The iconic image of this film is the little blond haired boy holding the real-life embodiment of baby Bambi. This makes you think that the whole film will be centered around this tiny baby deer and there will be plenty of moments that could replace a trip to the petting zoo. Spoiler Alert: If you have little kids who just want to coo over baby animals, you are better off springing for the petting zoo than dealing with the tears after the Old Yeller style ending.
The film, based on the book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about the Baxter family who live in the wild woods of the south after the Civil War. While making their land their home, Penny (Gregory Peck) and Orry (Jane Wyman) have faced the hardships of losing all but one of their children. Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.) is about eleven years old and has a strong love for the animals around him. He’s constantly asking his parents to let him keep a baby raccoon or other critters as a pet.
He’s just a lonely single child, his only other friend is a boy who broke his leg by jumping off the cabin in an attempt to fly, Fodderwing (Donn Gift). While Fodderwing hobbles around on a crutch, he has a whole slew full of white rabbits, a raccoon and a tree house. When he starts talking dreamily about how he will fly one day, it’s best to realize the euphemism and get the first batch of tissues ready for your little ones. A boy on a crutch isn’t likely to last long in the old wild south anyway.
One day, as Jody and his Pa are out hunting, his Pa is bitten by a rattlesnake. With luck and quick thinking, Penny tells Jody to shoot a nearby deer, cut out its heart and liver so that he can use them to pull out the poison. After they have killed the deer, they see that it had a baby, only days old. As Penny is recovering, Jody reasons that the fawn left with no mother will die on it’s own, and since that deer died to save him, they should take care of the orphaned fawn. Now Jody’s got the cutest little baby deer in the world and we get to squeal with delight.
Unfortunately, that squealing only lasts for about five minutes before the deer turns from ultra cute baby fawn into young, but not so cute fawn. Soon, he’s destroying crops and making life very hard for the Baxter family. Over and over, Jody defends his fawn, but eventually it is going to have to go.
There seems to be a theme of using deer to explain death to children in the forties. Some kids can handle these ideas with no problem. My dad showed me a dead deer in the back of a pickup truck when I was only six and told me it was Bambi. My mom had a fit, but from then on, Old Yeller was no problem. But if you are one of those parents who fast forwards through the part in Bambi when his mom dies, your kids might not be ready for The Yearling.
“Walkin’ ain’t easy for me since I tried to fly.”