By Brian Orndorf
During its nearly 70 years of existence, “Bambi” has grown from a box office disappointment to one of the defining treasures of the Walt Disney Animated Studios. A feature of immense beauty and appealing cartoon behavior, the 1942 picture feels just as alive and relevant all these decades later, sustaining as a richly imagined saga of life and death, discovery, and instinct, communicated by true masters of the animation craft, turning the yearlong experience of a maturing deer into mesmeric cinema.
Within the great forest, a fawn has been born. Named Bambi, the young creature is about to embark on an education of epic proportions, following his beloved mother around the woods, learning the ways of life with help from pals Thumper (a mischievous rabbit) and Flower (a shy skunk). As the seasons change and danger arrives in the form of Man and his penchant for hunting, Bambi quickly grasps his place in the animal kingdom, growing to assume his role as the prince of the woodlands.
Adapted from the 1923 Felix Salten novel, “Bambi” is a straightforward story of biological impulse and whimsical discovery. Emerging a few years after the debut of “Fantasia,” the picture takes the appearance of an extended sequence from the orchestral valentine, with music and movement guiding the storytelling and emotional core of the piece, with little reliance on dialogue to articulate motivations. Walt Disney and director David Hand (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) elect a pastoral route to highlight the lead character’s learning curve, allowing the viewer the pleasure of observance, watching as the forest comes to life with colorful activity, following an assortment of inhabitants as they come to experience a year in the life of their overwhelmed prince.
The simplicity of “Bambi” is thrilling, forgoing tired storytelling formula to rely on the naturalistic progression of life. The film opens and closes with springtime births, filling the meat of the picture with an exaggerated depiction of animal behavior (Thumper alone is bursting with striking personality). While thoroughly anthropomorphized and voiced with a blissful range of reassuring tones, the critters retain their primitive position in the forest, creating a sublime community event where all types come out to meet Bambi and help him along the path of maturity. As with the best Disney pictures, “Bambi” is strongest when simply drinking in the immense detail, with the sumptuous animation constructing a vast forest portrait of painterly superiority, with depth goosed spectacularly by the production deployment of the famous multiplane camera technology. My word, all these years later, and “Bambi” stuns with its artistry and character designs, slowly tracking the change of seasons with glorious cinematic texture.
Even Daryl Hall would have to admit this is one of the finest animated features committed to film, produced and packaged during Walt Disney’s ballsiest years of control.
Blu-Ray Details and Extras
The AVC encoded image (1.33:1 aspect ratio) presentation brings “Bambi” to Blu-ray in a major way. The clarity here is sure to floor casual viewers, wiping away years of home video haze to restore the film to modern Disney standards, with little perceptible print damage. The image allows the viewer to witness the process of creation, with the stunning textures of animation cleanly arranged, enhancing the highly detailed storytelling activity. Colors are bold and pure, coming through the screen with a semi-3D effect, aided by the filmmaking tools and the sheer crisp quality of the image. Expansive forest sequences are worth a look alone, grandly displaying the emerald wonder of the woods and the creativity of the artists. Shadow detail is extraordinarily supportive and tight, never obscuring the action. Overall, the disc is a tremendous viewing experience, spotlighting the filmmaking effort in a completely new light.
The big gun here is the 7.1 DTS-HD HR sound mix, which beefs up the original theatrical experience by providing a fresh depth to the onscreen antics, pushing the forest activity around the surround channels, supplying directional activity that opens up the film’s sonic design. The HD sheen is rubbing up against 1942 film technology, which doesn’t always successfully articulate the occasionally clotted dialogue, but the overall effort is interesting in a home theater setting, boosted by a wildly entertaining array of sound effects and seasonal particulars. Music sounds fresh and inviting, and while lacking a true low-end presence, the songs have an angelic touch that benefits the aesthetic of the picture. French and Spanish tracks are including, along with an “English Restored Original Soundtrack” option that returns beloved theatrical harshness to the picture.
New to Blu-ray:
“Disc Introduction with Diane Disney Miller” (1:06) allows Walt’s daughter to quickly articulate the importance of “Bambi” to the company, taking cameras into The Walt Disney Family Museum, located in San Francisco.
“DisneyView” fills in the black aspect ratio bars with artwork from Lisa Keene. The effect isn’t as offensive as it initially appears, soon settling into an odd storybook feel.
“Inside Walt’s Story Meetings” is a chance to enjoy some theater of the mind while watching the picture. A “dramatic recreation” of Walt’s planning sessions, the feature acts out artistic considerations with a cast of excited voices, assisted by visual evidence in the form of graphics and featurettes (even a Mickey Mouse cartoon short). The history of “Bambi” is provided in full here, hearing how the filmmakers shaped and refined the material, making critical storytelling decisions along the way. It’s a lot like listening to old-timey radio, charmingly tracking development concerns and ideas.
“Deleted Scenes” (5:03) spotlight the existential distress of autumn’s last two leaves and observe Bambi’s experience with an angry mouse during his first walk in the woods. The scenes are unfinished and are viewed with illuminating introductions from Disney historians.
“Twitterpated” (1:53) is a deleted song from the film, offered here without context or performance credit.
“Bambi’s Interactive Galleries” provide a clickable look at the filmmaking effort, with Character Design, Backgrounds, Production Pictures, Storyboards, and Visual Development galleries included.
“Disney’s Big Book of Knowledge” is a sticker-book game that takes players through the seasons, exploring the challenges of nature while providing various clickable activities for younger viewers.
Ported over from previous releases:
“Deleted Scenes” (3:07) supply a moment of grass-eating flirtation between Bambi and future mate Faline, along with an extended snowbound adventure for the titular character. Both scenes are presented as enhanced storyboards.
“The Making of ‘Bambi'” (53:12) tracks the considerable legacy of the motion picture, using interviews with historians and animators (including John Lasseter) to underline the artistic achievement and production toil. While there’s a reverent tone for the film and Walt, the most interesting aspects of the documentary (broken down into featurettes) come with talk of the development process, chatting up the refinement of the story and its myriad of deleted concepts. Equally charming is a chance to catch up with Peter C. Behn, who voiced a young Thumper.
“Tricks of the Trade” (7:18) is a classic Walt Disney-hosted short highlighting the power and depth of the multiplane camera.
“Inside the Disney Archives” (8:39) follows animator Andreas Deja as he travels to the bowels of the Mouse House kingdom, paging through the vast amounts of archived material involved in the production of “Bambi.”
“The Old Mill” (8:58) is a 1937 animated short that triumphantly displays some of the first efforts from the multiplane camera.
I haven’t truly experienced “Bambi” since I was a very young boy, making the viewing for this review a total revelation. While gifted cutesy moments to snuggle up with the audience, the movie retains a potent message of threat from humankind, displaying destruction and tragedy with a masterful refinement that offers shock without graphic imagery, making the menace all the more unnerving. Bambi’s development is equally as subtle and indelible, treating maturity (and eventual need to mate, called “twitterpating” here) with respect while allowing plenty of room for music and mischief to amuse. Indeed, “Bambi” is a masterpiece, confidently intertwining handcrafted art and screen entertainment, delivering an enormously enchanting story of life, fluffed with that famous Disney fairy dust.