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"Bambi" Diamond Edition: Pushing Technology Forward in Past and Present

When did 'Bambi' become a woman's name, anyway?Disney’s Bambi is a movie that I find I appreciate and admire more than I actually love. The recently released Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack provided a perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with this classic film, since the time since I last saw it can probably be measured in decades and I had few memories of anything other than isolated lines of dialogue and scenes. It comes as no surprise that this newly released high-definition master is a technically flawless presentation, but the movie itself turns out to be a mild letdown.

If you’ve been living under a pop-culture rock for the past 60 years or so, the title character of Bambi is a new fawn whose importance is communicated by the importance placed on his birth by all the other animals of the forest and the way they reverentially refer to him as the “young prince.” The movie then follows Bambi from a wobbly newborn all the way to adulthood, as he learns the ways of the forest (and its hazards) with friends like Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk.

On the one hand, this chronicle is accelerated of necessity, since the movie’s trim 76 minute running time doesn’t really leave much room for dilly-dally. On the other hand, even under such tight time constraints, the movie has a highly unconventioal sense of pacing, spending long stretches focused on minutiae and then skipping forward by months or years in between frames. While the effect can be quite hypnotic and many of the individual scenes are staggeringly beautiful and masterfully executed, the pacing and slightly disjointed narrative keeps Bambi from feeling like a really cohesive whole and more like a sequence of short films loosely stitched together. While this is something that can be said of most of Disney’s earlier animated films, films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Dumbo seem to have much more narrative cohesion than Bambi. To my mind at least, the quirky sense of pacing to Bambi keeps it from truly attaining the classic status I reserve for titles like Snow White, Cinderella, or Lady and the Tramp.

However, Bambi‘s technical achievements are unquestionable and marvelous to behold. The character animation of Bambi and the other denizens of the forest is truly outstanding, anthropomorphizing the animals while staying true to animal behaviors and anatomy. It is tremendously easy to recognize the combination of body language of both human and deer younglings in Bambi, and this combination is one of the most pleasing and endearing things about the movie. Indeed, the technical excellence in bringing Bambi to life may even be why the character has remained more iconic than his story (in contrast to the powerful fairy-tale narratives of what are now dubbed the “Princess movies” or other films like Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp). It is also undeniable that the movie has its share of absolutely unforgettable cinematic moments, ranging from Bambi’s lovingly rendered awkward first steps to the tremendous emotional gut-punch midway through the film (anyone who’s seen it knows what scene I mean, and anyone who hasn’t shouldn’t have it spoiled by a review).

Three Caballeros...oh, wait. Wrong film.The Disney animation studio was also in top form by this time, especially in the use of the multi-plane camera to give a distinctive sense of depth to the film. The opening multi-plane camera shot of the film as it tracks through a forest is awe-inspiring even today, and is even more impressive than the comparable shot at the start of Beauty and the Beast. The only place where Bambi disappoints is in its soundtrack, which is full of perfectly good lush, orchestral music, but which simply does not have the staying power of Disney’s classic tunes. While the “April Showers” musical number is a tour-de-force of music and image mutually reinforcing each other, it simply isn’t as musically inspiring as songs like “Some Day My Prince Will Come” or “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I doubt any but the hardest of the hard-core Disney fans can even name a song from Bambi, even though there are several.

Bambi is the latest “Diamond Edition” from Disney, re-packaging a classic film from the Disney vault on a Blu-ray disc loaded with extras. As one might expect, the high-definition transfer and soundtrack of Bambi is absolutely best-in-class. The aforementioned multi-plane camera shot that opens the film has such a palpable sense of depth in this high-definition transfer that you really feel like you could put your hand right into the screen. I don’t own the earlier DVD release to compare and have no memories of what Bambi looked like in the theaters, but the transfer does not seem to have appreciably messed with the color palette or tones. Like Snow White and Pinocchio, Bambi‘s Blu-ray offers a “Disney View” feature that fills the sides of a high-definition TV with appropriate painted sidebars provided by Disney artist Lisa Keene. The original mono soundtrack has been remixed into a 7.1 DTS-HD audio track that sounds more impressive on paper than it is in reality.

Unlike the earlier two-disc Diamond Edition releases, Bambi comes on a single Blu-ray disc (and a standard-definition DVD as well). However, even without a dedicated bonus features disc, there is a tremendous amount of ancillary content available for Bambi. First and foremost is the feature-length “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings,” which dramatize the transcripts from actual story meetings with Walt Disney and the staff of the animation studios as they were hashing out the details of Bambi. The resulting track is probably as close as we’ll ever get to an real-live commentary track from Uncle Walt himself, and the track is supplemented by lots of period stills, videos, and behind-the-scenes artwork. Like many of the other Blu-ray commentary tracks, this feature also branches off periodically to either an animated short film or excerpt, or go into more depth on topics ranging from the multi-plane camera to more in-depth looks at individual artists. The only thing I’d ask for is an index to all those branch features — one was provided on the Snow White “Hyperion Studios” tour, but it was removed on all of the subsequent releases and I think that’s a mistake. Even more supplemental information is available via Disney’s “Second Screen” feature: an app that can be run on a Mac or PC via Flash or downloaded as a free (and extremely large) app for Apple’s iPad. After entering the Disney “Magic Code” that comes with the Blu-ray, either version will sync up with the Blu-ray player by detecting the audio track, providing more bonus content on the computer or iPad screen. This feature provides a prodigious amount of extra content, with more videos, photos, and artwork from the film taken from the Disney Animation Research Library. Viewers can pause this second stream of information to get a closer look to examine something at their leisure, and both versions allow for browsing independent of the film. This feature may sound gimmicky, but it’s probably one of the most amazingly well-done bonus features I’ve ever experienced, easily outweighing anything that would have come on a dedicated bonus disc. The computer and iPad interfaces are far easier to navigate than anything a DVD or Blu-ray player remote would be able to provide, and it is much easier to examine the minute details of the artwork on these screens than even on a high-quality HDTV monitor. You’re effectively getting a massive multi-media art book for free along with the movie. The iPad interface is just a touch better than the Flash-based web interface for a few reasons. It’s reasonably clear that the Flash interface was modeled on the iPad interface, meaning it can be a bit unwieldy to use occasionally, and the computer interface presumably does not download content to the host machine, meaning losing an Internet connection will break the feature. However, either one works beautifully, and the Disney team that crafted this feature is to be commended for it.

Kids, don't try this at homeThere are still a handful of other bonus features to be found. The Blu-ray reproduces several DVD features from the last home video release, presenting the “Making of Bambi” featurette along with two others and two deleted scenes from the film (“Winter Grass” and “Bambi’s First Snow”). The short film “The Old Mill” is also reproduced again here, although in standard-defintion rather than the HD version on the Snow White Diamond Edition. A “Big Book of Knowledge” featurette/game on the real animals depicted in Bambi is also reproduced for the Blu-ray. New Blu-ray exclusive features include two more deleted scenes, a deleted song “Twitterpated,” and a series of interactive galleries that would have been more impressive if not for the Second Screen features.

The most impressive thing to me about Bambi is how incredibly influential it was. While Snow White pioneered the animated feature film and Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo built on its success, Bambi is a real great leap forward for the Disney animation studio for its technical successes and its willingness to tackle more substantial cinematic challenges than its predecessors. It’s easy to use the movie as an advance highlight reel for almost every single Disney film that followed; in some cases, those successive films still don’t match up to Bambi‘s successes. All this just makes my lack of connection to Bambi as a movie all the more frustrating, but it just doesn’t seem to hold together as well to me as I think it ought to. Still, whatever I may think of the movie, the Diamond Edition is absolutely marvelous and a very worthy addition to any animation or Disney fan’s home video collection.

All images © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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