Sunday, June 4, 2017

BAMBI: Signature Edition Blu-ray (Walt Disney, 1942) Disney Home Video

I have yet to forgive ‘Uncle Walt’ for the moment in his 1942 masterpiece, Bambi when a hunter’s bullet pierces the otherwise distilled softness of a winter’s snowfall, depriving this befuddled fawn of its mother. ‘Mother! Mother!’ The bone-chilling echoes of Bobby Stewart’s tortured calling out to no avail left me traumatized, muddled, anxious and tear-stained in the eighth row of my local theater, despite being seated right next to my own mother. I was all of seven then and the thought of not being able to be with my mother, or killing an animal – even for food – left me queasy for days thereafter. The scar from this truly unforgettable moment from childhood has arguably never left me. Indeed, the term ‘separation anxiety’ might very well have been coined by some well-intended shrink to describe this sequence. Bambi is a motion picture of such tenderly evolved and ever-so-fragile emotions it can only be described as exquisite. After the overwhelming success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Walt poured everything he had in resources, but more importantly, blood, sweat and tears – yes…definitely tears – into this sublime and stylized evocation of nature’s pastoral life cycle, periodically intruded upon by man’s callous disregard for the furry forest creatures, both great and small: guns blazing, forest fires raging. 
Bambi likely stirs two distinct emotional climaxes in the very young: the first, deviously charmed at its start and lulled by the richness of textures and subtlety of movement achieved by Walt’s ‘nine old men’ – then, in their prime, and with all pistons firing in unison – only to be electro-cattle prodded into the stark, cold reality that death – imminent and otherwise – is a very real part of life. It is cruel, perhaps even unkind, to think of Walt Disney, seated behind his desk, methodically plotting to shake these fragile precepts of childhood loose from their boughs of naiveté. But I will wager a guess no child seated in the darkened theater, and having survived this ingeniously executed off-camera assassination, has ever been the same again. As an adult, I still have to work myself up to experience Bambi again; knowing the moment of impact ahead, and preparing for its understated artistry that nevertheless packs an obscene wallop. Bambi is one of those superior examples of an entertainment made expressly for children that treats kids more like adults and with its heart firmly situated within the grownup realm. I do not think I have ever had a movie-going experience as profound in another Disney animated feature – or any other, come to think of it.
Depending on one’s point of view, the animators’ finite art has never been more fervently on display or, conversely more supremely conceived in glossy camouflage. Today’s film makers have lost all sense in this art of subtlety; replaced by crafty resolve to show more than is necessary, and, almost always to the detriment of generating any genuine feelings through their art. Arguably, we possess the tools today to make more progressive and accomplished art, yet more often than not, we drown out the emotional core of our narratives, blanketed by a barrage of attention-grabbing special effects. Because the sky is the limit in animation, the artists who craft it must share in a common and terribly awe-inspiring discipline; their chief objective, to draw us away from the obviousness of their craft. We know the pictorial representation set before us is unreal. But is it also untrue? In Bambi’s case, decidedly not. The monumental sense of loss played out in the aforementioned sequence has never been rivaled. Walt likely thought he understood its impact. But I do not think he really ‘got it’ – even in rough cut or pencil tests – not until those gorgeous and velvety soft impressionist backdrops were married to the seamless Technicolor artistry of his animators’ craft and, of course, Bobby Stewart’s evocative and unanswered cries in the night. ‘Mother! Mother!’ Okay, I’ll stop now…if only to reach for a Kleenex.    
Blessed with a palpable sense of grandeur in its heartrending coming of age story, Bambi is justly revered as the last truly great pre-war artistic achievement in the studio's animated canon. The film's poignancy proved too much for some critics and parents who thought the death of Bambi's mother a fundamental truth much too harsh for tots. Personally, I have the deepest admiration and respect for Walt, taking one of life’s most painful experiences and boldly charging in to address it with unvarnished class.  Amid dwindling box office and disappointing critical response to his back to back artistic highlights (though regrettably financial flops in their day) - Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) – and, bungled by an animator’s strike in 1941 that threatened to close the studio for good, Walt chose to gamble on this, arguably his most controversial classic. Behind closed doors, the kingdom he was attempting to fashion was precariously perched on a badly needed successor to Snow White. It was hoped Bambi would become the studio’s salvation. Alas and alack, t’was not to be.
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 homage. 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 destined to be his mate, 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 self-discoveries born from a child's fertile imagination, but that even adults can sincerely appreciate. 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); these are indelible moments, gradually to reshape Bambi's character and, in retrospect, building up to the aforementioned central moment of tragedy; the loss of innocence inculcated by 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 and contained in this sustained moment of deafening silence immediately followed by the sound of a single gunshot; the Disney artisans mirror loss with the first sobering flakes of autumn-retiring snow. Pictorially, it ranks among the most visceral and emotionally satisfying animated sequences ever put on film; the audience intuitively made to feel at their most vulnerable. As Bambi continues to grow into prominence he will learn other fundamental truths about life; but none more profound as this last surrender of innocence. The world Bambi inherits, though pastoral and serene, is bookended by very real dangers and exceedingly harsh realities; lessons regrettably at odds with the oft sugar-coated pill we willingly feed our offspring, presumably to ‘spare them’ the follies, foibles and cruelties of life itself, once they have stepped beyond the picket fenced-in safety of their own small world. My recollections of Bambi still stir a queer insecurity from within I cannot quite quantify. The animals, though exceptionally drawn, are not always cute or cuddly, and the action, particularly during the climactic burning of the great forest, is frankly disturbing. That realism jars, unexpectedly to create a conflict of interest with the more homogenized ‘Disney brand’ later to overtake Walt’s initial daring. The post-war Disney movies, at least from an emotional standpoint, while classics in their own right, never seek to continuously expand the boundaries of the art of animation.
Only as an adult have I come to truly appreciate and respect Bambi as genuine art – exceptionally wrought and frankly constructed with a very heartfelt respect for the audience – both young and old – enough to be honest with them at the expense of momentarily shocking their sense of goodness, sweetness and light. That isn’t life, folks. It’s a Disney cartoon – just not this one in particular! Indeed, the biggest criticism Bambi received upon its initial release was that its narrative adhered to an unrelenting frankness about the fallibility of life. Hence, despite its many virtues that time has proven enduring, endearing and memorable, Bambi proved to be another financial disappointment for Walt at a time when his company could scarcely afford to sacrifice profits for prestige. With Bambi’s relatively poor reception at the box office, Walt learned a valuable lesson. Death, however tenderly wrought 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 grown with audiences and critics alike; from those who, like myself, saw it through the undiluted clarity of a child’s whimsy, were startled by its narrative honesty, 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 trademarked sentimentality and devotion to sumptuous visuals with a superior storytelling craftsmanship; the adult themes genuinely affecting and timeless. The breathtaking realism achieved by Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson and Ollie Johnston is a marriage between the real and recreated realms that Disney's alumni never again achieved with such perceptiveness.
To be certain, all the characters have their own cadence and weight. More important however, they possess an individualist’s merit. On this rare occasion the forest landscape in not populated by homogenized fuzzy and fanciful creatures, left cuddly and cute, but rather an array of intelligent and very true-to-life representations of the human spirit reconstituted in animal form. Friend Owl speaks with the kindly sage wisdom of an avuncular uncle; Thumper, as the charismatic true-of-heart best friend; Flower, the bashful and charming wallflower. And Bambi, in his many incarnations from adolescence to adulthood, gains stature as the valiant successor to his father’s legacy. The Disney artisans have not only managed to capture the uncanny likeness of these creatures in relief and movement by studying their behaviors in art school, but have defined them in human terms that speak to our fundamental appreciation for nature at more than just a glance. Left undisturbed, these regal beasts are to be admired for the natural order of their ever-changing world. It is only when man intrudes upon their solitude this balance is offset by strife, danger, and, during the penultimate forest fire, a calamitous ruin. But the artistry on display has merged even our own frailties and failings, reinvented in animal form. As such, this pastoral retreat evolves into one of our own self-discovery sojourns into life’s truths; the net result, a rare window into the natural world where few movies – even documentarian-styled ‘nature’ shows – before or since, have even dared to trespass.
I am getting rather bored with these Walt Disney Signature Blu-rays; not merely for their same old regurgitation of transfers first remastered in 2007 and featured in their 2-disc Platinum and/or Diamond Edition hi-def offerings, but moreover, because in tandem these ‘new’ to Blu offerings have gradually trimmed and/or pared down extra features that were a part of their aforementioned predecessors. So, these Signature Blu-rays are NOT the definitive editions of these time-honored classics, but a strange amalgam of stuff made better on display elsewhere and ‘new to Blu’ junkets fashioned with little inspiration befitting the movies they are attempting to champion.
Disney’s marketing has, for some time, been a head scratcher for yours truly; the company’s all but abandonment of their live-action catalog in hi-def (we still have no sign of such immortal Disney fare as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the original The Parent Trap, The Happiest Millionaire, Third Man on the Mountain, The Moon Spinners, That Darn Cat, Three Lives of Thomasina, etc. et al.) disgustingly subpar for a studio legacy with sooooo much to offer. I will not even get into my discontent over the lack of plans to ever release Song of the South to Blu-ray. Racist, my foot! If Disney Inc. is so concerned about its Teflon-coated reputation as a ‘family-oriented’ brand, then it ought to at least farm out titles it deems ‘unworthy’ to be included under their own banner to third-party distributors like Criterion who would relish the opportunity to reap the benefits of such a much sought after deep catalog release! Worse, the trickle of live-action Blu-rays that has come out, via either their ‘legitimate’ main stream home video apparatus or the company’s mis-firing ‘exclusive club’ archive editions, have virtually cut out all of the extra features that were readily available on their DVD counterparts. Dumb! Idiotic. Hopeless, and decidedly, not what Walt would have preferred had he lived to see the day. In the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the current regime at Disney Inc. did not even possess enough respect for the audience to offer us both the theatrical and ‘restored’ road show editions – again, made available only on inferior SD.
This reissue of Bambi, like its predecessor, is a marvel to behold. There has been a lot of grumbling about the company’s current acumen to virtually eradicate film grain from all hi-def presentations of all their animated classics. However, it ought to be pointed out that unlike other studios, in the past, applying DNR so heavy-handed as to not only obscure grain but equally as much fine details, resulting in thoroughly waxy and unflattering image quality, Disney has – at least on this occasion – gone the route of carefully tweaking the image to homogenize film grain while retaining virtually all of the subtle fine-lined artistry captured in the original drawings. Please, no write-in’s about their deplorably bad Sword and the Stone Blu-ray release. Yes, it’s terrible. Moving on.  Bambi's artwork comes to life as never before. Disney's revolutionary multi-plane camera effects add a genuine sense of a third dimension, perfectly recaptured 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.
Extras new to this release are very brief and, frankly, unremarkable. At barely 5 min. there’s Studio Stories: Bambi – a showcase of archival sound bites and footage illustrating how the animators achieved their more realistic animal characters. Deleted Scenes is always a ‘deceptive’ category for Disney. As no completed ‘outtakes’ exist, what we have here, and at barely 8 min. is a series of stills for two planned sequences never filmed – one, actually featured on the previous Platinum Edition Blu under another name. Disney Inc. has finally come around to trickling out some of their uber-vintage shorts: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ‘Africa Before Dark’ in B&W and unremarkable, except to hint at the glories that were to follow it several decades later. In only 3 minutes, The Bambi Effect attempts to contextualize the contribution of its pioneer female animators within the department Walt actually created expressly to achieve visual SFX for Bambi. There’s also ‘The Golden Age’ – at barely 6 min. and misfiled under the ‘classic’ bonus features’ it provides the briefest of retrospectives about Disney’s ‘in-house’ style before and after Bambi. Finally, and rather predictably, there is Bambi Fawn Facts, with trivia about real, as opposed to ‘reel’ animals.
Expunging the Interactive Galleries, Disney Second Screen, and, Disney's Big Book of Knowledge from this Blu-ray reissue, we also get vintage extras like The Making of Bambi (just under an hour, but not even remastered in 1080p, but crudely rendered in 480i) along with more ‘deleted’ scenes and a song – ‘Twitterpated’, an excerpt from ‘Tricks of the Trade’, Inside the Disney Archives, The Old Mill animated short and an original theatrical trailer.  If Disney Inc. really wanted to win my respect and hard-earned dollars yet again, they might have taken the time to remaster these vintage extras in hi-def. In some cases, the elements may not lend themselves to a complete restoration or bump to 1080p. I believe ‘the making of’ documentaries were all shot digitally. But right now, I would settle for basic image stabilization over the ugly digitized look plaguing this extremely comprehensive and finely thought out documentary. Bottom line: if you do not already own Bambi on Blu-ray you should. Otherwise, pass – and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
5

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