"Bambi Platinum Edition": Cuddly and Sweet But A Bit Obsolete
These days, among all the wildly eccentric characters, dazzling special effects, zany wisecracks, and grandiose musical numbers, it’s easy to forget the innocence and simplicity that marked the early years of Walt Disney’s career. In fact, it’s hard to imagine modern filmmakers letting audiences sit still for more than a few minutes without hitting them with an explosion, crescendo, or joke. The release of the Bambi Platinum Edition takes us back to those quieter days with what is one of the studio’s most beloved classics, a film that probably could not be made today.
At present there are many things we take for granted in animated features. Largely thanks to Walt himself, today we fully expect that any and all people, places, and phenomena can (and even should) be animated with elegant realism. Bambi, however, hails from those trailblazing days when the multiplane camera still blew people’s minds and CGI might be one of those things Flash Gordon read about when the wife was out of town. As such, the wondrous realism of Bambi‘s animation was a remarkable accomplishment. The story itself is somewhat less so. You may accuse me of being a jaded cynic, though I am a huge Spongebob Squarepants fan and even briefly subscribed to that “hope is on the way” pipedream, but there just isn’t enough meat on Bambi‘s bones to sustain me for 70 minutes. Hmm. Vegans in the crowd may want to disregard that last turn of phrase.
Bambi does not really have a cohesive narrative in the traditional sense. It’s more a loosely connected string of vignettes that illustrate Bambi’s path to adulthood in particular and the cycle of nature in general. Bambi, the new “prince of the forest,” is born to his adoring mother, much to the excitement of the various woodland creatures. He slowly learns to walk and speak while meeting the members of the community and exploring the forest. Bambi encounters the Great Prince of the Forest, the oldest and most respected deer, who seems to be Bambi’s father but keeps his distance. One day the warning goes out that a hunter is near, and Bambi learns of the danger known as man. The seasons pass, and Bambi slowly begins to mature, encountering love and loss along the way.
Just because the story is thin doesn’t mean the film doesn’t provide plenty of fodder for discussion. Apart from the traditional nods to the importance of family, friends, romance, and believing in oneself, the movie takes a very conservationist stance, throwing a highly accusatory glare in the direction of human development. In a relative rarity for a Disney film, humans never appear onscreen, and their presence is felt solely as a destructive menace that kills or burns all in its path. I suspect that, were this film made today, the NRA might have something to say about it. The allegorical impact of the forest fire scene is even greater when one considers that World War II had broken out just a couple of years prior to the film’s release. Although the filmmakers state that no connection was intended, it’s hard not to see a parallel between the careless fire that sets the animals fleeing and the untended embers of fascism that caught all of Europe and Asia in history’s bloodiest conflagration. Finally, there is some surprisingly adult material on relations between the sexes. Bambi’s best friends Thumper and Flower are seduced in a sultry and suggestive manner, and his sweetheart Faline is very nearly raped. The candor of these scenes seems unusual even for today’s Disney and shocking for the 40s. Furthermore, although the soundtrack continues to warble, “Love is a song that never ends,” both Bambi and his father seem to ignore their spouses completely once they’ve sired a child. I don’t know whether this was intended as an accurate representation of nature or a statement on 40s marital relations, but it certainly wouldn’t survive a modern test screening.
There’s nothing particularly distinctive about Bambi himself, and perhaps this is by intent. He stands in for every child navigating the tough but wondrous journey of growing up. Thumper the rabbit displays the oblivious innocence of a child as he freely makes less than polite observations about others. His humbled recantations when scolded by his mother are most endearing, and evince Disney’s highly informed understanding of children. Flower the skunk is so shy and effeminate that one wonders if there isn’t a very progressive message afoot here (until he later finds a girlfriend, that is). The owl, kindly but crotchety, is alternately the wise village elder and the cranky next-door neighbor. Finally Faline, as tends to be the case with girls, is playful and flirtatious well before Bambi even figures out what the game is.
Bambi‘s animation is quite stunning for a sixty-year-old film. With the possible exception of the recent Brother Bear, I don’t think the tranquil beauty of nature has ever been so well captured in animation. Whether it’s the death spiral of falling leaves, the pitter-patter of rain in a stream, or the serenity that comes with a dense blanket of snow, the film’s images breathe life into the forest. The character animation is also impressive in the way that the animals’ movements, Bambi’s in particular, believably correspond to their real life counterparts. However, the film is a bit low on the razzle-dazzle quotient that one expects from more recent Disney films. Often the background struck me as remarkably plain, lacking the detail and movement found today.
Bambi‘s score includes some lovely classical compositions that perfectly complement the pastoral setting. The few songs, on the other hand, are truly a product of their time. Not that they aren’t pretty in their own way, but the intense melodrama can hardly help but strike the modern listener as corny, and they are too stiff to rank among Disney’s more memorable tunes. Perhaps the intent was to create a more mature score, but I found myself missing the catchy numbers of Snow White and Pinocchio.
The film is probably most splendid in its more Fantasia-like moments, in which the score and nature perform a delicate dance. Most impressive is the forest fire, whose savage intensity is breathtakingly depicted without need to resort to CGI effects. The film’s humor is rather low-key overall, but there are a few nice bits of fun. Owl steals the show with his over-the-top speech full of wild gesticulation, trying to explain to Bambi and company the perils of becoming “twitterpated,” or smitten with the opposite sex.
As one would expect, the Bambi Platinum Edition is absolutely packed with special features. Inside Walt’s Story Meetings is a dramatic reenactment of transcripts from Bambi script discussions. Disney fans will no doubt be thrilled to hear Walt and other Disney notables share and shape their visions for the film, but it’s probably a bit too much detail for the general public. I also have to question Walt’s sense of humor. He describes scenes like the one where Bambi learns to ice skate as a great chance for laughs, but they’re really little more than cute. There are two charming but inconsequential deleted scenes about Bambi’s first winter experience in storyboard form. The Making of Bambi is a fascinating in-depth look at all the major aspects of Bambi‘s production: concept, character design, voice acting, background design, music, and release history. Restoring Bambi explains the process of restoring the old film stock, while a neat clip from a 1957 Disney TV program explains the multiplane camera used in Bambi to create the 3D effect. 1942: The Year of Bambi takes an interesting look at what was going on in the world when Bambi was released, and the original trailer is also included. Surprisingly the film was billed as a great love story, even though romance is hardly the focus. There are two excellent art galleries full of both shots from the film and unused images. Last but not least is The Old Mill, the beautifully animated 1937 Oscar-winning short that debuted some of the film techniques used in Bambi, such as the multiplane camera and reflections in water.
Of course, Disney also supplies the usual rogues’ gallery of less than special features. There’s a tedious CG memory game, elementary information on all the real animals appearing in Bambi, and a corny quiz to determine what season your personality matches. Thumper Goes Exploring, a talking, very slightly animated picture book, may entertain small kids. If they misbehave you can threaten to make them watch Virtual Forest, in which the four seasons play out around a tree: it’s the CGI equivalent of watching paint dry.
Bambi was one of my favorites as a kid, and if yours don’t have ADD they’ll likely enjoy it too. It’s cute, it’s fun, and it’s a good crash course in growing up. There are a couple of scenes that still tear at the heartstrings, though perhaps now that the secrets of life Bambi uncovers have long since been revealed to me, I no longer feel quite the same connection. It still stands out as a groundbreaking milestone in animation history, and animation fans will eat up the superb special features detailing this achievement. Just be ready for kids to become more curious about daddy’s weekend jaunts to the country in his orange suit (and about the dinner he might bring home).