Our own Colby Herchel returns with another editorial. Though still marked with a similar style, the argument is deeply academic and thorough. Proceed with thinking caps!

Intentions and Their Children: A Musico-Filmographic Analysis of Walt Disney’s Bambi

By Colby Herchel

A century on since the inception and success of the feature film, there has always been a close, albeit uneasy, tie with music. Even before sound could be matched to film, composers would write specific scores to correspond with silent features (which were often ignored by the movie-house pianists). And though there was a good amount of melodrama and dumb-show (vaudevillian comedy) associated with these early scores, there was an intention and passion that elicited response from audiences.

For, in the end, the purpose of film music is to supplement the action on screen, and is not to function as an entire “musical meal.” Or so understood Aaron Copland (who himself wrote multiple film scores) in an interview for Soundtrack Magazine: “I believe too that it shouldn’t take up so much of your attention that you stop thinking about the film. It’s a high art, I think, to write a really effective film score that doesn’t get in the way and serves a fully emotional purpose (Copland, Soundtrack Magazine 1980).”

There has always been an understanding that music for a film is purely an emotional tool, one that elevates the character’s emotions, but would seem oddly stagnant in the concert hall. And if you think of modern film composer heavyweights like Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino, you realize that their work ranges from minimalist dirges that drive the Escherian dreamscapes of Inception to nostalgic leitmotifs that haunt a septuagenarian in Up. These vastly different moments are effective only with the action onscreen, for when off, the reaction they seem to offer is a collective “I know this one!” from an audience as the familiar statement comes and goes. Copland’s point seems quite reasonable at this juncture.

Yet Copland also adds an important thought—to achieve an appropriate and artistic supplement to a film is indeed “high art.” No one doubts the mastery that Zimmer and Giacchino have brought to their craft, and indeed these composers are some of the last vestiges of concert hall rock stars in recent memory (John Williams’ yearly sojourn to Tanglewood receives similar praise). Accordingly, in order to fully comprehend the function of a film score, the relationship of score to the film itself must be explored. This, you may notice, is similar to how one can analyze opera and ballet—and I am certain that Wagner and Stravinsky, respectively, have proven that music written for these supplementary purposes can, and does, lead to ingenious results.

A film has an intricate and unique structure all to itself, and directors toy with its rules and limitations just as Beethoven may toy with a sonata form. In doing this, the film’s structure gives the music a structure all its own. If a film has a rising action, the music will correspond to it. If there is a lull in the action for a romantic tryst, the music joins it. They are intrinsically linked, and whether the film composer sets out to write in a kind of traditional form or not, they indeed have composed for a form by the nature of the medium.

Therefore, any analysis of film music must take into account the overall function of the music, which is to supplement the film itself. The two elements of film and music collaborating create a new coherent overall form. Surprisingly, nowhere is this more evident than in Walt Disney’s Bambi. Bambi is the culmination of much of Walt Disney’s early experimentation with the animated feature. Animation, unlike live action features, must create an entirely new and specific universe for each story being told; it must generate everything from nothing. There are never limitations to what can be done, and every detail onscreen is a cognizant and mindful choice. Music must build from the ground up in a similar way, and every detail available must be decided upon. Perhaps because music faces these same parameters, the collaboration between the art forms has always been present—for what is an animated film but a fully and intricately orchestrated work for the visual medium?

Sorcerer’s Apprentices

Before Fantasia, Walt Disney had always understood the importance of music for the emotion of a film, and if Disney made a film, it was emotional. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs creates beautiful, scary, funny, and achingly sad imagery in the course of the movie. Being based on a beloved fairy tale does much of the work for it, as the story has been refined by various orators for centuries. A young Frank Churchill, taught by improvising on the piano for silent films at movie theatres, wrote the instantly successful score, including eternal ear worms such as “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “High-Ho.” And indeed, he had a very successful career at Walt Disney Studios in its infancy, composing for many of their cartoon shorts. They developed a process where he would compose a score before storyboards were made for the animation sequences, they would animate the short with his score in mind (sometimes storyboarding over his actual score!), and he would come in and provide the final recording in which he would “Mickey Mouse” the music, —that is, ensure that the music followed the characters’ specific movements.

After the success of Snow White, German novelist Felix Salten realized that his novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods would not work as a live action film adaptation, but as the newly formed animated feature. Disney was inspired by the idea, and sought to make Bambi his second full-length project, assigning Churchill to compose the score again. Yet as excited as the team was for this project, there were multiple issues: namely, animating an intricate natural world, and structuring the largely meandering bildungsroman for cinema. This caused Disney to send a group of artists to school for a few years to learn how to animate animals specifically for this feature, and other Disney projects were produced in the meantime: Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo.

In Fantasia, Walt Disney, with Leopold Stokowski at his ear, discovered just how effective animation was with film scoring. Intended to be one of his “Silly Symphonies” featuring Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Stokowski encouraged Disney to collaborate in making a concert feature, with music and animation accompanying one another. This, certainly, was a revolution. This project brought in Edward Plumb, a freelance Hollywood composer and arranger to do most of the (somewhat blasphemous) arrangements for Fantasia. His elegant work here, and Walt Disney himself having taken a crash course in concert music, influenced the decision to bring on Plumb as Churchill’s co-composer for Bambi. This film would in effect be the finale to Fantasia; dialogue was slashed, artistry was heightened, and music, though original, was pushed to be comparable to the great composers Disney previously collaborated with.

Churchill was a genius with melody, and famously composed “Little April Showers” in one sitting at a story meeting, whilst Plumb was an expert arranger whose work had influences of Ravel and Debussy. When Churchill turned in his piano score for Bambi, Plumb took his many themes and motives and crafted a complex complete score. Disney’s opinion was involved in many decisions involving the music, famously upset that the fire sequence at the climax didn’t sound enough like Beethoven.

With these combined talents, the film’s score is one that is recognizable, accessible, and still a sumptuous feast for the ear. In the mostly silent film, there are no sound effects for wind and rain, only music. The music and filmography are consistently aware of each other, and though the music does not occur diegetically, in the universe of the film, they pantomime with each other, the film “Mickey Mousing” to the music and vice versa. Themes appear and reappear throughout, allowing a certain form to emerge—and one that is peculiar to the film medium.

Not Three, Not One, But Two: Analyzing Plot in Bambi

Screenwriters have collectively crafted a storytelling form called the “three-act structure” to define how an expertly culled story functions and builds tension. Though most of the ideas represented relate back to Aristotle’s Poetics, movies in particular have coalesced the firmest theory on how the plot gains pacing and climax. Figure 1. presents John Truby’s film chart from Anatomy of a Story. To represent how a film normally fits into this model, I have made a film chart of Bambi’s sister effort, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Figure 2). To elucidate how Bambi differs from the norm, I have made a film chart of Bambi in Figure 3.

Figure 1. (From John Truby’s Article

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Figure 2.

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Figure 3.

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Notice how Snow White seems fairly straightforward in its plot progression. As the protagonist, the inciting incident occurs when she is cast into the forest by the Huntsman, forcing her from her comfortable home and into the plot of the movie. Throughout the course of the feature, she attempts to find a safe hiding space, then looks to befriend the Dwarfs in order to maintain that safety. When she is tricked by the Evil Queen, the Dwarfs race to stop her. All hope seems lost until the Prince revives her and she finds a new and permanently safe home.

Bambi, on the other hand, progresses rather slowly, and has two large rising and falling actions, represented in halves as Bambi’s youth and adulthood. The first climax occurs with his mother’s death, foreshadowed in the meadow sequence before it; the second is in Man’s return to the forest and the fire that ensues, and Bambi is compelled to protect his new mate, Faline. This “two halved” structure, intentional or not, creates a meandering and episodic quality that is not often represented in feature films.

In recent years the film has been lauded for its naturalistic and environmental themes. The Library of Congress has preserved a copy of the film “to be recognized for its eloquent message of nature conservation (Library of Congress, 2011).” Yet a more than cursory glance at Bambi reveals a deeper subject. Walt Disney said of the picture, “…through watching, observing… the habits of the creatures of nature, Man could learn a lot (Disney, 1947).” This would prove to be his personal favorite of his features.

To tell this profound message, the film had to function differently. To comment on life itself, perhaps, one must realize the three-act structure does not sufficiently apply. We begin and end, and the middle never has an inciting incident and rising action beyond small situations along a bumpy road. So wouldn’t a film about the arbitrary life of some deer meander without significant structure, functioning as a sequential one act? But look closer, and small parallels begin to appear—birth and death, love and war, motherhood and fatherhood, youth and adulthood. This film seems to play on the interaction between these parallels, and divides them accordingly into youth and adult sections. The figure of the mother appears predominantly in the first act, and the father only speaks in the second. Around the midpoint of each act, there is a sequence featuring Faline in youth and adulthood, and a sequence involving machismo: the gallop of the stags in the first meadow sequence, and Bambi’s duel with the opposing buck Ronno. To round out the feature is to put death at both climaxes, and a birth at the very beginning and end; the deaths being Bambi’s mother and a particularly detailed and absolutely intentional account of a quail fleeing foolishly into the hunter’s firing range.

Specifically the opening and closing sequences parallel one another, both featuring births, a maternal figure, and ending with a paternal figure presiding over this event: father Great Prince of the Forest watching over Bambi’s own birth, and Bambi himself look on at the birth of his twin fawns. Heed that distinction: any story concerning the cycles of life would feature just one birth to evoke that particular theme; Bambi utilizes duality yet again.

The film was directed not by Disney himself, but by supervising animator David D. Hand. The story structure as well was not led by Disney, but by lyricist Larry Morey. This further links the score to the screenplay: though the lines were few, they were directly integrated as only a screenwriter/lyricist can mange. The “number” placements were controlled and specific, achieving specific affects, including “Love is a Song That Never Ends,” “April Showers,” “Let’s Sing a Gay Little Spring Song,” and “I Bring You a Song.” Each are not character songs, but rather extensions of the score and scene.

Rounding the Edges: An Analysis of Themes in the Opening and Closing Sequences of Bambi

To illustrate the cyclical nature of the two births at the open and close of the film, I have represented the various themes that occur in Figure 4 below. Also provided are specific time stamps for when the theme first appears in the opening and closing sequences. Themes A and B together bookend both scenes, so the first two time stamps in each set represent the first sequence and the second two represent the final sequence. Themes C, E, and F do not appear again in the final sequence.  Theme F does appears significantly throughout the first act, named the “Walking Theme” from Churchill’s original piano vocal score, but generally appears for Bambi the fawn.

Figure 4.

Theme A (Love is a Song That Never Ends) (0:11, 7:23, 1:06:36, 1:08:25)

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Theme B (Man Theme) (0:27, 7:23, 1:06:36, 1:08:25)

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Theme C (3:56, n.a.)

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Theme D (4:22, 1:07:27)

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Theme E (5:16, n.a.)

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Theme F (Walking Theme) (6:31, n.a.)

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The entire feature opens and closes with the Academy Award nominated “Love is a Song that Never Ends” (Figure 5) which contains a kernel of tragedy: Churchill, rather depressed and suffering from alcoholism, committed suicide before the film was released, with his dying wish to have this song dedicated to his widow. Unfortunately, the song had already been sent for copyright, and this request could not be fulfilled (some sources claim that Disney did not want the song to be called attention to in this way, and simply denied the request). This is represented as Theme A, which functions as the motivic bedrock for the feature. This kernel of tragedy is inherent as well with the immediate representation of Theme B, “Man’s Theme” in Churchill’s score; or, as it usually appears, the Theme of Death. Churchill had written it specifically for the two sequences that actually feature the faceless and foreboding villain, but in all of these instances, Edward Plumb added orchestral colors and additional textures. Yet below the gracefully falling melody, the ascending chromatic motive constantly appears, linking the idea of the eternality of love with the constant presence of death. This counterpoint (certainly the work of the inventive Plumb) illustrates one of the major points of the movie: Love may never end, but Life certainly does. Much of the musical material in this movie hinges on this relationship.

After a full sing through of the song by Donald Novis, the multi-planed camera slowly descends into a dark forest at dawn. A wordless choral version of “Love is a Song” melts above, and we are introduced to the gentle C theme as a squirrel and a chipmunk stir—this continues until the striking D theme is first introduced, sung by authentic whistling birds. This comprises most of the animals gathering to greet the birth of young Bambi, and it continues to modulate and grow as more and more animals populate the clearing where the Mother is laying. This clearing, theme also introduces us to significant characters Thumper and Friend Owl.

Figure 5.

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Following this, in the clearing, the lilting D theme introduces us to Bambi and his mother. Bambi’s eyes are barely opened, and several animals ask the mother about the new prince. As he begins to take his first steps, the first rendition of Theme E, “The Walking Theme,” comes in tentatively on the clarinet, and is “Mickey Moused” until his first stumble. The other animals are shoed away as the mother and fawn settle for their nap, and the A (and B) theme return. This pans up over the forest to see the Great Prince of the Forest on a clearing above,  and “Love is a Song” returns in an enchanting choral arrangement.

The ending sequence begins as Bambi, now a fully matured buck and having bested the hunter as well as a forest fire, returns to Faline. The A and B themes return here, soaring on high strings (Plumb’s tight string arrangements are often achingly beautiful—his variations on the “Walking Theme [Theme E]” before the first meadow sequence are absolutely radiant). A short fadeout occurs, and then we return to a familiar sequence depicting animals joining up to meet the next fawns in the forest’s royal lineage. This is underscored by a return of the frantic and harried D Theme. We meet with Faline, and the animals find that she has given birth to two fawns. The A and B themes return, for the first time since the very start with lyrics. The camera, as before, pans up to the same cliff looking over the scene, this time with Bambi and his father together. The father turns round to leave, letting Bambi take his place alone on the mountain.

Clearly, these two scenes were intended to pantomime each other, and function as an A section and an A’, though very much diminished in length compared to A. Yet the repeated material in itself represents an intentional understanding that the music and film are very much aware of each other, and not recycled themes to fill time. This relationship allows us to draw further conclusions about the music throughout the entire film, as the compositional choices are deliberate, and intentionally rhyme with the action onscreen.

Adding it Up: A Musico-Filmographic Analysis of Bambi

To combine both a plot and musical analysis, several objectives must be taken into account: the contour of tension in the plot, the exact time stamps of each sequence, the scene descriptions, the scene’s function in the overall structure, the musical themes present, where they are located, and how they further connect to other scenes and sequences.  In Figure 6, I have attempted to account for these various aspects.

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The contour depicting tension is depicted as in Figure 3, but here shows the specificity of adhering to timestamps. There is a mounting tension of danger as Bambi learns more and more about the world around him, and this is codified when Bambi’s mother is shot by the hunter at 37 minutes in. This tension resolves, and there is a significant time skip and Bambi is fully mature at 42 minutes in for the spring sequence. The tension rises as he wins the affection of the now adult Faline. It reaches a new climax when Bambi is confronted by the hunter again, only to resolve as he outwits the hunter, and enters fatherhood. Finally, the plot tension evens out by minute 63.

After labeling each sequence and their timestamps, the larger level of the “scene form” is indicated. The “scene form” in effect is what the scene’s overall structural function is to the plot as a whole. The Beginning and Ending are labeled as A and A’ respectively. Scenes in which Bambi learns and applies a new lesson (this makes up a surprising amount of the movie) are labeled as “B” to indicate a “Learning Sequence.” These include discovering his first words and rain in the first Learning Sequence, learning to ice skate and about snow in the Winter Sequence, and learning about the wiles of love and romance in the Spring Sequence. The sequences labeled “C” involve that mixture of play and enjoyment (both featuring Faline) and a display of bravado in the gallop of the stags and the fight with Ronno. Appropriately, D is reserved for both climaxes and stands for a scene with Death, or facing the possibility of it.

Next, I identified where specifically the A theme (“Love is a Song That Never Ends”) and the B Theme (“Man’s Theme”) appear. As they both occur in counterpoint with the other, much of the connective tissue in the score is balanced through this relationship. Both are indicated with  “X” if fully present, and “(X)” if they are iterated at all.

Finally, separate musical “sections” are recognized in context of the sequences. The Opening and Final Sequences, as discussed, represent A and A’ or A diminished. A B section mostly devoted to the “Walking Theme” and “April Showers” follows the opening. Interestingly, a C and C’ appear in both acts of the movie; both utilize the haunting night waltz “I Bring You a Song” and an extended feature of the “Man’s Theme” following. The first takes place in the Meadow Sequence, and the second consolidates the Faline and Ronno Sequence and the climax. The D section is mostly “Mickey Mousing” as the young animals play in the snow, but features melencholy wintry winds that return in the C’ (dim) section at the center of the movie. This functions as a diminished iteration of the full C sections as it features a brief emphasis on “Man’s Theme” which appears in full context no where else but in a C section. E is made up of new material, namely a tongue-in-cheek march for Bambi and his close friends Thumper and Flower as they (unsuccessfully) celebrate bachelorhood.

Themes are repeated in similar structural locations in either act, giving a clear arc form to the film as a whole. Since these musical sections are intrinsically related, and have specific context in either half of the movie, which itself is cognizant of its duality, it seems appropriate to tentatively deem the film as operative in some kind of binary form. More specifically, the repeated material (both musically and filmographically) at the close and final cadence of the film suggests the film is in effect rounded. Thus the film, by the standards of this analysis, in rounded binary form.

The constant awareness the film music and plot have of one another has allowed an experimental structure to flourish. Features do not often have this two act structure, and by placing the death of a major character right at the center of the piece, the division is felt as well as seen. This subtle innovation is still striking to audiences 75 years after it premiered. The death of the mother is certainly a first instance of death for many young viewers, which is jarring enough, but the the sudden decompression of tension and the time jump are especially surprising. It also crafts a unique feeling for this movie alone; it abandons traditional three act storytelling for a better allegory of life itself. By using music as its language, it imparts a lasting message, and succeeds in being a pseudo “feature length Fantasia short,” as well as a sort of magnum opus of the early Disney Animation Studio.


Now, we must ask, was this ever present and discording duality the intent of the many creators behind the project? The writers, the animators, the composers? More often than not, the answer is bafflingly, “Yes.” The strict adherence to this duality and thematic material that parallels throughout is intricate and most certainly deliberate. However, in assigning a musico-filmographic form to the film and its score, namely rounded binary, is certainly out of the realm of the lingo used in Disney conference rooms. But whether this was their intent or not, the fact of the matter is that the form is present. Faced with adapting an episodic story, they did not inject an inorganic single adventure, nor a single exposition, middle, and climax; they took the opportunity to break down and figure out the novel to discover a freshly “naturalistic” story. The ramifications are hilariously profound: in this simple Disney movie— is Life itself in a kind of rounded binary then?  Donnie Dunagan, the original voice of young Bambi, seems to agree that Bambi is indeed important: “Bambi treats humor, courage, fear, laughter, making fun of oneself, love, birth and the cycle of life like no other film, animated or otherwise, I’ve ever seen in my entire life – and I’m 77, so I’ve seen some stuff. It is the most omni-directional, emotional, sensory story ever on canvas anywhere (Eisenberg, Screen Rant, 2011)”