Reexamining a childhood favorite like Walt Disney's seminal Bambi is always a difficult task. How does one balance obvious feelings of nostalgia and a freshly minted critical eye without plummeting into either side of the abyss? The answer remains murky, and I'd wager it's a conflict even the most experienced writers grapple with from review to review. In truth, film critics walk this tricky tightrope throughout their careers, and all we can do is honestly assess a particular film at this point in time, at this point in our lives.
I approach Bambi, a film my mother reminds me I vigorously watched repeatedly as a child, with this ideological context in mind. Admittedly, seeing the film through the eyes of an adult reveals a thin thematic focus in comparison to something like Dumbo, yet its luminary treatment of generational evolution is still admirable.
What's most striking about Bambi this time around are the individual images on display. Visually, the story of a fawn experiencing the natural ebbs and flows of forest life is a stunning example of Disney's obsession with dynamic mise-en-scène. The opening, in which a seemingly endless tree line casts dark shadows across the forest floor, is a painterly masterpiece, a picture of life quietly awaking before our very eyes. Slowly, each section of the forest comes to life, full of anticipation toward the news that a new "prince" has been born. Young Bambi's introduction is carefully modulated around wonderment and silence, with each critter watching carefully as the young fawn attempts to walk, talk, and smile. From here, much of Bambi deals with his assimilation into the flow of forest life, a process that takes on a constant musical rhythm.
As Bambi meets Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk, the generational process of this ecosystem begins to expand, and we see each animal slowly learn about the deeply entrenched codes and layers of their surroundings. There are melodies everywhere, like when a lightning storm mirrors the beat of drums or a herd of deer hop along seemingly propelled by calm woodwinds. The experiences of life are constantly in motion and Bambi's nuanced moments of growth replace the need for dialogue or traditional plot points.
If the bustling forest equates to a natural symphony of sound and fury, then Bambi's first foray into an open meadow is the film's musical crescendo, where all corners of life come together and coexist in a seamless way. The invasion of man during this moment (never seen or heard except for the piercing gunfire that rips through the space) is especially telling, a terrorizing destruction of mental space that formulates the film's one moral prerogative. The beautiful harmony these animals create is suddenly destroyed, a motif that grows more costly as the film taints Bambi's childhood innocence with the now infamous moment his mother is gunned down off screen.
By now, Bambi has become entirely about first-time experiences, the loose narrative breaking down into three periods of Bambi's development: childhood, puberty, and adulthood. That the film spends most of its time on the first section makes perfect sense, since this is first and foremost a children's film. Once Bambi transitions into adulthood, though, the tone completely changes, the imagery growing darker and more menacing while the subtle movements of the young animals turn more panicked, as if each prance is a desperate lunge for survival. The classic forest-fire sequence (a brilliant burst of oranges that looks something out of Van Gogh's nightmares) makes Bambi and his flock shed their childhood identities and finalize a massive call of the wild.
Bambi's level of detail, whether it's the precise movement of the animals or the patterns on their fur, is still impressive nearly 70 years after the film's release. But the film's ability to transcend simple answers makes it increasingly relevant in our modernday atmosphere of low-concept irony-driven animation. While not nearly as emotionally impacting as some of Disney's other classics, Bambi might be the most restrained and lyrical of the bunch, a poem to the simplicity and purity of natural life. While there's not much subtext or commentary to grab onto, that's not really the film's intention. Bambi isn't so much concerned with the weight of individual death, love, or friendship, but how all three plays into the preservation of the lasting collective. In the end, Bambi champions the organic way life develops over the course of time: through subtle melodic movements of daily rituals. Whether you're a child or an adult, this idea can still hold plenty of majesty.
IMAGE / SOUND:
The crisp and detailed 1080p high-definition transfer is probably the best way we can view Bambi. Vibrant colors and textures magnify the deep scope of the frame, and each animal takes on added depth because the daytime imagery is so wonderfully balanced. The darker sequences are muddied with tints of gray, but overall these moments are nicely rendered. The meadow sequence and the forest-fire finale are especially haunting, with oranges and greens popping like they never have before in previous DVD transfers of the film. The sound design is solid, with perfectly synched music cues paralleling the animal's swift movement. There isn't much dialogue in Bambi, but when the characters do speak their voices are crystal clear, echoing throughout the endless forest landscape.
Admittedly, the supplemental materials on this disc aren't aimed at my particular demographic. Children will like some of the interactive extras, especially the Disney Big Book of Knowledge Game that allows the viewer to get a tour of the forest from the owl in the film, collect stickers, and learn facts about animal life. The two deleted scenes are really just stills from frames that were recently found in the Disney archives. The incredibly strange "Inside Walt's Story Meetings" function recreates what Disney and his fellow animators might have said about the film's structure and style, all while the film itself is playing in the corner of the frame. Finally, you need to download software to access the "Disney Second Screen," which allows you to draw interact with the animation on a laptop or iPad. Overall, it's not a very inspiring package.
Bambi remains a timeless visual feast of innocence gained and lost, and despite a lowly supplemental package, Disney's new Diamond Edition is worth watching just for the majestic imagery.