Disney’s forest-set tale of nature versus man dazzlingly comes to Blu-ray
Bambi has endured. The fifth feature film produced by Walt Disney remains among his most iconic. It’s a rather uncompromising endeavor even today. Unlike many of Disney’s films, Bambi isn’t a musical and it has no song performances. Also, there are no human characters and man as a whole instead serves as the unseen villain of the piece. Dialogue is minimal. The story is simple but perhaps deceptive in its simplicity. Dark elements do emerge, with a famous death serving as perhaps the most traumatizing moment in any Disney film. There’s no obvious reaching to follow a formula or tighten up the narrative. What’s here unfolds loosely, as if the folks at Disney’s studio hadn’t yet required their pictures to have strict stories that can be traced lazily along a specific through line.
The visuals in Bambi have perhaps never been bettered. This and Pinocchio are the summit of Disney animation in terms of richness and care in detail. The opening pan across the forest, created using a multi-plane set-up where different layers allow for a brilliant depth, immediately establishes that the film will be a highly visual experience. The storytelling that follows is a continuation of this promise. I don’t know of another Disney film that features less characters of significance than Bambi. It seems more interested in conveying ideas about nature, which in turn creates less need for the plot and dialogue elements we usually see elsewhere. Metaphorical notions arise without hesitation. The inevitable rebirth available in nature plays a crucial role in the film. It’s not an accident that both the opening and beginning focus on a mother deer giving birth. The cycle of life is portrayed so effectively as to almost be subtle and easily overlooked, until you consider how much emphasis is put on the season of Spring and all of the renewal that occurs during that time.
Decades later, the Disney studio returned to these themes again in a very similar and wildly successful feature film. The Lion King, though, was utterly conventional by comparison and, despite being a good movie in its own right, again reaffirmed the accomplishment of Bambi by trotting out most every trick and cliche available. Its predecessor proved that essence could be more important than obviousness. Bambi captured the mysticism of nature while The Lion King seemed interested in high drama and tension. The differences between these two films, particularly their quite different goals, are perhaps as persuasive a comparison as any that even the so-called Disney renaissance of the 1990s pales qualitatively to the classic era. From the sumptuous animation to the boldness in denying the audience some of the creature comforts modern animation extends like candy to crying babies, the features supervised by Walt Disney remain far superior to what his studio would later release.
Bambi also utilizes a nearly perfect economy of storytelling. At just 70 minutes, it feels brisk but never incomplete in any way. The lack of musical numbers also streamlines things a bit. Orchestral music is used to strong effect but the inclusion of lyrical songs would have felt out of place in what is a rather sober story. There are certainly comic moments, and the presence of sidekicks Thumper and Flower create the necessary levity we expect even now from cartoons, but this is not really a movie where laughter is the dominant emotion. Building on that famous death scene, there are constant reminders of the dangers that can await us in everyday life. This is obviously a Disney movie at times, with cute animal characters ripe for being turned into stuffed toys and sitting on your child’s bed, but the prevailing mood seems to be dense with caution.
It’s interesting to consider when Bambi was made and released. It’s a 1942 film, with production having taken about 3 years. During this time, of course, the world was in the midst of a major war, one which the United States entered in December 1941. American involvement loomed as inevitable for months prior, though. As such, it’s logical to wonder whether the acceptance of the world as a potentially harsh place that serves as a theme in the film was a byproduct of the mood of the time. There’s a bravery on Disney’s part in using a cartoon feature to show that bad things do happen, that they are inevitable, but that ultimately life persists. Nature goes on despite being harsh and imperfect. Modern takes often seem too unwilling to show this sort of senseless danger despite the reality that it exists. At one point in the film Bambi wearily says to his mother that winter is long and she reassures him that it won’t last forever. These things tie into each other to form an overall portrait of struggle and difficulty but not one without hope. Spring is again shown to renew and winter indeed always ends.
Disney does its usual service to its own legacy by classifying Bambi on Blu-ray as a Diamond Edition entry. The region-free release also contains a DVD in the package, with less bonus material than what’s found on the BD. A welcome addition inside the case is a Blu-ray Guide that shows an itemized overview of the extras on both dual-layered discs. Usually Disney neglects to include this information anywhere, causing us to discover what awaits as we go through the release.
Bambi belongs in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is presented here correctly. A DisneyView option allows for the sides of the 1.78:1 frame on the Blu-ray to be filled in with appropriate paintings rather than total blackness. It seems that with every new edition of every classic Disney animated feature a new restoration occurs and the film then looks better than we’d ever before imagined. That’s exactly the case here, as Bambi takes on the wonders of its format and combines those with the richness of its original animation. And is that a little bit of grain? I believe it is. This is superbly done, with depth unlike anything DVD is capable of showing. The hand-drawn aspect of Bambi gives it more warmth and dignity in high definition. Colors are vivid but never too bright or overly sunny. Scenes like the fight Bambi has with the other male deer or when the snow is falling on Bambi as he meets with his father look extremely impressive. Nothing holds the transfer back. Do not hesitate to see what a 1942 cartoon can look like on Blu-ray. (Screen captures used in this review are taken from the included DVD, which should please those who haven’t made the leap into the next format yet or have children who like to play their favorite movies over and over again.)
Audio has two English language options that might seem to be more different than they probably are. A 7.1 DTS-HD High Resolution Audio (non-lossless) won’t tax your surround speakers terribly but does provide a quite enveloping mix. With its forest setting Bambi relies a lot on the sounds of nature, as well as an active musical soundtrack. This doesn’t make for an overpowering listen. It does, however, come across as reasonably faithful to the spirit of the original audio and still manages to encase the listener in the atmosphere of the movie. If you’re more of a purist, Disney has also provided a Restored Original Theatrical Soundtrack that is two-channel mono. What you miss in rear channels you make up for in scruples. It’s not as though a cacophony of caterwauling is at stake here. French and Spanish dubs are available in 5.1 on both Blu-ray and DVD. An English DD 5.1 track can also be accessed on the DVD. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. They are white in color on the Blu-ray, which also contains an English ESL option.
A fascinating, if kind of strange, supplement is the”Inside Walt’s Story Meetings” Enhanced Edition option of watching the movie while hearing recreations of the story meetings that took place between Walt Disney and key members of his creative team. It’s similar to a commentary track (though lacking in scholarly insight) but also includes visuals to complement what’s being said. Part of this is just pictures of the people whose words are being spoken but there are also clips of storyboards and sketches. Additionally, there are several occasions when you’re given the option of seeing related video pieces at the press of a button. Some clips are available to watch from the disc menu but others, such as a pair of classic cartoon short subjects (“On Ice” and “Canine Caddy”), do not seem to be anywhere else. If you do choose to try any of these little interludes you won’t lose your place in the film, as it picks right back up after each clip ends.
More traditional extra features include a short intro (1:06) by Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt. A pair of sketched but not fully animated deleted scenes are billed as having never before been seen. These are called Two Leaves (3:07) and Bambi Stuck on a Reed (1:56), and both begin with introductions about why they weren’t used. There’s also a deleted song called “Twitterpated” (1:53) that consists only of the song’s audio against a static screen. The “recommended feature” is a game called Disney’s Big Book of Knowledge, which is divided into three seasons. Interactive image galleries provide a wealth of art to experience, and shouldn’t go overlooked.
Some of the supplements found on the previous standard definition edition have been carried over and listed as Classic DVD Bonus Features. These include the lengthy featurette “The Making of Bambi: A Prince Is Born” (53:06), divided into a quintet of sections. Also included is a “Tricks of the Trade” (7:18) excerpt from the Disneyland television series that details the use of the multi-plane camera. “Inside the Disney Archives” (8:39) has a modern animator explore the vault for Bambi-related art. Two more short Deleted Scenes, Winter Grass (0:36) and Bambi’s First Snow (2:32), are also carried over from the DVD.
A classic 1937 Silly Symphony called “The Old Mill” (8:58) is here to illustrate earlier use of the multi-plane effect. The original trailer (2:12) for Bambi finishes things up neatly.
The included DVD, however, doesn’t contain all of these extras and instead only has Diane Disney Miller’s introduction (1:12), the enhanced viewing option showing Inside Walt’s Story Meetings which expands the film to nearly 96 minutes because of adding content, and a DisneyPedia feature on Bambi’s Forest Friends (4:07) that shows footage of real rabbits and deer. It’s interlaced and not found on the Blu-ray. Plus the all-important Sneak Peeks.
A new, and potentially useless to most people I’d imagine, innovation called Disney Second Screen debuts here. This is something where you watch the film on one monitor such as a television and then see additional content on another screen like a tablet or a laptop.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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