[28 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Things were looking dire for feature animation upstart Walt Disney. After the stunning success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, his next two films - Pinocchio and Fantasia - failed to connect with audiences. More concerning were the events in Europe, the growing tide towards all out war limiting the studio’s overseas release options. With Dumbo, the company hoped to change the commercial tide. However, it would take until the late ‘40s before Disney saw significant returns for his early period masterworks. This includes the beloved Bambi.
Released originally in 1942, the story of a young deer and the sometimes tragic life lessons he learns didn’t click with viewers worried over the US involvement in the growing conflict. Even worse, it angered sportsman who believed it demonized human beings, hunters specifically. Yet because of a particular approach taken by makers, something modern animators would never dream of doing, the flop is now seen as one of the House of Mouse’s finest, most warmly remembered achievements.
You do have to give the film credit. Few cartoons would attempt a realistic look at nature, including the more horrific, traumatic bits. Even better, when adapting Austrian author Felix Salten’s book about the fabled buck, they didn’t shy away from the thesis that man is indeed the most dangerous animal of all. Even today, Bambi is quite shocking in its seriousness. When the major plot points arrive, they are not sugarcoated or suggested.
Death is dealt with in an almost upfront manner, and the last act forest fire is horrific in its mass destruction menace. The Disney artists really outdo themselves here, using extensive tests of actual wildlife to render their characters in a less than typical cartoonish manner. Sure, rabbit Thumper and skunk Flower come across as classic pen and ink prototypes, but they aren’t quite as comical as the overdone clowns the studio would trade in for the next few decades.
The basic story sees Bambi being born to the current Prince of the Forest and his caring, giving partner. Hoping to find his way, our little hero befriends a goofy bunny and a sentimental little skunk. As the seasons change, as he grows and matures, he falls for Faline, a beautiful fawn. Of course, there is a rival for her affections named Ronno. As he learns the ways of the woods, as he prepares to take his place as leader of the pack, disaster strikes. A huge fire rages out of control, trapping many of the animals. It is up to Bambi to save them, including Faline, who has been cornered by a pack of wild dogs. In the end, renewal and birth is celebrated as Bambi and his new family finally settle in, ready to rule over the rest of the grateful creatures.
Like Old Yeller, Disney has made an entire generational statement out of scarring the wee ones with their animal endangerment epics. Many have grown up with the trauma of discovering death at the hands of Mickey and his merry House of horrors. It’s weird, when you think about it. The Lion King also traded on the loss of a central character, and it too has become legendary title in the company stores. There is just something about the way the Magic Kingdom manages loss that resonates with a mainstream audience, especially those of a certain age. Granted, few are ferocious in their obviousness as Bambi, if only because the entire storyline hinges on the mid-movie loss of parental ‘security.’
What counters such sadness is the desire on the part of the animators to make the backdrops as beautiful as possible. Using a multi-plane optical printer (something the studio pioneered), there are layers to the wooded glen where Bambi and his pals plays. The trees move in an organic fashion, avoiding the static structures their watercolor wash would otherwise suggest. Bambi also gets a moment in the meadow early on that’s absolutely lush and fervent. The artists took things ever further during the fight with Ronno, rendering an expressionistic dream like sequence of instinctual clash that’s harkens back to their work on Fantasia.
Indeed, Bambi continues the maturation process of Disney’s full length animation ideals. While the war would definitely effect the next few features - Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros came directly from a CIA mandate to make films friendly to South America, while Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time were made up of discarded ideas unable to be fleshed out due to a lack of staff - the lessons learned here are a marvel to behold. The simplicity of design, the careful use of color, the calculated balance between the honest and the hokey. While they would come to rely more and more on a cartoony look for the character, Bambi was the film that found the proper way to keep things from becoming too vaudevillian.
The new Blu-ray does an unbelievable job of making the almost 70 year old effort look brand new. The print is so polished, so perfected in its various animation elements that it makes you weep for anything lesser. There is a desire to stay within the European model maintained since Snow White. It’s a paint and ink perspective that would stay with the studio until 1950’s Cinderella. Luckily, the HD format finds a way to make even something so dated shine. As for the added content, the company continues to dig deep into their archives, pulling out deleted scenes, some abandoned ideas, a couple of intriguing featurettes, and some items aimed directly at the kiddies. In the end, it’s the transfer that impresses most of all.
Still, it remains a mystery how a company more or less clinging on for dear life, fiscally, during the 1940s ended up the more recognizable and popular family brand in the history of the industry. Revisionism suggests that, once they hit the theaters, Disney’s first few films were embraced as unconverted instant classics. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The House of Mouse struggled through its initial growing pains, producing unexpected and experimental titles that eventually became benchmarks. As with anything, it took time and a fresh critical and communal perspective. Luckily, all have aged like fine wine, and among them, Bambi is the most intriguing. It doesn’t play around or pander, something in short supply in today’s joke a minute family movie making conceit. Perhaps this is why Disney reigns supreme. They don’t play by the rules - the just write the rulebook.