Presenting an in-depth look at the current state of Animation
First let me say that I have never seen Bambi theatrically; I only saw it once before in the second VHS video reissue from Disney. That was about a year-and-a-half ago, and I only remember now that the visual quality of that video was a little on the dark side, and that the soundtrack was somewhat muddy.
I was unprepared, then, for the brilliant hues that can now be seen in this new restoration. The good folks at the House of Mouse have done themselves proud, for Bambi now looks and sounds incredible. I speak without a hint of hyperbole; the visual quality here is pristine. I kept re-playing certain chapters and even freeze-framing at various points in the action, but was hard-pressed to detect any artifacts. Other viewers may eventually prove me wrong, but I can only report on what I saw. If you watch the original 1942 trailer- that is included on Disc 2- first before viewing the movie on Disc 1, the beauty of the restoration is even more apparent.
After viewing the film , I decided to explore the extra features. I spent some time looking for the "Easter Eggs" that are almost always hidden in the menu graphics on most Disney DVD's. I did not find any, which does not necessarily mean that they're not there... I might not have looked hard enough.
In any case, the extra features on both discs are a mixed bag: documentaries for the grown-ups in the audience, interactive games for the kiddies. One of the kid-friendly features is a "virtual forest" depicting the changes of seasons in a forest glade. I watched it for about 5 minutes, decided that it might make an interesting screen-saver on my laptop if I could figure out how to save the image to the hard-drive, and then moved on.
On Disc 1, after selecting the restored mono soundtrack audio option, I looked to see if there was any audio commentary by Leonard Maltin, Rudy Behmer, or some other film historian, but found none. I then watched the movie proper and reveled in the striking, impressionistic background work and Ravel/Stravinsky-inspired music score.
The original mono music and dialog tracks were painstakingly refurbished at the Sony Music Studios by Andrea K. Myer, who in the past worked on several CD re-issues of classical music recordings on the old Columbia Masterworks label. The result is that the music (especially the choral sections) has an immediacy and presence that were missing in previous incarnations. Indeed, I could understand the text of the choral writing for the first time- the voices were that crisp and clear.
The music score was written jointly by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb. Churchill had collaborated with Leigh Harlene on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, as well as several of the entries in Disney's Silly Symphony series.
Churchill actually died (a chronic alcoholic, he committed suicide) while Bambi was still in production, and most of his musical contributions to the score had to be completed posthumously by Plumb and Harlene. Plumb was the Musical Director for this production as well as for Fantasia, which was being filmed simultaneously. For the latter, Plumb acted as a sort of intermediary between the Disney studio and Leopold Stokowski (who recorded every musical selection, save The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Plumb also worked for a number of years at MGM, presumably as Scott Bradley's arranger. Harlene eventually left the Disney studio and made a name for himself, scoring live-action films at other Hollywood studios.
Music plays an all-important role in Bambi, perhaps more so than in any other Disney feature film before or since. In many parts of the film, dialogue is kept at an absolute minimum with the music telling the story. Just as in Wagnerian music dramas, there are certain "leitmotives" that are especially telling. Man, for example, is never once seen onscreen; we only sense his presence through the use of a simple 3-note motive in the score (as in the scene where Bambi and his mother are grazing the new spring grass in the meadow.) Sound effects here, too, are sparse. With the exception of the hunters' gunshot blasts and the barking of the hunting dogs, most of the sound effects are achieved musically. A striking example is the thunderstorm in which lightning bolts and thunderclaps are suggested by cymbal crashes from the studio orchestra. This was the modus operandi in Fantasia, which, again, was also in production at the Disney studio. Disney had undoubtedly been influenced by the segment in that film which featured Beethoven's (6th) "Pastoral" Symphony.
Oddly enough, despite the overall excellence of the film's underscoring, the only distinctive song in Bambi is "Little April Shower." The others are less memorable compared to those in Snow White and Pinocchio. Then again, I have only seen this film twice; perhaps my opinion of the songs might change after repeated viewings.
Bambi is perhaps the most understated and atmospheric of all of Disney's animated features. Visually, it is markedly different than anything he and his team of animators and artists had attempted before. Many hours were spent in preparation before production began: art instruction in the studio and in the field with live subjects, anatomy classes, and the like. hundreds of feet of film footage shot in the woods of Maine were studied and analyzed in order to get an idea how to render nature. In the end, the Disney artists opted for a stylized, impressionistic version of nature- including scenery and the animal inhabitants of the forest that are depicted on the screen. Animator Marc Davis is credited for the look of many of the characters (main and incidental) in Bambi. Rather than trying to draw an authentic deer, rabbit and skunk, Davis ultimately modeled Bambi, Thumper, and Flower after infants and children whose faces he had sketched in the studio. This was in keeping with the element of fantasy (or, the "plausible impossible", as Disney himself used to put it) inherent in this film. We know, rationally speaking, that animals can't speak or show emotion; and yet we find this behavior entirely believable and acceptable in Bambi. A perfect balance between reality and fantasy had been achieved in this film.
In addition, the main and incidental characters in Bambi (especially "Flower") manage to be cute and adorable without being nauseatingly cloying--as in the "Pastoral Symphony" segment of Fantasia. Thumper is definitely a breakout character. It is a pity that the Disney studio didn't feature him in any cartoon shorts, as they had done with Figaro, the cat from Pinocchio. The only possible explanation might be that child-actor Peter Behn's voice was so closely identified with (and had provided the inspiration for) the character, and that it had changed during the six years of production. He was, however, able to mimic the exact timbre of voice from the earlier recording sessions- and thus had spared the studio the time and effort involved in finding another child actor for the part and re-recording the original vocal tracks.
Getting back to the DVD, the film itself was a joy to see and hear. Despite the absence of any audio commentary on the film itself, the producers of this DVD set have come up with a fascinating alternative. Digging into the Disney Studio Archives, the producers have recovered hundreds of pages of transcripts of story sessions for Bambi with Disney and his associates. These are heard in aural re-enactments by professional actors who portray Walt himself, Animator Frank Thomas, and others from the studio. These are heard as the film is played in real time; and "pop-up" video excerpts appear onscreen alongside of or inserted into the film visuals. As the film unfolds, then, rather than hearing the conventional commentary included in other DVD film presentaions, the viewer finds him or herself treated to a scene-by-scene discussion of the film by the original creators. As novel as this approach is, it is hardly original. Warner Bros. Home Video had already introduced something along the same lines when they included "schematics" for a few of the cartoons featured in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vols. 1 and 2. WHV's approach involved inserting original character and layout sketches, in their proper scenic order, into the cartoon as it ran in real time. Disney Home Video takes this approach a step further by using footage from previous (to date) Disney cartoons and feature films to illustrate technical and narrative points made by the production team members. The effect is very convincing. After a few minutes, one tends to forget that one is listening to trained actors--so natural and idiomatic is the dialogue--and that it is the voices of Disney, et al, that are being heard. Modern-day voices are used as well in the "Deleted Scenes" segment, which presents two unused sequences for Bambi that apparently never made it past the storyboard stage. The producers have attempted to reconstruct these sequences by adding dialogue from the storyboards themselves and utilizing music cues from other parts of the film. I was disappointed upon seeing these reconstructions, because I was expecting actual pencil-test footage married to original voice and music tracks--along the lines of the deleted "soup sequence" from Snow White. These archival materials are valuable historical documents, nonetheless, and in the words of bambi are "better than nothing."
Other features on Disc 2 include a multi-part look "backstage" at the Disney Studios. Archival material includes a 7-minute excerpt of an episode from the old "Disneyland/Wonderful World of Disney" TV series, entitled, "Tricks of the Trade" The excerpt provides viewers with a demonstration of how the multiplane camera (which was used to full advantage for the first time in Bambi) conveys the illusion of depth in animation. The entire episode from which this excerpt is taken, incidentally, is contained in a 2-DVD set in the "From the Vaults" series: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio.
There is a 53 minute (cumulative) documentary on the making of Bambi that is divided into segments on Character Design, Music, etc., all of which may be viewed separately or collectively. For good measure the producers have made an apt decision to also include a vintage "Silly Symphony" from 1937--one that served as a sort of testing ground for the technical and artistic innovations that would come to fruition in Fantasia and Bambi--the Academy Award-winning cartoon short, entitled, The Old Mill. I personally was very pleased to see that this particular short had been included. I missed my chance to obtain it when the 2-DVD set of all the "Silly Symphonies" was first released. To my knowledge, it has gone out of print, and any existing new or used copies of the set that are still available through Amazon and e-Bay cost an astronomical sum. I would have purchased the set just to get my hands on that one short--which I feel is the best of the 37 cartoons released in the "Silly Symphonies" series between 1934 and 1937 (The Three Little Pigs notwithstanding.) Unfortunately the visual quality of The Old Mill is not quite as clean as in the feature film that it accpompanies. Some artifacts such as dust specks are visible, but for only a few seconds here and there... there are no noticable scratches and the slight visual imperfections do not detract from one's enjoyment of this wonderful short.
In addition to the original theatrical trailer for Bambi (which was promoted by distributor RKO as a love story), viewers can get a sneak peek at the upcoming sequel, Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest. The preview is hosted by Patrick Stewart, who provides the voice of Bambi's father in the sequel. The narrative of the sequel takes as it's point of departure the episode in the original film in which Bambi's mother is killed. The sequel examines the impact this has on the young buck, as well as the relationship he has now with his father. The incidental characters are back for another go around, the artists successfully replicate the visual atmosphere of the original, and there is a more light-hearted tone that seems to dominate the proceedings. I was disappointed by the music score, however, from the brief snippets that I heard; because it is apparently all synthesized rather than played by a studio orchestra.
I'm not certain that I will want to go out and purchase the sequel when it comes out on DVD. That's right, it will only be available on home video; it will not be released theatrically. More importantly, there seems to be no immediate plan to release this beautifully-restored edition of the original Bambi to movie theatres (not even to art museums or art-movie houses), and that, dear friends, is truely a pity. A film this gorgeous needs to be seen on the big screen in it's correct aspect ratio. At least Snow White and Fantasia received that modicum of consideration when they were restored in the early 1990's. Other cinematic treasures like the restored versions of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain, Night of the Hunter, and Orson Welles' director's cut of Touch of Evil were given the big screen treatment; so why not a film that many consider to be the pinnacle of the art of Hollywood animation, or indeed, of animation, period? Perhaps the bean counters at Disney figure they can make more money from the sales of DVD's than from theatrical box office receipts. Nevertheless, animation buffs can breath a collective sigh of relief and take comfort in the fact that this particular jewel in the Disney crown has been admirably preserved for future generations. It is claimed that over 9,000 hours were spent carefully cleaning and restoring the fragile nitrate negative elements to this masterpiece.
It's a shame that the same care and attention to detail has yet to be lavished on the classic animation from the Warner Bros. and MGM animation studios.
A Review by zavkram
First Published on March 7, 2005