Bambi (1942)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Commentary Track, Retrospective Documentary, Featurettes, Still Gallery, Animated Short, Trailer, Games

"Bambi" was never one of my favorite Disney films. It just never grabbed me the way "Fantasia, " "Snow White" or even "Sleeping Beauty" does. But there’s no denying it’s in the upper pantheon of great Disney animated movies. And, after spending some time with Disney’s SUPERB new special edition DVD of the 1942 classic, I have to admit I’ve not given "Bambi" its due.

"Bambi" is the latest Disney classic to be added to the Disney DVD Platinum Edition series, following such previous releases as "Snow White," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin." It may be too early for such claims, but "Bambi’s" digital debut puts it in the running for one of the best DVDs of the year.

Based on the 1929 best-seller by Austrian author Felix Salten, "Bambi" was "The Lion King" of its time. "Bambi" begins with a birth. All the forest creatures come to celebrate the arrival of Bambi, the "Great Prince of the Forest." With his animal friends, the precocious rabbit Thumper and the timid skunk Flower, Bambi frolics amid the giant trees and colorful flowers, as the seasons come and pass. However, Bambi soon learns that life can be harsh as well as beautiful and that his part in the pastoral symphony of life is much larger than he ever dreamed.

"Bambi" really is a parable about the circle of life, portrayed in very dramatic and linear terms. Over the seventy minutes running time, we watch Bambi undergo the rites of passage for all living things. Taking at that level, "Bambi" is practically elemental in its appeal. Everyone can relate to Bambi’s wonder at snow, his fears over a thunderclap and his grappling with the pains of becoming a responsible adult. And for everyone who has seen the film over the past sixty five years, Disney and his band of animator/storytellers gave voice and vision to one of childhood’s most unimaginable fears – the loss of a parent.

One observation that I can directly attribute to this new DVD is the beauty of the backgrounds in the film. The depth, the feel and the detail of Bambi’s forest environ is breathtaking. The film made extensive use of the multiplane camera, a Disney innovation (which looks about two stories tall!) that allows for "layering" of animated elements in the film frame. "Bambi" would not have the emotional impact had it not been for the technology truly working in concert with the story.

Walt Disney Home Entertainment really pulled out the stops for "Bambi’s" DVD debut. Spread out over two discs (just like the other Platinum Edition releases), the film gets the full, authoritative treatment. Disc 1 contains the feature, along with a preview of the contents of Disc 2, and one of the most unique <$commentary,commentary track>s I’ve heard: dramatic recreations of Walt’s story meetings with his production team. Disc 2 holds the bulk of the supplements including a hour-long retrospective documentary, deleted scenes, and a few interactive games for the younger set.

For starters, the <$THX,THX>-certified transfer is a knockout! Per the disc notes, the film underwent an exhaustive restoration. The original nitrate negative, on loan from the Library of Congress (as explained in the documentary), was digitally scanned frame by frame, cleaned up and restored. Presented in its proper full-screen aspect ratio, "Bambi" really glows! Color rendition is superb, with no smearing and break-up. Detail delineation is sharp and clear. The stag fight (Chapter 21), staged in a shadowy setting of purples, blues and oranges, takes on a whole new urgency here. The image is pristine throughout, with deep, solid blacks and not a speck of film grain. Edge enhancement and compression artifacts are absent.

Now, just to be clear: this is not how I remember "Bambi" when I saw it as a child.
I remember a far more darker-looking film when I saw it back in the 1970s. (Perhaps due more to the themes than the print.) For me, this is another "version" of Bambi. Not necessarily altered or compromised, but spruced up to a visual standard understood by today’s young audiences. Thus, a sixty-five year old movie can speak to a new generation. I’m sure I’ll get emails from purists crying fowl that this "Bambi" looks too "modern." In some ways, I understand their concerns, but save your emails please.

The audio has also undergone a welcomed clean-up. The original mono soundtrack is intact, along with a remixed 5.1 "Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix." Both sound great. The 5.1 surround track is very respectful and not pumped up artificially, just so all five loudspeakers have something to do. The rear speakers don’t get a heavy workout, nor should they. Most of the time, the surrounds will have music fill and a smattering of sound effects, again presented with restraint. The subwoofer kicked in a few times, again to understated but dramatic effect. Lacking hiss and crackles, the original mono track plays well on its own merits. Dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced and never congested, even when I cranked it up during some of the more dramatic passages.

The extras start on Disc 1 with the <$commentary,commentary track>. Introduced by Patrick Stewart, who stars in Disney’s upcoming sequel "Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest," the audio is a dramatic recreation of the notes taken during the story meetings Walt held with his creative team during the making of "Bambi." The very same purists and Disney aficionados who might wince at the transfer should really love this supplement. Running the entire length of the film, the scene-specific audio snippets demonstrate just how much care and thought was put into the film. Discussions, arguments and counterpoints follow how to make the characters more real, the situations more dramatic and the animation follow what their emotional intentions. Everything is put on the table during these meetings: movement, motivation, detail, music, effects. When the film is played in this mode, in addition to the <$commentary,audio commentary>, occasionally the video will include PIP of archival footage and photos. As far as DVD extras go, this one is a real doozy. The bulk of the supplements reside on Disc 2, broken up into chapters marked "Deleted Scenes," "Games & Activities," and "Backstage Disney."

The "Deleted Scenes" contains two scenes storyboarded and recorded, but never animated. Introduced by veteran Disney animator Andreas Deja, "Winter Grass" and "Bambi’s First Snow" run about one and two minutes, respectively. Yeah, I can see why they didn’t make it, as they are mostly repetitive and in the case of "First Snow," a drag on the action.

The "Backstage Disney" section starts with "The Making of ‘Bambi:’ A Prince is Born," a newly produced, fifty three minute retrospective documentary about how the film was made and its impact today. Right off, the documentary makes the thematic connection between "Bambi" and "The Lion King." The look-back offers interviews with members of the original production team as well as thoughts from such current animation gurus as historians Charles Solomon and John Culhane, "Lion King" producer Don Hahn and Pixar’s John Lasseter. "Disney Time Capsule 1942: The Year of ‘Bambi’" runs about four minutes and uses the old-time newsreel format to give "Bambi" historical context. While covering WWII, fashion, sports, and arts & entertainment, it brings up some interesting points about how the Disney Studios’ output was affected by the war effort. (Unfortunately, this supplement also presents a contradiction. In the making-of documentary, Culhane talks about how "Bambi" was not a big success in its first theatrical run, yet the Time Capsule narrator mentions how "audiences lined up around the block" to see "Bambi.")

A seven-minute excerpt from a 1957 "Disneyland" TV program has Walt Disney himself explaining the multiplane camera and citing "Bambi" specifically, with a demonstration of how the different levels would be arranged and ultimately photographed – a frame at a time. Next up is "The Old Mill," an Oscar-winning "Silly Symphony" from 1937 and the first real test for the multiplane camera’s capabilities. A tone poem of mood, one can see the seeds of such Disney classics as "Fantasia," "Pinocchio" and "Bambi" in the eight-minute short. "Restoring ‘Bambi’" is a five minute featurette, delving specifically into the technical aspects of the restoration offering sound bites with the restoration technicians. Deja hosts the eight-minute "Inside The Disney Archives," a look inside the Disney vaults where the original sketches, drawings and background plates for "Bambi" and other Disney classics are stored. "The Art of Bambi" presents a variety of character sketches, finished artwork and backgrounds, available in either still frame gallery or as a slide show with "docent audio."

The "Games & Activities" portion plays strictly for the kids. "The Forest Adventure" has eight multi-level games including trivia, musical memory and image matching. "DisneyPedia: Bambi’s Forest Friends" runs four minutes and serves up factoids about deer, rabbits and assorted forest fauna, incorporating wildlife footage. "What’s Your Season?" is a personality profile game, where players answer situational questions and get a "personality profile" for their efforts. Fun, but kinda weird. "Disney Storytime: Thumper Goes Exploring" has Friend Owl (a curmudgeonly character from the movie) narrating a story about Thumper’s adventures in the forest, with an option to read along without narration. A "Virtual Forest" rounds up the section, offering just that: a virtual forest to run on your TV, for, uh, those days when you want to get away, I guess. A host of trailers, including the original theatrical trailer for "Bambi" and a sneak peek at "Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest" round out the extras. Whew!

Adding "Bambi" to your DVD collection is a no-brainer. A stunner of a presentation, some really thoughtful supplements and a fascinating glimpse into the creative process all add up to one of the best DVDs of 2005. And it’s only March!