gunfire burned itself into the psyche of many young moviegoers. Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman has said “Bambi” was the first film he ever saw and insists he still suffers from it.

A few modern animated films deal with similarly dark story lines. In last year’s “Toy Story 3,” Woody and crew stare down the maw of an incinerator in the final reel. The 2003 film “Finding Nemo” featured the loss of the main character’s mother in the opening minutes, and the 1994 feature “The Lion King” also involved the death of a childlike character’s parent.

“Bambi” endures as a symbol of Walt Disney Studio’s enduring artistry — even if it means a few tears are shed along the way. But will today’s young audiences appreciate “Bambi” for its animated splendor, nightmares and all?

Liz Perle, editor in chief of Common Sense Media, said children’s stories often involve the loss of a parent, from “Nemo” back to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But “Bambi” felt different.

“It’s like letting the forces of evil in for the first time. There’s nothing the mother did to deserve it,” said Mrs. Perle, whose nonprofit provides media information for concerned families.

Children shouldn’t necessarily be shielded from watching a challenging film like “Bambi,” Mrs. Perle said.

“It’s a good launching point for conversation,” she said, adding parents need to know if their children are mentally prepared for such dialogues.

“It depends on the age of the kid and the kid you have. If you’ve got a kid who has a problem separating from you as a parent, then avoid ‘Bambi,’” she said. “All kids separate at different times and with different levels of confidence.”

Dr. Michael Brody, chair of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said “Bambi” plays into basic fears children possess — fear of the death of a parent that he said means parents should reconsider popping “Bambi” into their Blu-ray players.

“What we don’t understand is that children aren’t small adults. They don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand certain things,” he said. By having them watch “Bambi,” “you’re going to feed into the child’s fears more. You’re not going to be able to explain this away.”

The very essence of Bambi, the main character, makes the emotional connection all the more profound, he adds.

“He’s very innocent looking,” he said. “It’s hard to get involved with a fish [as in ‘Finding Nemo’] or a lion [as in ‘The Lion King.’]. Lions are tough. They kill deer and zebras. Deer eat grass and have thin, fragile legs.”

Robert Elder, a film critic and author of the new book, “The Film That Changed My Life,” said “Bambi” occupies a “rarified place as a cultural touchstone.” For many young audience members, it marked the first time they processed death on the big screen.

The film still resonates, in part, because Walt Disney had actual wildlife animals to inspire the company’s animators. That, Mr. Elder said, gave the film a more naturalistic look.

Brad Ricca, who teaches classes on comic books and American pop culture at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said most children’s films today follow the “Shrek” formula — celebrity voice-actors plus low-brow comedy.

But “Bambi” hit theaters during World War II, a time when the chance of parental death would have been unusually present, which may have influenced Walt Disney’s team of storytellers.

“‘Bambi’ is an artistic masterpiece of animation, but it is very much reflective of the time period it came from,” Mr. Ricca said.

That timeliness, however, may present a barrier for today’s children on other grounds. Syndicated Orlando Sentinel film critic Roger Moore wonders whether today’s children will appreciate “Bambi’s” artistic achievements.

“The grown-ups will look at it and have their jaws drop. It’s maybe the most gorgeous Blu-ray I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Moore said.

But he said the film reflects the cel-animation style and storytelling tone of ‘40s Hollywood, decades before the gag-a-minute writing and 3-D/special-effects look in animated films such as the “Shrek” and “Ice Age” movies conquered the box office.

“It’s hard to say if kids will be absorbed by it.” he said. “It doesn’t have enough distractions to keep people glued to the screen.”

Mr. Moore also noted that modern children’s movies generally steer clear of difficult themes along the lines of “Bambi.”

“For the most part, kids movies today are still borderline Pablum. We do so much to shelter kids,” he said.

• Christian Toto can be reached at cftoto@gmail.com.

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