I am taking a break with my “By the Book” series, but meanwhile I want to examine two movies which I could have discussed in this context but decided not to. In the case of The Lion King because it is no official adaptation of Hamlet in the first place and in the case of Bambi because it is similar to The Fox and the Hound an adaptation in name only anyway. The original book is mostly an exploration of religion and the relationship between human and animals (and often very depressing). This in mind I feel that the movie will be served better if I discuss it in this new series. “Double Take” is about comparing movies, which have similar themes and elements but were made in a different time period. Other obvious cases I have in mind for future discussion are for example The Rescuers and the Fantasia movies. I have to emphasise though that the point of this series is not to declare one movie as the better one (unless the answer is obvious), but to examine how the approach to those themes differ and what this says about the development of the Animation Studios and animation in general.
I’ll do the following: I will identify elements which are similar in both movies and then compare how they are dealt with. Some will be quite standard – i.e. every movie has a certain set of characters, animation and music – others will be very specific to those movies. So, without further ado, let’s begin.
1. The Circle of Life
Even though The Lion King is the movie which made a big deal around the Circle of Life, Bambi was actually the first animated movie which tackled the concept. Well, kind of. A number of elements The Lion King is famous for already turn up in Bambi: Animals gathering to witness the birth of a new “prince”, the notion of nature recovering over time, the closing of the movie with the birth of a new generation and a character taking over for another character. But despite all this Bambi creates less the notion of something circular and more a sense of live continuing and new beginnings. The forest which burns down in Bambi doesn’t just magically appear again, instead you can see the charred wood under the new plants. In Bambi, life might be swift and fleeting, but what stays is the love which will ensure that there will always be a new generation.
In The Lion King the Circle of Life is a whole philosophy which boils down to everyone being part of a carefully balanced construct and if one group takes more than it should, then it leads to everyone suffering due to it. Though I am not quite clear how Scar’s leadership can cause a drought which conveniently ends as soon as Simba defeats him, the message is way more overt than it is in Bambi: If you allow destructive elements to take over the government, than everyone will suffer. (And yes, I wish that the people in Venezuela, Turkey, Russia, the UK and the US had paid more attention to said message, just to mention a few countries in which the balance has been systematically destroyed).
2. The Concept of Leadership
Bambi was released 1942. The Lion King hit the theatres 51 years later. But even though there is half a century between those movies, it is oddly Bambi which is the more unusual one when it comes to portraying leadership. Even though Bambi is considered the prince, the movie suggests that his father is the leader because he is the biggest, strongest and smartest and when Bambi takes up the mantle he has already proven himself to be a great fighter, too. Though it is not like either of them ever does something especially kingly aside from looking over the forest in an impressive pose.
The Lion King on the other hand has an actual royal family in the traditional sense, with Simba being the next in line for the throne even though he is still a child. And there are responsibilities connected to the position, like keeping the hyenas at bay. In short, Bambi portrays how hierarchy works in the animal kingdom while The Lion King is built on a the concept of a very human monarchy. One in which apparently the animals are supposed to be happy that the lion eats them because otherwise they might get eaten by the hyena.
Yeah, I admit, I have a little bit of trouble with the notion of animals kneeling for a predator. Also with the notion that everybody has his place in live and should accept said place. It is better to take The Lion King not too literal in this regard and see the animals as stand in for different kind of people. In the case of the hyenas it is pretty obvious which kind is meant, the extremists, who believe in their own superiority. But, as the movie shows, if you actually do allow them to realize their visions, it is very much a case of “be careful what you wish for”. In this regard The Lion King adds an element which is not present in Bambi, by contrasting good leadership with bad leadership.
3. The Coming of Age
Between Bambi and Simba, only the latter shows actual character development. We see Bambi as a babe, as a child, as a young adult and finally as a father, but his character doesn’t really change much through it. He is a little bit a blank slate, an audience surrogate. It is easy to just slip into his mind-set and experience his world from his point of view, to feel his pain and his joy, but this is pretty much all his character offers, we never learn anything about his desires, his dreams or even his opinions.
Simba is the absolute opposite, after a short scene with him as a babe, we get to know his child version, who is, frankly, an arrogant brat. Zazu is right, the idea that this child might be king one day is not a pleasant one. We then see him embracing a live without responsibilities, hiding from his own guilt. And finally we see him maturing and accepting his responsibilities. Unlike Bambi he has an actual arc in addition to just growing up, though the movie doesn’t quite stick the landing. The whole message of taking responsibility is a little bit muddle up in the end, because what actually gives Simba peace is not him facing his past but discovering Scar’s betrayal. Though naturally he would have never learned the truth if not for him going back. Like I said, it’s a little bit muddled.
4. Hurdles and Adversaries
The Lion King has clear villains in Scar and the Hyenas. Now, Scar has one of the best villain songs Disney ever created in “Be Prepared”, and his demeanour is very terrifying – at the beginning of the movie. Once he actually is in power he comes off as kind of pathetic. I used to think that this is a little bit of a let-down, but recently I have started to realize that this is actually pretty realistic. People who are interested in the position of the king without any consideration what it actually means to be king are often pretty pathetic once they have all the power and are unable to wield it in a manner which will strengthen their position. Or for the benefit of the people.
In Bambi the adversary is live itself. Sure, “man” is a little bit of a villain in this because it whenever “man” turns up it means something terrible will happen in the forest, but there is no rhyme or reason to his presence, it is just something which happens once in a while, just like a thunderstorm, or a hard winter, or a rival wanting to lay claim on Feline. “Man” wrecks the most destruction during the movie, but he is still just one of the realities of live – though a particular terrifying one.
5. The Loss of a Parent
There have actually been discussions which death scene has been done better, Bambi’s mother dying or Mufasa dying. I would say, it depends what you are looking for. Mufasa’s character is more fleshed out than Bambi’s mother is – who doesn’t even have a name – we get to see his terror when he realizes what Scar is about to do, we see his body and we see Simba crying beside him. All this is certainly a stab in the heart. But it is also a very expected tragedy. The movie is called The Lion King, Scar has been established as a scheming character who is out for the throne early on, and as long as Mufasa is around, he will always protect Simba. Ergo there was next to no chance that he would make it to the end of the movie.
But there is a reason why the scene of Bambi’s mother dying is so infamous that even people who never watched the movie know about it. The movie establishes early on that the meadow is a dangerous place to be because of “man”, therefore it is kind of expected that something terrible might happen at one point, but not exactly what will happen, consequently her death is not as expected as Mufasa’s is. Everything about this scene, from the music, to Bambi’s mother telling him to run, to Bambi suddenly realizing that she didn’t follow is just perfect. In a way him never seeing her body makes it even more effective, because she is just gone. One moment there was happiness because they finally found some green during a hard winter and the next all of it is gone and the only thing left is emptiness. It actually feels very realistic. In most cases death is something sudden and unexpected, you rarely get to say good-bye and sit by the bedside while someone passes on.
6. The Support
Ever noticed that Thumper and Flower have the same basic narrative function as Timon and Pumba have? Thumper’s role in the story is pretty much to share his “wisdom” with Bambi, from teaching him his first words to showing him how much fun snow can be, just like Timon explains to Simba the concept of Hakuna Matata, though he comes more from the place of a mentor (or crazy uncle), while Thumper is Bambi’s peer, being only slightly older than him. Flower and Pumba are both comic relief, though they use a very different kind of humour. The joke with Flower is how affine and nice he is for a skunk. Pumba is one big fart joke.
Another difference is that Bambi’s friends are never around to help him whenever he ends up in danger, while Timon and Pumba are supporting Simba during the final fight. They are more integral to the story than Thumper and Flower are.
In addition both movies have a bird character who is mostly around to complain about the world. Bambi has Owl, The Lion King has Zazu. Those characters are pretty similar to each other except that Zazu has personal stakes in what Simba does, while Owl is more a benevolent observer.
7. The Romance
The romance in neither movie is more than a plot point to create conflict and/or move the story forward. In both cases, the protagonist has a childhood friend and falls immediately in love the moment he sees her as an adult. To the credit of The Lion King, Nala is a little better fleshed out than Feline. She has an adventurous streak, but has a better sense for responsibility than Simba has. On the other hand, though, Bambi’s approach to the whole romance matter is refreshingly honest and funny. It’s spring, it is part of the animal instinct to mate in spring, so just go with it. The Lion King pretends that there is more to the story, but in the end, it also boils down to “oh, female I know as a child, let’s mate”. There isn’t much depth to either relationship.
8. The Animation
Both movies are made for the big screen to a degree that a lot of the experience is lost if you watch them on TV. Bambi has those beautiful detailed backgrounds and often looks like a moving painting. If I have one beef with it than that the characters sometimes look a little bit too cartoony in the setting. The Lion King stands out through its use of primary colours, but also through sheer scale. The most impressive scene is naturally the stampede, which demonstrates a giant jump in computer technology. It is also more inventive. Bambi mostly uses imaginary which already existed beforehand, you could simply freeze frame a lot of moments and they look like a typical hunting lodge painting. With The Lion King it is the other way around, you see an image of someone lifting a babe and you are immediately reminded of this movie. Some of what is done is based on something – for example Timon, Pumba and Simba walking over a tree bridge is similar to Aurora doing the same in Sleeping Beauty – but with a unique twist to it. Bambi is the movie you watch if you want to be in awe over the beauty of nature, but also be soothed by it. The Lion King is the movie for you if you want to be overwhelmed by the spectacle on screen and iconic imaginary.
9. The Music
Bambi is a masterpiece of Mickey Mousing, meaning the technique of replacing sound effects with music. It has gotten a negative reputation with time, partly because it originated in Disney cartoons, partly because some movies just overdid it. But in fact most movies are still using the technique to a certain degree. And if there is a movie which demonstrates how much atmosphere Mickey Mousing can create if used correctly, it is Bambi. Just listen to “Little April Shower”, you can hear the rain and the thunder and the lighting in the music itself. But this is just the most obvious example of this technique, through the movie the music often sounds like wind or, for the winter scenes, specifically cold wind.
In addition, Bambi is a ground-breaking movie. You know those music pieces which play only two notes in order to suggest looming danger? You know, along the line of Jaws and Psycho? Yeah, Bambi invented that concept. It’s still three notes there, but the basic idea of using a very limited number of tunes and then speed it up in order to suggest danger coming closer was first used in this movie.
The Lion King can’t really hope to be similar ground-breaking in this category simply because it was created decades later. What it did start is the trend in Disney movies to use foreign language in a song to give a setting an exotic vibe. But otherwise it does fall pretty much in the pattern Ashman and Menken have codified for The Little Mermaid. Which is kind of ironic, btw. Word is that Elton John only agreed to do this project if nobody forced him to write another musical. Disney agreed and the end result was a soundtrack which is now the basis for the highest grossing musical of all time.
Though while both movies feature music, Bambi isn’t really a musical. This is especially notable in the way the music is used. With one exception, all the songs are sung from the off and the one which isn’t is justified within the plot. In The Lion King there is only one song completely sung from the off (“Circle of Life”), and the character perform elaborate dance numbers while they blurt out their plans and feelings. The purpose of the music in The Lion King is character development as well as creating opportunities for the animators to go crazy. In Bambi it is used for atmospheric purposes. It still has something which passes as a love song, but otherwise it is completely devoid of the usual kind of songs to a degree, that none of the categories I put together for my Systematic of Songs would be a particular good fit for them.
10. A Fiery Finale
When it comes to the finale, neither of those movies disappoint, and they both really amp up the action by throwing fire into the mix. Notably though, in The Lion King the fire is more a background feature, something to make the battle look cool (alongside the fake slomo, a feature Disney thankfully mostly stopped using after Pocahontas). In Bambi the fire is the enemy. Bambi last big feat in the movie is not to defeat an opponent (its his second to last instead) but to outrun something which is way more powerful than he is.
11. The Big Difference
If there are two movies which demonstrate that having similar elements says nothing about the end result, its Bambi and The Lion King. They have similar themes, similar characters, similar plot points and a lot of similar elements. And yet they are totally different, mostly because the approach is so different. The mind-set behind Bambi was largely realism. Disney even brought real live deer to the studio so that the animators could study their movement – which really paid off, btw, if you compare Snow White with Bambi, there is a giant leap in quality regarding the animation of the animals. We are still in a period in which Walt Disney experimented a lot. His desire was to not repeat the same thing again and again but to surprise the audience with fresh ideas. Hence Bambi ended up being a slice of life story. It isn’t really about Bambi, but about the experience of growing up.
The Lion King on the other hand falls into the Disney Renaissance and sadly the people who were in charge of the studio during this period were ready to milk a working formula. This is not a criticism The Lion King, despite it not being a fairy tale movie, the structure fits the story and it does enough new to not come off as stale. Even if it dips mostly into familiar structures, you can hardly argue with it when it does it so good. But in contrast to Bambi, The Lion King is more set on telling a story about a layered character with a very specific moral. That makes it kind of predictable at times, but only in the basics. You know that Mufasa will most likely die, but not that he will die by stampede, or that Disney would have the balls to show a dead body. You know that Simba will eventually go back home, but how he comes to the decision is really unexpected. And you know that Simba will triumph in the end, but there is enough going on in the finale battle to make it engaging.
My experience with both movies are very different. Bambi I say the first time when I was very, very little and it frankly kind of terrified me. Though what really got to me was less the death of Bambi’s mother specifically, and more the thunderstorm and especially the damned dogs in the end. I am actually kind of terrified of dogs, and this movie is one of the various reasons why. Then came a period in which I didn’t watch it at all. I am not really the type who is into slice of life stories, for me the characters are pretty much the most important element of any movie out there. Nowadays though I kind of adore Bambi. It is not the kind of movie I would watch just for fun, but the artistry in it is something really enthralling.
The Lion King I saw in theatres – twice. I was all over it during its runtime. But this is one of those cases where a movie doesn’t get better an better upon rewatch. On the small screen, it just looses a lot. It is kind of like Titanic that way. You can watch it on the small screen, but without drowning (no pun intended) in the pure scale of it the flaws in the narrative become more obvious. I was just never able to recapture the first experience of watching it, or to replace the feeling with something similar enthralling. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the movie, it is still one of Disney’s greatest. I just don’t consider it as this big masterpiece. Maybe because I had my “shocking death experience which scarred me as a child” with Bambi while a lot of other people had it the first time The Lion King.
In terms of quality those movies are on the same level. They are excellent movies which will most likely continue to be relevant, no matter how much time passes. But if I had children, I think I would show them Bambi first. Terrifying or not, it is just better suited for younger children, while The Lion King is better suited for slightly older children who might at least partly get the political aspect of it. Bambi is just a little bit more self-explanatory.
And yes, I do think that every child should watch a movie in which a parent character dies on screen in a heart wrenching manner. It is a good way to prepare them for the notion of death and to give them an understanding of it. That Disney dared to venture into this territory at least twice is the main reason why those two movies are so enduring.