Short Ends and Leader

Sacchrine, Sentimental...and Sensational: 'Bambi' (Blu-ray)

Even today, Bambi is quite shocking in its seriousness. When the major plot points arrive, they are not sugarcoated or suggested.


Bambi

Director: David Hand
Cast: Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright, John Sutherland, Paula Winslowe, Peter Behn, Tim Davis
Extras: 7
Rated: G
Year: 1942
US date: 2011-03-01 (General release)
UK date: 2011-03-01 (General release)

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.

9

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In this exploration of the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it can be inferred that religion is likened to a spatial cave within a wider world of cultural beliefs, ideas and means of expression.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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