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There’s something unnatural about the nature in Bambi
H. Brian Underwood is mad at Walt Disney

by Claire B. Dunn

simpsonsMuch of the reason for Underwood’s displeasure with the premier name in American animation is the story of Bambi, the big-eyed fawn whose pitiful cries of “Mother! Mother!” gave voice to every young viewer’s worst fear.

“Disney knew he could never sell it to Americans with the reality of wild animals,” said Underwood , an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology and scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. “But if they could turn these animals into people, they could sell it. They could have good guys and bad guys and the worst of them is man.

“Why would you do that?” he pondered. “The only reason I can come up with is to make a lot of money.”

Disney movies were formative for Underwood. He recalls his parents herding him, his four brothers and two sisters into the family station wagon and driving through the Ohio twilight to a drive-in theater to see Disney films about travel and nature, often featuring anthropomorphized animals.

Those movies left Underwood miffed with the Disney movie empire. He was a child who loved being in the woods and watching animals, but he learned early that what he saw himself was more realistic than the version of nature he saw in Disney movies.

He recently sat down to watch Bambi, which was made in 1942, with his 12-year-old son, Glen. It did not take long for Underwood to compile a 17-item list of inaccuracies, including:

  • Squirrels do not sleep on exposed branches.
  • Their competitors, the chipmunks, don’t do it, either.
  • And neither rodent would curl up to snooze in the presence of a probable predator like “Friend Owl.”
  • Opossums do not have prehensile tails that allow them to dangle from tree limbs, like the aptly named Mrs. Possum did.

As for deer themselves:

  • They don’t have antlers in spring.
  • They don’t display mating behavior in the spring.
  • Those who live long, like Bambi’s father, are probably not brave and wise so much as vigilant and lucky.
  • Fawns don’t have spots in the winter.
  • Deer rarely choose to cross open ice.

And regarding the climactic return of Bambi’s father, who emerges from the mist to care for the fawn after the death of his mother, “It would never happen in the forest,” Underwood said. “A fawn that age would have made it, actually, if his mother was killed. He would have been fine. They are fully functioning deer by the time fall comes around.”

The greatest irony, in Underwood’s eyes, is that the filmmaker imbued all the animals with human characteristics, then made humans themselves the only evil characters in the movie.

“Nature is basically a hierarchy of eaters and eaten,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable for people, but that’s the way it works out.”


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