By Kim Hollis
May 27, 2003
A few weeks ago, I noticed a poll on an Internet message board for movie fans that asked people to name their favorite classic Disney film. Plenty of different titles came up – Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King…but oddly, none of the films that came before Walt Disney’s death in 1966 were even noted. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty…all of these timeless films should be considered landmarks and enormous influences in the world of animation, yet today they are overshadowed by the technological monoliths from Pixar along with other, newer movies that bear the Disney name, but lack the personal involvement of a man who forever changed the face of the genre.
It is for this reason that I go into the videotape vault for to take a look at a long-cherished movie that always makes my heart smile, 1942’s Bambi. Sadly, the film is unavailable on DVD at this time, so this will also be my impassioned plea for a Platinum Edition release.
Based on a wonderful novel by Felix Salten (which I read multiple times during my childhood), Bambi used the “Circle of Life” theme long before it was an inkling in the brain of the writers for The Lion King. The movie was a fairly serious departure from anything Disney and Co. had attempted before; their previous three full-length features had been pure fantasies, with Snow White and Pinocchio dwelling (primarily) in the human world, while Dumbo had animals as its lead characters but telling a very whimsical tale nonetheless.
In Bambi, the animal denizens of the forest are portrayed in an extremely realistic fashion – if one disregards the fact that they speak. Even with the dialogue, there is no fairy tale story here. Instead, the simple but elegant story highlights the life of a young deer – his birth, his youth, and even into his fatherhood – and is as breathtaking and emotionally affecting hour and ten minutes as you’re ever likely to spend.
Although by today’s CGI standards the animation in Bambi might be considered to be slightly crude, there’s no question that it was exceptional at the time of its release and remained the gold standard for decades. The animation process was actually quite painstaking. To begin with, to make the deer and other animals featured in the film look almost photorealistic, producers (aka Walt Disney) brought in actual fawns for the artists to observe. When it was determined that these babies probably didn’t act exactly like their forest-dwelling counterparts, they instead looked at nature documentaries to see their subjects in action.
Since the animals spoke, it was also necessary to give them personality in their facial features. Animator Marc Davis brought in a book with pictures of different human baby expressions and the artists adapted those to the faces of the fawns and baby rabbits. By using these varied techniques, the animators were able to create deer that looked very natural in their movements (as someone who used to live in the Midwest and saw deer on a regular basis, the realism is striking), yet were endearing and appealing because their lively facial features were so emotive.
Along with amazing animated creatures came carefully rendered backgrounds that have surely influenced some of the premier animators working today. The artists actually studied droplets of water to aid in the creation of a beautiful cinematic rainstorm. Another new technique utilized was the multiplane camera, which creates an illusion of depth by using various backgrounds all at different distances from the camera with eyeholes that can be focused on one specific piece of scenery while the others look “naturally” out of focus.
The visual spectacle meshes perfectly with a musical score that I know like the back of my hand. I suppose the score to Bambi was the real beginning of my interest in theatrical music of all kinds – I had a record album with the orchestral accompaniment at age five and I vividly remember listening to it frequently. Perhaps the music sounds a bit hokey by today’s standards but in context of release date and the pure sunny innocence of the tale, I can’t imagine how the soundtrack could have been done better.
Atypical for a Disney film, Bambi’s story is noteworthy for its sheer simplicity. A fawn is born and viewed by the entire forest as a young prince. He makes friends with some of the other residents, especially an outspoken young rabbit named Thumper and a nature-loving skunk that Bambi dubs Flower. Before long, the young deer learns of the danger of Man, and meets the stag who must certainly be his father. Seasons change and life is hard.
It is here where Disney goes ultra-realistic by killing one of the film’s main characters, Bambi’s mother. It is the first animated movie to cover subject matter so serious, and even though the scenes surrounding the shooting are treated with extreme delicacy, they are nonetheless heart rending in their sadness. (I admit it – it still makes me cry just a little).
It is at this crucial point that innocence is lost a bit, forcing Bambi to grow up. Winter turns to spring and Bambi and his friends suddenly find themselves “twitterpated,” that is, in love with some striking females of their species. Life goes on, and we see the effects of Man again as the forest is set aflame, forcing the animals to flee their idyllic thicket. By the movie’s end, the circle of life is completed, with two babies born to Bambi and Faline while Bambi and his father keep watch over the forest.
The plot isn’t complicated, nor does it need to be. The movie is a perfect examination of wide-eyed innocents and the pains they experience as they mature. Bambi is also remarkable for its early treatment of environmental issues. Man’s destruction of the woods is definitely cause for disdain here, and as such, the movie is surely a predecessor to such works as Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke.
Bambi opened the door for numerous movies that still use it as a blueprint even today. It showed that audiences are willing to watch serious fare and that animated movies could be enjoyed by viewers of all ages; in fact, it almost demands that families see it together for the serious discussion topics it affords. Here’s hoping that since Disney is releasing another of its old classics, Sleeping Beauty, in a Platinum Edition package later this year, a delightful classic like Bambi won’t be long in following.