"Bambi" has gotten a raw deal over the years. Mention Disney's fifth full-length animated feature to anyone and all they think of is Bambi's mother getting shot by hunters. It's part of our culture.
But you know what? The off-camera scene that traumatized Baby Boomers was less than a minute long, and just as brief are rutting and forest-fire segments. The bulk of this gorgeously rendered 70-minute 1942 film plays more like the happy forest scenes from "Snow White." The watercolor artwork emphasizes cute animals doing cute things, with scene after scene drawn so amazingly that you have to marvel at how Disney's grand old men were able to create a hybrid art design that merged realistic drawing with a cute style able to convey personalities--even in such tiny creatures as a meadow mouse.
It was Disney's perfectionist streak that bumped "Bambi" to fifth in the queue. "Bambi" would have followed "Snow White," but Disney was so intent on getting the art design right that "Pinocchio" (1940), "Fantasia" (1940), and "Dumbo" (1941) skipped ahead of it. Disney animators labored for more than a year just trying to nail the look of Bambi and the other deer. Eventually they got it right, and while wartime kept people from spending as much money at the theaters as they normally would, "Bambi" over time has become nothing short of an animated classic, ranked Number 3 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest animated films.
Two common Disney practices began with this film: adding a sidekick for comic relief (Thumper the rabbit was not in Felix Salten's children's novel) and re-releasing a film to theaters. I first saw "Bambi" when it was re-released in 1957, but the first film to be re-released came in 1942 when "Bambi" disappointed at the box office. Disney re-released "Snow White" to try to recoup some of the studio's losses, and that very first re-release has since become common practice. Disney also did some incredible things with the multi-plane camera, especially in the establishing shot that opens the film. There's a richness of depth that you normally don't see on an animated feature that's not 3D.
Fans of "The Lion King" will recognize similar elements in "Bambi." It's a circle-of-life film that begins and ends with the birth of a new "prince" of the forest, and a shot of Bambi and his alpha-male father atop a rock surveying their "kingdom" will certainly evoke Pride Rock.
But "Bambi" is tame compared to that later Disney film. Nothing graphic is shown onscreen, and after Bambi's father says "Your mother can't be with you any more," the cheery forest-creature music kicks in again. There's no brooding, no guilt, and no high drama over reclaiming a kingdom, so "Bambi" is perfect for sensitive children who might not be ready for something as intense as "The Lion King." And, of course, it's not just for children. Adults can also appreciate the animation that frame-by-frame seems more amazing than the preceding ones.
It's not a complex film, though, even by 1942 standards. We watch Bambi bond with his rabbit friend Thumper and skunk friend Flower, then he's introduced to a young fawn named Faline, he learns how to "skate" during a winter scene, and finally the adult Bambi learns how tough it is to mate in the deer world and gets a lesson on humans from his father. As John J. Puccio pointed out in his DVD review, it's a film that's so well done the only complaints you can register are issues about complexity and length--it's not much longer than an episode of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color." But what's here is wonderful to experience.
Donnie Dunagan, who played the voice of young Bambi, has said that the Blu-ray looks fantastic. I'd have to agree. "Bambi" was meticulously restored for the 2005 DVD release, and this Blu-ray ups the ante with an "enhanced digital restoration." Because of the amount of light let in by the watercolor paintings, "Bambi" has always had a consistent layer of film grain, and purists will be happy to learn that it hasn't been scrubbed away for today's hi-def lovers. In addition, the softness that accompanies watercolor art is still present, and the gentle images mesh well with the gentle content. For 1942 the animation was amazing as well, and every frame of this Blu-ray makes "Bambi" look better than it ever has before. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc is a good one, too, with no visible artifacts. "Bambi" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with an option to add Disney View vertical borders (by artist Lisa Keene) to fill out the screen. I personally prefer no distractions, just the film.
Disney mastered a DTS-HD High Resolution 7.1 audio in English that feels rich, and the mix does manage to fill the room with sound. I'd stop short of calling it a dynamic track, though. But there's plenty of surround-sound speaker effects and the music sounds clean and pure--important in a film that has fewer than 1000 words of spoken dialogue. Don't look for much subwoofer action, though. Additional audio options are the original Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Where to begin? There's a nice grouping of bonus features here, but not a huge number. The best part for collectors is that the combo pack includes a DVD so you can donate that old DVD of yours to a local school. Second best is an HD picture-in-picture track that's the best documentary I've seen on "Bambi," with all of the artwork in various stages trotted out, and even notes and exact transcripts from the artists' meetings dramatized. Anecdotes add variety, and since people are so familiar with "Bambi" I can see many fans going right to the "Bambi: Inside Walt's Story Meeting's" PIP track. It's really pretty slick.
The documentary from the 2005 DVD is also included. "The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born" (52 min.) is a more standard documentary broken up into six sections, though they've been renamed for this Blu-ray presentation. It's a mixture of talking heads, film clips, and behind-the-scenes materials. Voice talents appear, along with film historian John Culhane.
The Blu-ray also includes four deleted scenes (two never-seen-before, in HD) that run roughly eight minutes long, as well as the deleted song "Twitterpated" which would have taken the film in a totally different direction, tonally.
Apart from the hundreds of sketches, cels, background paintings, and storyboard images that you can access in an interactive galleries section, the rest of the bonus features are brief ones. "Inside the Disney Archive" (9 min.) is a peek at some of the original artwork that's kept inside the vault, while "Tricks of the Trade" (7 min.) finds Walt himself talking about his use of the multi-plane camera in "Bambi." Then there's "The Old Mill" Silly Symphony short that originally was shown in theaters along with the feature film, and the original trailer.
As for games, kids will be disappointed that the only thing here is "Disney's Big Book of Knowledge," which is basically a locate-and-click exercise to access info on Bambi's forest friends.
"Bambi" also has additional content through BD-Live, which Disney is calling "Second Screen."
Forget Bambi's mother. "Bambi" is worth talking about because of the gorgeous watercolor artwork, the fantastic combination of realistic and anthropomorphic character design, and animation that couldn't seem more real, even if it were made today with motion-capture dots plastered all over a baby deer. It remains a great example of Disney animation at its best. If only it were a little more narratively complex and a little longer!