Friday, April 11, 2014

BAMBI (1942)

RELEASE DATE: Thursday 13th August 1942

The final picture in the first era of full-length Disney animation, Bambi spent a very long time in development: 9 years, to be exact! Walt had intended it to be the second feature, but due to a difficult production process, it ended up being the fifth.
One of the greatest challenges the animators faced on this picture was animating animals realistically. There had been deer in Snow White, certainly, but they were very much "cartoon" deer. Walt was determined that the deer in Bambi move with absolutely authenticity, aside from their more human-like personalities and facial expressions. Years of studying animals and learning detailed anatomy from zoological experts resulted in animation more realistic than had ever been seen before.

Bambi did a respectable run on its initial release, but still did not make a profit. It is worth noting that this was right in the middle of World War II, and a majority of the European market was not available for Bambi's release. It did receive some criticism for its themes of death and survival, but these are themes from the book it is based on, and Walt was never one to shy away from darkness in his films.

Bambi's story is incredibly basic. There really isn't a great deal of plot to speak of. With only 970 spoken words, no other film in the main Disney canon has less dialogue. (I assume this is discounting Fantasia, but I haven't checked this myself) The film begins with a slow pan through the forest. It is clear from the beginning that the forest itself is going to be a character in this story. Soon we are introduced to all the different animals inhabiting this forest. They are all excited because "the new prince is born!"

It isn't long before they are introduced to our title character, the newborn deer Bambi.

It's also in this scene that we're introduced to everyone's favourite little bunny, Thumper!

Adorably voiced by a young boy named Peter Behn, Thumper is an outspoken, fun-loving little boy in the shape of a rabbit. He doesn't always make the most sensible decisions, but he's a loyal friend and will prove to be Bambi's closest companion outside of his family.

As the young prince begins to explore the forest, Thumper and his siblings help him to understand his surroundings, laughing hysterically when he doesn't understand something or falls over clumsily. As Bambi is sniffing a field of flowers, he discovers a new friend...

"Flower!" he exclaims. The little skunk doesn't mind being called a flower; he's likely been called much worse things in his life! Bambi, Thumper and Flower become good friends. It begins to rain, the first signal of the changing seasons. As the springtime shower soaks the forest, we see all the animals' reactions.

Once the shower clears, Bambi's mother takes him out on to the meadow where they are free to bound and frolic. She warns him of the dangers though. The meadow is completely open, there is no shelter from any potential threats. While spending the day on the meadow, Bambi meets another young faun named Faline.

The young prince is very shy around this new friend, not quite sure how to react to her. It isn't long before danger appears and the deer race to get back to the thicket. Bambi's mother tells him that "man was in the forest."

The seasons continue to pass, and soon it is winter. Bambi experiences snow for the first time, and Thumper shows him how to have fun on a frozen lake.

Soon tragedy strikes when the human hunters shoot Bambi's mother dead. We never actually see this event happening, but Bambi is approached by his father the Great Prince of the Forest, who tells him, "Your mother can't be with you anymore."

With a tear in his eye, Bambi follows his father through the snow storm. Time passes, and we see Bambi, Thumper and Flower all meeting up again as young adults. The owl tells them to watch out, because it's springtime, and they're likely to get "twitterpated." Although the friends all agree that this ridiculous behaviour will never happen to them, they are almost instantly struck smitten by three females, including the grown-up Faline.

Bambi falls head-over-hooves in love with Faline, and it looks like a match made in Heaven, until a rival comes along to steal Faline away. Bambi must fight for his love's honour, and a fierce battle ensues. No sooner has this finished than "man" makes a reappearance, setting fire to the forest. Bambi, Faline and the Great Prince stage a dramatic escape from the burning inferno.

They reach safety and breathe a big sigh of relief. More time passes, and in a scene that mirrors the film's beginning, Faline presents her new babies to the forest animals. Bambi has become a father. New royalty has been born.

IRVYNE: I think the main issue I have with the characters in "Bambi" is that they really aren't given any personality. They hardly speak, and most characters aren't given enough screen time to really develop their own stories. The main exceptions to this are young Bambi and Thumper. The young prince is just adorably cute and awkward, and it's wonderful to see him discovering his world. The little rabbit, on the other hand, is given so much personality with his magnificent animation and genuine voice acting, he is by far and away the highlight of the piece. All of the other characters: the mother, Flower, the Great Prince, Friend Owl and even Faline, are really just plot devices, given a minimum amount of screen time and not much personality at all.

The story itself is very, very basic as well. There were apparently lots of ideas for story sequences that were cut from the film. There was originally going to be an entire scene about two leaves that had to fall from their tree in autumn, and Walt had another idea about seeing an entire colony of ants that Bambi stepped on. But it was decided to keep the plot centred around the young prince and try not to deviate too far.

One thing that I do really like, is that the antagonistic threat of "man" is completely off-screen. Not a single human is ever seen. We're shown their camp in the distance, we're shown their attack dogs and we hear their gunshots, but we never actually see what "man" looks like, and neither do the characters in the story. He is just a very dangerous, very real threat, always off somewhere in the distance.

There is no denying it: Bambi is a stunning-looking film, and every single frame could be an individual work of art. The backgrounds were unlike anything ever achieved in animation at this point. Initially, since the project was to be so grounded in reality, the background artists created realistic replicas of real forests. These backgrounds really didn't work though. For one, it was time-sapping, painstaking work painting every leaf of every shrub. On the other hand, the backgrounds were so busy, it stole the audience's eye away from the characters.

An "in-betweener" animator named Tyrus Wong had an idea based on his native Chinese painting styles. He created some impressionistic paintings of forest scenes and showed them to Walt. Immediately Wong was promoted to head background artist on Bambi. His style didn't represent realism at all. Instead it was made up of suggestive shapes, strokes and colours that accentuated the characters brilliantly, while still giving the impression of a living, breathing forest. (Scroll up and look at the pictures I've posted, paying close attention to the background art. It is incredibly clever at how it directs your eye to the subject, while still giving the feeling that there is a detailed forest in the background.)

The animation of the animals is also mind-blowing, even in the 21st century. Back in 1942 this was a level of artwork unlike anything that had been attempted in animation before. The lengths that the animators went to to understand exactly how the anatomy of these animals worked is evident in every frame. Bambi is a masterclass in fauna animation.

Lastly, the effects animation is also top-shelf: fire, rain, snow, falling leaves... The effects add so much to the texture of the film, even though they mostly go unnoticed.

Unlike Snow White, Pinocchio and Dumbo, Bambi is not a musical. The characters don't sing, and there are only three songs in the entire film. The song over the main titles, "Love Is A Song," was nominated for an Oscar that year, but didn't win. As a standalone song, it's fine. But it's nowhere near as good as Frank Churchill's other classic Disney tunes, and it also has nothing to do with the movie itself.

"Little April Shower" is a catchy little ditty that takes place in the springtime montage. Again, it's okay, but it doesn't go down in the halls of Disney classics.

The third song, "Looking For Romance," is a schmaltzy 1940s love song that plays underneath the visuals of Bambi and Faline falling in love. Again, it works fine for the movie, but I wonder... could you hum me the tune?... I doubt it.

Edward Plumb's background score fares a bit better. It's actually quite good, matching each moment nicely. In particular, who could forget the simple three-note theme for "Man?" It's said this theme was inspiration for John Williams's "Jaws" theme.


The film is almost completely scored-through, with two exceptions. The first is where Bambi's mother explains that "Man was in the forest." The second is where Bambi is confronted by his father and told that his mother has died. These moments are played against absolute silence, and the effect is amazing. To suddenly have all background sounds gone, gives real focus and meaning to the moment. It's very effective.

Overall, while the music works well for the movie it was written for, it doesn't really exist very well outside of it.

There are elements of Bambi that are jaw-dropping. But does it stand the test of time as an entertaining movie in 2014? I'm not sure. It's certainly not my favourite Disney. Not even close.

PASCAL: I fell asleep. 

WENDY: It's certainly slow-paced. I didn't find it as plodding as Snow White though.

HAKU: Yeah, I thought Snow White dragged more as well.

SHENZI: It's a different kind of movie though. Bambi laid the foundations for a lot of the future Disney movies starring animals.

HAKU: There's a huge similarity in the story with The Lion King.

IRVYNE: Well yeah. When they were making Lion King, they actually sold it to the studio by calling it "Bambi in Africa." And when it was released a lot of people noticed the similarities in the story structure. It's not accidental. Look, I can see how people might regard Bambi as a classic because it's extraordinarily beautiful to look at, but I can't see why kids would care for this movie. It's really slow and there's not much story.

PASCAL: But the little animals are so cute! Especially Thumper!

IRVYNE: Everyone loves Thumper. Probably because he's just about the only character with personality.

HAKU: What about the owl?

IRVYNE: Oh yes, the owl is a bit of fun. It's interesting that they reused the concept of a wise owl being the "guiding force" of the story again, 39 years later in The Fox And The Hound.

SHENZI: And there was an owl in Winnie The Pooh as well.

HAKU: My favourite scene in the film was where Bambi and Thumper go ice-skating.

WENDY: I liked them getting twitterpated.

SHENZI: All without social networking.

IRVYNE: It didn't take much for the twitterpation to set it. Bros before hoes, guys! ANYWAY. There is a lot to love about Bambi, and I fully respect that Walt Disney did something that no one was expecting, something that pushed the artform well and truly into the future. I just don't believe it holds up as well today.

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