Well, dang. I mean, it's "Bambi." How can you not like "Bambi"?
OK, I recognize there are some curmudgeons out there who will criticize the picture for being overly cute, overly cuddly, over sentimental, in essence over Disneyfied, with far too many sweet, lovable little forest critters frolicking around. My only serious objection is that the movie is too short at only sixty-nine minutes. But even that works to its advantage with youngsters, whose attention spans undoubtedly benefit from the brief running time.
Besides about 800 short features, "Bambi" (1942) was Walt Disney's fifth full-length animated release, after "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), "Pinocchio" (1940), "Fantasia" (1940), and "Dumbo" (1941) . It may not be quite as good as the first three of these full-length forerunners, but it came along at just the right time to catch the fancy of a nation entering World War II and a world that had already been at war for several years. People needed wholesome, reassuring entertainment and "Bambi" hit the right spot. Not surprisingly, and despite some serious initial setbacks, "Bambi," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," and "Cinderella" became the top films of the 1940s. Uncle Walt was having himself one heck of a time.
The narrative, from a 1928 book by Felix Salten, tells of Bambi's birth, his friendships and play with his fellow forest animals, his education in the ways of the world, the death of his mother, a horrendous forest fire, and new family. So we get a little tenderness, a little humor, a little passion, and, for Disney, some unusually intense conflict and tragedy. Considering that there is not a lot of real plot to the story line, quite a bit of stuff goes on.
"Bambi" is mainly a series of pictorial episodes based loosely on Bambi's growing up, accompanied by some fairly gushy orchestral arrangements and the usual sprinkling of Disney musical numbers, none of which are quite up to the more memorable tunes in Disney's previous full-length animations. "Love Is A Song," "Little April Shower," "Let's Sing A Gay Little Spring Song," and "I Bring You A Song" are not exactly the things you go out humming or remember for very long. Nevertheless, "Love Is A Song" was nominated for an Academy Award, as was the movie's scoring and sound, and in their way they all contribute to the dreamlike quality of the tale.
But the images are what count, and they are often spectacular in their beauty. The animation is of a kind that is probably too expensive to recreate today, vivid character representations and gorgeous watercolor backgrounds that portray a lush, romanticized landscape of bucolic perfection. The colors, mostly soft pastels, project an ultimate realism and a fairy-tale quality at the same time. The forest is not so much a simple element of nature as it is an exalted Garden of Eden. By the 1950s, even Disney would find this kind of animation too expensive, so we have to enjoy what we've got; it often looks stunningly truthful yet stunningly surreal, too.
Bambi's mother is caring and protective, and many a child (and adult) has shed a tear or more over her demise. Bambi's father is the "bravest and wisest" of the woodland animals, the "Great Prince of the Forest." But it's Bambi's newfound friends who steal the show: Thumper, the rabbit; Flower, the skunk; and Feline, the young doe. Together, they help Bambi share in his joys of discovery. The villain of the piece is Man. Humans hunt and kill the animals, and when they're not out for blood, they're inadvertently burning the place down. The ending makes a powerful statement about the stupidity of people, our carelessness, and our disregard for nature.
Short and to the point, "Bambi" is an enduring classic.
The picture and sound have both been cleaned, restored, remixed, and remastered to THX standards, and both audiovisual aspects of the film now belie the film's age. Because each frame has been sharpened up and color-matched to something near its original intensity, the picture often looks as vibrant and fresh as a new production. And you'll find nary a scratch, a line, a spot, or a blemish anywhere. However, the original print was never particularly bright or flashy. The forest scenes, with their darkening shadows, were meant to look subdued, and that's the way they come off. The only thing I found slightly distracting was a thin veil, like unto the reflection of grain, that that seems to hang over several scenes, including the opening sequence. It is not entirely off-putting, but it is noticeable. Whether Disney intended selected scenes to look this way intentionally I do not know.
The sound for English is available either in the film's original monaural or in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 home-theater remix. In DD 5.1 the audio engineers have done a remarkable job opening up the front channels and producing a smooth, well-balanced output. There is still not a very wide sound stage, and the rear channels are fed hardly any information at all, but looked at more pragmatically, the soundtrack no longer seems in any way like something over sixty years old.
Disc one contains the feature film; the mono and enhanced soundtracks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English captions for the hearing impaired; and twenty-five scene selections. In addition, there is a seventy-minute documentary, "Bambi: Inside Walt's Story Meetings," hosted by actor Patrick Stewart. It seems that Uncle Walt kept audio transcriptions of all the story meetings he had with his fellow filmmakers, and they were recently uncovered in the Disney archives. The audio is presented along with film clips, storyboards, and still photographs to provide a fairly comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. Finally, there are Sneak Peeks at other Disney titles; and a preview of disc two (just to remind folks to visit it, I suppose).
Disc two contains a ton of further supplementary materials. The first and most important for me is the section called "Backstage Disney," which begins with the documentary, "The Making of Bambi: A Prince Is Born." It's fifty-three minutes long and divided into six chapters: "Telling the Tale," "Drawn to Nature," "Giving Voice to Animals," "Impressions of the Forest," "Nature's Music," and "Back to the Beginning." Amazingly, some of the original actors and artists who worked on "Bambi" so long ago are still alive and share with us their memories of the filmmaking, as do many of today's top Disney animation producers. For instance, Donnie Dunagan, the voice of the young Bambi, tells us he was reluctant to admit his participation in the film to acquaintances when he later joined the U.S. Marine Corps. John Culhane, author and film historian, sums up the "Bambi" allure succinctly when he says it's about "life and struggle and death and rebirth."
In addition, "Backstage Disney" contains a series of featurettes that are pretty much self-explanatory. "Restoring Bambi," five minutes, explains the frame-by-frame cleanup of the print; "The Legacy Continues: A Sneak Peek at the All-New Bambi Movie," four minutes, is a promo for the new, upcoming "Bambi"; "Disney Time Capsule: 1942, The Year of Bambi," is four minutes long, showing what else was going on at the time; "The Art of Bambi" is a series of still galleries, with or without audio commentary; "Tricks of the Trade" is seven minutes; "Inside the Disney Archives" is eight minutes; and the "The Old Mill" is a 1937 animated short that helped the Disney artists create some the effects used in "Bambi." This part of things concludes with an original "Bambi" theatrical trailer.
Of next greatest importance to me were two, very brief deleted scenes, "Winter Grass" and "Bambi's First Snow," both done up in storyboards only, with introduction. Then, there are the usual Disney "Games and Activities" that kids will enjoy. "The Forest Adventure" game takes you through the woods to stop here and there and play little games with your remote control. If you tire and want to move on, there is an index of all the games to help you get quickly to the next one. After that is a DisneyPedia segment on "Bambi's Forest Friends," about four minutes on the real-life habits of deer, rabbits, and skunks. Next is a "Personality Profile: What's Your Season?" Here you answer a series of questions, and the Disney prognosticators tell you what season you are inclined to and what your personality is like. I'm a spring person, it appears. OK by me. "Disney Storytime" features "Thumper Goes Exploring," which can be read along or read on one's own. And, finally, there is a "Virtual Forest," a kind of screensaver that shows a woodsy scene passing through the seasons, with appropriate sound effects. It's quite lovely and all and apparently repeats endlessly, but it's literally like watching grass grow.
The two discs come packaged in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a colorful, glossy slipcover with a front that opens up to further information. Within the case is a chapter listing, plus one of those typical Disney road maps that help you navigate all the byways of the bonus materials.
For another look behind the scenes, check out James Plath's interview with Donnie Dunagan, the voice of young Bambi.
One can argue that "Bambi" could have profited from more extended characterizations or a more involved plot line, but such contentions seem fatuous in light of the film's continuing success. "Bambi" is calculated to delight the eye and pull at the heartstrings, which it does with consummate ease. Its magic has worked for over six decades, and I daresay it will work for six more before it's given some kind of holographic update that will extend its appeal well into the twenty-second century and beyond. Good things just keep on being good.