Disney’s Bambi celebrates its 80th anniversary this month, and the animated classic has lost none of its charm in the eight decades since its release. Bambi’s lush, hand-painted cel animation is as dazzling as ever, while its simple coming-of-age story – adapted from Felix Selten’s 1923 novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods – remains just as potent.
Of course, this also means that the film’s most infamous moment, when white-tailed deer Bambi loses his mother to a hunter’s bullet, is as traumatic today as it was in 1942. Bambi’s mother dying was and still is most viewers’ primary focus when watching this tragedy unfold, and rightly so. But that comes at the expense of overlooking the party responsible: Man – Bambi’s unseen antagonist, who just so happens to be the greatest villain in Disney history.
I’ll be the first to admit this is a big call, especially given the House of Mouse’s stellar track record when it comes to cranking out iconic baddies. Certainly, Man (Bambi’s collective name for its off-camera humans, not mine) doesn’t boast the kind of scenery-chewing malevolence or high-stakes evil schemes of legendary Disney evildoers such as Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Ursula, Jafar or Scar. I mean, really, what does Man even do in Bambi?
Man only directly factors into proceedings a grand total of four times, manifesting as a group of gun-toting hunters roaming the forest where Bambi lives. Exactly what dastardly deeds are these hunters responsible for? Terrorizing the forest population with poorly aimed gunfire and a pack of blood-thirsty dogs, killing one deer (and later, a bird) and wounding another, and starting an admittedly devasting wildfire.
Of course, your mileage will likely vary when it comes to just how villainous you think each of these acts truly is, especially if wildlife conservation is a cause you care strongly about. Even so, it’s fair to say that we’re not exactly in the same ballpark as usurping the throne of Agrabah or even plotting to turn stolen puppies into high couture. So why is Man Disney’s greatest ever villain?
It’s simple: because everything Man does in Bambi either literally or symbolically reflects real-life human behaviours currently nudging our planet and every lifeform on it closer to extinction. Sure, the megalomaniacal theatrics of an Ursula or a Maleficent are undeniably more entertaining and just the right side of scary, but Man’s dispassionate indifference to the natural world is downright terrifying.
And that’s just it: there’s no grand plan or bitter vendetta at play here. Man does what it does in Bambi because it doesn’t comprehend the potential long-term consequences for the Earth itself… or just plain doesn’t give a shit. As one contemporary pundit has already pointed out, that Man’s thoughtless attitude toward nature culminates in an entire forest burning to the ground is eerily prescient – an unintentional animated metaphor for the climate crisis we’ve landed ourselves in.
Viewed through this lens, Bambi makes for a more sobering viewing experience than Walt Disney and his team of writers and artists probably had in mind back in 1942. But all’s not lost – not yet, at least. After all, even the most formidable of Disney baddies rarely causes any lasting damage, and some even find redemption before all is said and done. So, let’s hope both these things prove true of the animation studio’s greatest villain, Man.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!