It’s been at least 15 years since I last saw Bambi, but strangely enough I still remember every word. That’s the sort of power Walt used to have with his movies. They stick with you, long past childhood. Disney used to do more than just deliver puff kids entertainment. They had substance in there too, the kind of substance that might actually mean something in your life. Yes, kids need substance too.
Walt Disney (the man, not just the studio) modernized animation with their feature length film Snow White in 1937. Rather than just whore Snow White out with sequels or other similarly themed animated movies, Walt was ambitious. They decided instead to push animation and their art further. Before Snow White was even finished, the Disney folks had started work on Bambi, an animated movie about anatomically realistic, humanized animals that would contain no visible human characters.
Bambi release shed a little more light on just what a big step forward this was by comparing the animated deer in Snow White, five years earlier with those in Bambi. The difference is astounding. Snow White’s animals are little more than sacks of sugar with legs. Bambi managed to present not only animals that moved and looked realistic, but also achieved humanistic expressions at the same time. It was a filmmaking first, one which took years of painstaking study for Disney’s artists to achieve. Bambi was a huge step forward for filmmaking, and as such deserves the classic status it holds.
Astoundingly, it’s not just a static piece of film history fit for the archives, the 1942 movie, like nearly all old Disney movies, holds up today. Rather than movies about the trials and tribulations of being a princess in a crazy modern world, the House of Mouse made movies out of basic themes of human existence, the sort of simple, straight to the core things that anyone from anywhere can identify with. In Bambi, Disney tackles the cycle of growing up. Birth, struggle, and death are the three stages of the film as it winds its way through a simple story of nature, celebration, loss, and maturity. The death of Bambi’s mother resonates, and probably always will.
Visually, the film is beautiful. Watching it again I found myself really missing the warm, organic glow of hand drawn animation. So often now, even two-dimensional cartoons are done up using computer enhancements. It’s a rare thing to see truly, completely hand drawn work. Using a mix of music instead of straight up sound effects, the film’s weather scenes are particularly stunning. When thunder cracks, Bambi doesn’t just stick in a thunder sound effect. Rather the orchestra already playing crashes, in a musical simulation of thunder… something Disney had already played with in Fantasia. They also came up with some really innovative ways of using hand painted backgrounds. The idea was to convey a feeling or impression, rather than specifically individually drawn leaves. This works spectacularly, giving the film a cool, dark, living forest feel that couldn’t have been animated on film otherwise.
Bambi has earned its status as an animated icon. It might be easy to dismiss it as a movie trading purely on the shock of a single death, but the simple, lovingly crafted film is so much more than that. It’s a movie unafraid to tell kids straight out that death is part of this world, but does so while at the same time showing them that there’s a lot of joy in it. The characters and story are eternally endearing. Bambi is one of the cornerstones of Walt Disney’s enduring, hopefully unending legacy.
Covering a DVD like this one is always a daunting task, not just because of the historical significance of the film itself, but because Disney has given the film its due and loaded this two-disc up to the hilt with extra features. To avoid having this section of my review become overly lengthy, I’ll just hit the highlights.
The most important thing Disney has done for this Special Edition set is a restoration of the film itself. Visually, Bambi has absolutely never looked better. In fact, it probably looks better than the day it was first filmed. The Disney restoration team has gone in and digitally restored the color of the film using careful color guides generated from the original artwork still safely ensconced in their archives. The film looks absolutely brilliant. The colors are vibrant and alive. Gone is the grain and imperfection, the faded colors, the quickly degrading film. It’s brilliant. Of course, being the nitpicky person I am, I also find myself question whether this is visually the same film. All the digital wizardry worked on Bambi to clean up its fading prints means that some of those original brush strokes aren’t there, replaced by computer color fill. While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that a few of the scenes looked a little bit too computer colored for my tastes. Of course if I had it my way I’d be watching a print of the thing through an old reel to reel projector, so maybe I’m just a little anal-retentive. Whatever the case, Disney certainly deserves some credit for how painstakingly they’ve restored the film to an unheard of aural and visual splendor.
They’ve gone out of their way to make sure they do get that credit, with a series of documentaries on things like film restoration and Disney’s place in history. Also included is a lot about Walt and creating the original film. Particularly fascinating to me were interviews with surviving members of the Disney creative team. All of this is mixed into a huge section of special features on the set’s second disc, under the heading of “Backlot”. There’s a couple of hours worth of incredible material here, from time capsules to original Bambi movie trailers. Of course, there’s a handy PLAY ALL function, so feel free to just click that and sit. The only drawback to doing so is that you’ll have to sit through a making of advertisement for the upcoming Bambi 2. It’s a little sad watching Patrick Stewart try to convince us that the film lives up to the old Bambi, when even the scant few seconds of footage shown make it clear that the thing most certainly isn’t. Instead, it’s just a painful reminder that the days of real Disney artistry have completely come and gone.
Disc two has a few other tidbits on it, most of them geared towards much younger children in the way of DVD games. These are never half as fun as they sound, but then they aren’t there for people my age anyway. With so much other great material on here for adults, the games are just a nice little bonus for the kiddies. A nice inclusion that doesn’t hurt the set, but doesn’t add much to it either. Right next to the games though, are a pair of deleted scenes, where the Disney folk take us through just two of the many scenes created and cut from the original film. They’re worth a look, especially as a companion to all the stacks of great material in the Backlot section.
Second disc covered; jump back just a minute with me to the set’s first disc, on which the seventy minute film sits. For me, the most innovative and exciting addition to Bambi’s Special Edition is the film’s commentary track, which you’ll find here. The exciting thing about it is that they’ve managed to put together a commentary track featuring the entire original Bambi production team, almost all of whom are dead. Apparently, during Walt Disney’s meetings with his production team, someone took notes on everything they said. Discovered in the Disney archives, those notes have been taken and used to provide commentary. No, it isn’t a bunch of scrolling text across the bottom; instead they’ve gotten actors to portray each of the creative team. The actors read the notes as those people while the movie plays. The notes sync up with what’s happening on screen, and to further illustrate what’s being talked about, split screen comparisons, pop up windows and other illustrative tools are brought into play. It’s a fantastic idea and one that works incredibly well. It’s the sort of thing I’d like to see a lot more of, not just on older films, but modern ones as well. Note to directors… get a tape recorder going in your production meetings. This makes for better commentary than you’ll ever get jamming the cast and crew in a room and asking them to make up witticisms on the fly. This is by far one of my favorite commentary tracks on any disc, which is a little strange since most of the people on it are decades since dead.
The Bambi (Special Platinum Edition) is a phenomenal DVD release from the Walt Disney company, a real tribute to the film and the pioneering artistry of Disney days gone by. This is the sort of disc that’s a must own for even a casual collector. You don’t need kids to appreciate it, just a love of great art.