One the best feature films from the Walt Disney Studios, Bambi transcends the genre of cartoons about cute forest animals. Taken from a serious novel about man's destructive role in nature's cycle of life, it is at once an enchanting film for children and a wondrous evocation of universal experiences: The miracle of birth, the wonder of childhood and youth, and the fearsome experience of the coming of age.
Disney's beloved Bambi has been beautifully refurbished for DVD. A couple of Disney's earlier releases appeared to "repaint" the studio's original animation, but this carefully nuanced job seems to retain minor artwork and camera imperfections that should remain part of the show. Digital cleanup was fifty years away when this classic was made and the animation artists that put years into Bambi created a hand-crafted piece of art that computers will never equal.
Felix Salten's book Bambi is a chastening experience and one of the world's first popular novels with an environmental theme. After reading it in junior high school I knew I'd never be a hunter. In the original book Bambi has a idealistic friend, a young deer who decides that, because he'd once encountered some friendly humans, the idea that Man is dangerous is a myth. The deer goes out into the clearing to prove his point by greeting some hunters and is promptly shot dead.
Disney used every ounce of his production muscle and story smarts to retain the theme of Man as a menace to nature, without resorting to overly ironic violence or verbal messages. The deer don't discuss Man, Man just is. The animals of the forest are admittedly a rather unrealistically cooperative lot - that owl never picks off a baby bunny for lunch - but none of them voices a philosophy about anything or delivers any life lessons beyond practical advice in the here and now, such as "Run!" Instead, the visuals carry almost everything and our own knowledge of the realities of life fills in the blanks. The story is reduced to a few simple scenes. The animals of the forest are transient beings. Just like human beings, they're mostly unaware of the awesome grandeur around them.
Disney's artists create a familiar forest world that is wondrously alive with leaves borne on the wind and winter's snows that carpet the ground. We experience it all along with the baby fawn Bambi, as if reliving our own childhoods.
There are plenty of reasons to question the anthropomorphic animal universe of Disney's animated films as bestowing qualities on animals that they don't have. The cute critters of Bambi are of course not realistic, but their animated similarities to humans enable possibilities of personal identification that don't exist with "human" characters - which in drama are also artificial creations. The baby animals were partially modeled after human babies, creating a heightened adore-ability. We identify with Bambi and want to protect him because he's so vulnerable, and because he isn't ready to face the cruel world beyond his mother's protection. His best pal thumper has a full range of winning kid qualities: enthusiasm that gets him into trouble, spirit that wins him friends, and a mischievous streak that's irresistible. These creatures embody the fragile innocence in life.
Bambi also captures the magic of young love, knowingly acknowledging that among children, the girls are always more hip to what's happening. Faline is perhaps a little older than Bambi but probably not by much. I remember being impressed by fourth grade girls when they were sometimes right up front with their honest affection. I was too shy to respond, but at least I wasn't a piece of wood like most boys my age. Bambi accomplishes the miracle of making us re-experience innocence (the little we were afforded) with a pleasant nostalgia. I wonder how many of those fourth grade Jezebels are now grandmothers?
I remember some college students criticizing Bambi along political lines, saying it reinforced a patriarchal society with the silent, god-like Alpha-male buck lording it over a forest full of worshipful does. Maybe they have a point, but if we stick to the birds and the bees and the deer in the woods, Bambi isn't warping anybody's consciousness. In reality, the King of the Forest would not only be Bambi's paterfamilias, but the mate for all the does, a rank won by intimidating all comers in combat. Fairness, equality and enlightenment are fine, but if we're to draw parallels with human behavior, it's easy to see that goodly number of impressionable females still flock to a few desirable males, whether they be high school jocks or hotshots with a corner office.
Bambi is also Disney's best movie about dealing with death. I remember hearing about a cousin ten years older than I that was supposedly traumatized when ... you can guess what happens, it's a famous scene. At this time ol' Walt was considerably gutsier than in his later years, and the tough content in his movies would probably land him in hot water with child psychologists - just let them loose on the implications of all of Disney's "rump humor" sometime. Dumbo pulled the heartstrings about mother love but Bambi told the brutal truth, with only the distance of a nature allegory to soften the blow.
The cycles of birth, love, seasons and death in Bambi have an almost mystical feel, helped by the reverential music score and its paeans to the changes in nature. To be frank, the movie can help a young person understand that all of their confused feelings and experiences aren't necessarily unique - that at any given moment there are millions of people going through all of those universally- experienced stages. To have a child and think only in terms of your own joy is one thing, but to become a parent and realize one is now part of an ageless race of creatures who love and see innocence in their offspring, that's another thing entirely. Bambi has that kind of magic. 1
Disney's DVD of Bambi is almost transparently beautiful, with a restored visual luster that brings out the beauty of each forest scene and impressive multi-plane moving shot, but without giving the impression that edge-enhancers or grain-gobbling software has been let loose on an animation classic. I'm used to seeing the film as it looks in the grainy and dull trailer that is included as an extra. The contrast is like eyewash.
The limited-edition disc has extras that run the gamut from obvious kiddie games to serious featurettes on the 1942 production and its place in the Disney canon. A multi-part "making of Bambi" docu efficiently covers a lot of unfamiliar material, including introducing us to the child vocal talent used in the film, and explaining how nature and anatomy studies gave the forest animals a heightened realism. It meshes well with the anthropomorphosed eyes and facial expressions. Ever seen a real deer up close? They ain't that expressive.
A docu piece on the multi-plane camera is included from other Disney special editions, but Bambi has a lot of exclusive content, including a dramatized reading & visual presentation of transcripts from Walt's story conferences with his top staff. It plays a lot better than it sounds. There are a couple of deleted and alternate scenes shown in storyboard form, and the entire 1937 cartoon The Old Mill, which we're told was a tryout for the multi-plane camera. There are good pieces on the restoration and Disney's artwork archive that will interest many viewers.
A "DisneyPedia" feature about the real animals depicted in Bambi is a useful helper to let tots know that the wilderness isn't full of cuddly squeeze toys - those suckers have teeth and hooves, Cindy Lou. It reminds me a bit of a hilarious "See and Say" Mattel toy commercial from the early 1980s. It explained that city kids had lost their country roots by showing a little boy pointing at a cow in a barnyard and happily saying, "Doggie!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Personal connection: I saw the names Paul
Satterfield and Norman Wright on the credits as sequence directors for Bambi. I learned to cut TV commercials
with Norman's son Peter and met him on a number of occasions. When I needed an elaborate optical made for a UCLA student
film I took my cut negatives to Paul Satterfield, who in 1975 was still running a little optical printer on Seward street.
He liked the idea that I'd shot the elements on a pin registered Mitchell camera and did my job literally overnight,
fixing some errors in my counts and basically improving on my simple concept. I remember that Satterfield charged me all of
$60 and waved goodbye like I was a good boy going off to kindergarten. I didn't learn who he was until years later. My
film was no classic but it got me my first effects job with Doug Trumbull's people. It's funny - the people you foolishly
think owe you something, and the people who you know you owe plenty. Be nice to the next mixed up kid who walks
in, as it's really you.