The day I first saw Jurassic Park at the Empire Leicester Square, my little sister also saw Bambi for the first time at the Odeon Colchester. It was, likewise for her, a pivotal cinematic experience. For successive generations of children (before the age of DVD), there was a whole cycle of classics (as they truly deserve to be called) which the Disney studio had the canny sense to release every decade or so for every succeeding generation of young children, who knew a timeless classic when they saw one.
If you want the rites of passage story, quintessentially this is it, translated in anthropomorphic terms, playing on children's sentimental fondness for animals, within some beautifully natural settings. The Disney studio could not surpass this film for standards in animation (Fantasia and others have only matched it) from what was unquestionably their Golden Era. The opening, atmospheric, multi-plane animated tracking shot through the forest (accompanied buy some great music throughout the film) sets its stall out quite magically from the first.
To heighten the atmosphere, Disney and his animators worked very hard to draw authentic deer (bringing live ones into the artists' studio to study their movements), away from their hitherto cartoony approach to most of their main characters. The potentially heavy subject matter combined with the obsession for naturalism was offset however by the light relief engendered through the other animal characters in the woods - less naturalistic than the deer, and therefore open for much more comedic possibilities. "Flower" the skunk is quite an endearing character, so too the Wise Owl, but the most memorable comic creation in Bambi is Thumper the rabbit, who has most of the best gags and the most peerless of wisdom, including a maxim (taught by his father rabbit) that many a critic would do well to heed:
The saddest, most powerful scene in children's cinema is where Bambi looks back through the snowy meadow, and wonders where his mother has disappeared to. Scores of children through the decades have sat in the cinema (or nowadays, in the living room), with perplexed confusion and uncertainty, sometimes giving way to tearfulness, asking their parents what's happened
For my part, when I first saw Bambi at the Odeon Aylesbury in 1978, like most children I wasn't without my own share of tears (and in some ways, still am), but in later years I can look back with an equal amount of poignancy at the quiet, commanding but moving presence of the father figure, particularly at the end when the now fully grown Bambi takes his place, and the former Great Prince of the Forest quietly departs.