Blessed with a palpable sense of grandeur in its heartrending coming of age story, Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942) is justly revered as the last truly great pre-war artistic achievement in the studio's animated canon. That the film's poignancy proved perhaps too much for some critics and parents, who thought the death of Bambi's mother a fundamental truth too terrorizing for tots. Amid dwindling box office and disappointing critical response to Disney’s back to back artistic highlights, though financial flops - Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) – and an animator’s strike in 1941 that threatened to close the studio for good, Disney chose to gamble on this, arguably his most controversial classic. Behind closed doors, Walt's kingdom was precariously perched on a very badly needed successor to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was hoped Bambi would be the studio’s salvation.
Based on the novel by Felix Salten, Bambi is perhaps Disney’s most ‘adult’ animated feature. We first meet Bambi (transitionally vocalized from childhood onward by Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright and John Sutherland) in the secluded grotto of his mother (Paula Winslow). News of the young prince’s birth spreads throughout the forest and soon all the animals turn out to pay their respects. These include the gregarious young rabbit, Thumper (Peter Behn), shy skunk, Flower (Stan Alexander) and wise Friend Owl (Will Wright). When Bambi is old enough to walk he is also introduced to the playful fawn, Faline (Cammie King) – a cute meet that ends embarrassingly when Faline’s devil-may-care pursuit of the shy Bambi thrusts him head first into a babbling brook.
The first half of the screenplay by Larry Morey and Perce Pearce is an idyllic snapshot of childhood innocence – fragile yet articulate and introspective; a vibrant almost dream-like landscape of discovery born from a child's fertile imagination. Bambi's optimism is mildly unsettled by the onset of these first flashes of self-awareness. His first winter, burgeoning friendships with the other animals and meeting his father for the first time, the Great Prince of the Forest (Fred Shields), are indelible moments that gradually reshape Bambi's character and build to the central moment of tragedy; the loss of childhood in the death of Bambi’s mother.
In a sequence that never fails to draw out a few well-placed bittersweet tears, the wounded sadness tenderly conveyed within this heart-breaking sequence is exquisitely depicted by a sustained moment of deafening silence immediately following the sound of a single gunshot; the Disney artisans mirroring this loss of life in a lyrical yet sobering backdrop of new fallen snow. Pictorially, this moment ranks among the most emotionally satisfying ever conceived either in animation or live action; the audience intuitively made to feel Bambi’s loss at a most vulnerable, visceral level. As Bambi grows into prominence he learns to accept life as a practicality, his innocence splintered with the passage of time. The world that Bambi inherits, though pastoral and serene at times, is framed by very real dangers and exceedingly harsh realities; a harsh lesson perhaps regrettably at odds with the tiny tot sect that was and remains Disney's target audience for the film.
Seeing Bambi for the first time at the age of seven, I recall being rather shell-shocked by the experience. It stirred a strange insecurity from within that I couldn't quite comprehend or even articulate. The animals, though exceptionally drawn, were not always cute and cuddly and the action, particularly during the climactic burning of the great forest was disturbing. That realism was quite jarring at the age of seven – perhaps because it was largely unexpected and conflicting with my limited understanding of the Disney brand. It is only as an adult that I have come to appreciate and respect Bambi as art – exceptionally wrought and frankly constructed to evoke life’s unvarnished truths, but in a very heartfelt way that respects the audience – both young and old – enough to be honest about the fundamentals of life and death.
Indeed, the biggest criticism Bambi received upon its initial release from the critics was that the narrative adhered to an unrelenting frankness and realism about the fallibility of life. Hence, despite its many virtues that time has proven enduring, endearing and frankly, memorable, Bambi proved to be another financial disappointment for Walt at a time when his company could not afford to have a flop. With Bambi’s relatively poor reception at the box office, Walt learned a valuable lesson. Death, however tenderly portrayed on the screen, was a commodity best left to the cinematic storytelling of Hitchcock.
Yet, in the intervening decades the stature of Bambi has only continued to grow with audiences and critics alike; from those who, like myself, saw it through the undiluted rubric of a child’s whimsy, were startled by its narrative precepts, but ultimately enriched enough to recommend the film to our own children, nieces and nephews. This is as it should be. David Hand’s direction balances the studio’s trademark sentimentality and sumptuous visuals with superior craftmanship; the film’s adult themes genuinely affecting. The breathtaking realism achieved by Frank Thomas, Milt Hahl, Eric Larson and Ollie Johnston is a marriage bridging the chasm between the real and created realms that arguably Disney's alumni never again achieved on celluloid.
To be certain, the characters have their own cadence and weight. More important however, they have individual merit. On this rare occasion the forest landscape in not populated by fuzzy animals but an array of intelligent and very true-to-life representations of the human spirit that capture and depict our frailties and failings in animal form. As such the narrative extols moments of discovery and truth; the characters truer still; the net result being a rare window into the natural world where few films before or since have even dared to trespass.
Disney’s Blu-ray is a marvel to behold; decidedly improving on their previously issued Platinum Edition 2-disc DVD. For the first time in over 50 years, Bambi's artwork comes to life as never before. Disney's revolutionary multi-plane camera effects add a genuine sense of a third dimension in 1080p. Colors are rich, deeply saturated and vibrant throughout. Age related artifacts are gone. Edge enhancement present on the DVD is completely absent on the Blu-ray. This is a superior visual presentation. Likewise, the audio has been impeccably remastered in new and vibrant 7.1 DTS.
New extras include 'Inside Walt's Story Meetings'; a picture-in-picture feature that plays in tandem with the feature and packs a wealth of information into your viewing experience. The other new to home video feature is 'Disney Second Screen' - a feature that syncs your iPad or computer with the movie and provides access to a ton of storyboards, art, photographs, puzzles, games, trivia and other interactive materials. All the extra features on the Platinum DVD have been imported herein, including the comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)