Wednesday, September 7, 2011

DATE Night: Bambi

I hope you brought the bug spray, because this is our DATE Night in the great outdoors. By the way, I'm wise to all of the tricks. I saw our friend Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. Don't give me any sugar water to keep the mosquitos away. Don't give me any sticks to bang together to frighten the mountain lions off. And if you put a lizard on top of my canteen, pass me the vaseline. The hoops will be coming off. Now that that's out of the way, let's get a breath of fresh air with Bambi

The Background:

Sage advice from a wise owl.
Though it was not completed and released until five years later in 1942, Disney had been working on turning Felix Salten's book Bambi: A Life in the Woods into a movie since he acquired the rights from another filmmaker in 1937. Production was continually delayed because the animators had not yet gained the skill and experience needed to render the characters as realistically as Walt wanted. While Pinocchio and Fantasia were being made, work on Bambi never really stopped. Animators studied animal behavior and nature, even going so far as to have a mini-zoo at the studio so they could get an up close look at their characters' real-life counterparts.

Bambi was another gamble for a studio that had stayed stubborn in its penchant for taking risks. This time, they were making a film with no human characters and few spoken words based on a contemporary work of fiction. Once again, the risk did not pay off as handsomely as they would have liked in a financial sense. The film, though embraced by the critics, did not make back its not-insignificant costs on initial release. This is due in part to the unfortunate timing of its release during World War II, when a large chunk of their distribution options were cut off. Since that time, however, it has come to be appreciated as the masterpiece that it truly is. Artistically speaking, it is nothing short of a triumph.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 3: Bambi. (Don't have Dumbo or Fantasia so I skipped 'em.) The artistry blew me away. The use of color was almost avant garde in places and the backgrounds were wonderful. The characters were charming. Flower is totally a gayby. The movie makes you see the world through a child's eyes. I loved it.
January 31, 2010 at 12:11am ·

The Art:

10/10. I don't have enough words to say about how amazing the art is in this movie. The use of the multiplane camera technology added depth in a subtle but palpable way. The colors are brilliantly used, from the rich, dark greens of the forest to the blazing red-orange of the fire which grows from a single dot to consume the forest and the stark winter white that blankets everything. The backgrounds, which took much inspiration from the spare, striking artwork of Tyrus Wong, is impressionistic. Sometimes there are no lines at all, just undefined washes of color trusting the power of your imagination to fill in the details. Moments like the sky clearing after the storm are like moving paintings. This contrasts with the incredible detail of the parts of the forest in the foreground and the animals, which is where all of the intense research that the artists undertook really paid off.

Breathtaking concept art by Tyrus Wong.
If you pause any single frame of this film, you are looking at a gorgeously constructed painting, so it's telling that even still there are so many moments that stand out artistically. Once again, Disney renders rain and lightning excruciatingly well. There is an incredible shot during the storm that pans up from Bambi and his mother to the sky with the perspective of the rain changing moment to moment. When the deer are fleeing from the hunters, many of them morph into mere colored shapes with wide, blank eyes, which seems to me a commentary of how they are seen by "man" contrasted with the fully dimensional creatures that we have come to see them as. It's a great example of art supporting the story. There is gorgeous animation of leaves swirling in the fall and the final two that have held on til the bitter end finally falling to the ground. The multiple Bambis that the owl sees after he is shaken on the tree branch. The portrayal of Bambi literally dancing in the clouds after being kissed by Faline is jarringly shattered by his battle with another young buck for her, all shadows, highlights and boldly bright colors. The frolic directly afterwards in the wind with the swirling petals is the visual relief that we need. The fire effects are horrifying and spectacularly beautiful at the same time.

Let me take a quick moment to give a shout out to a lovely feature on the Blu-rays for several of the early animated classics called Disney View. Since these earlier films were made in a more square shape than we are used to seeing on our wide screens, Disney brought artists in to fill in the black bars that normally appear on the sides with artwork that corresponds with what's going on in the frame. Nothing distracting. Just simple, lovely artwork reminiscent of the style of the movies themselves. It is a great idea and is being very well-executed. It doesn't really dawn on you how groty those heavy black bars look on the sides of the screen are until you don't have to look at them any more. Kudos, Disney Blu-ray folks, on that!

The Story:

9/10. The storytelling Bambi is lean and muscular. They learned their lessons well from Dumbo and there was real focus and clarity to the way the story unfurls. Not an ounce of fat on this baby. They are telling what is pretty much the most elemental story that there is. The Lion King's circle of life ain't got nothing on the one here. We see the birth and death of the characters, the forest, and the seasons. We are confronted pretty brazenly by the fact that life continues with or without us and you have to keep calm and carry on.

Engineered to rip your heart out.
That bring us to the moment. You know the one. We were all traumatized by it back in the day. The death of Bambi's mom. It actually happens off screen but is so powerfully done that you feel like you witnessed it. One moment she is right behind him and the next moment she just isn't. There is a lack of underscoring and the silence is startling. A heartbreaking Bambi calls out for her. And the booming voice saying, "Your mother can't be with you anymore." What isn't seen is as important as what is. And directly after that, spring arrives. Life goes on. It is so hard-hitting because it is so true. In a larger way we see it again in the traumatic forest fire. The whole of the woods dies and then spring comes again. We are born and we die. It doesn't cut any more to the heartmeat of it than that.

Things aren't all dreary. There is much lightness in the story. What is wonderful is that it comes so organically out of the story that you never feel like you are watching a sight gag. A great example is Bambi climbing over the log awkwardly. Its humor comes from its truth. We are seeing the world through Bambi's eyes and his experience of life in the forest is ours. It makes connect with him viscerally right off the bat and really become invested in his story. When the whole forest gets twitterpated (For heaven's sake, we need to start working that word into our everyday more often! It's so rad!), our hearts get aflutter despite the owl's warnings as well.

The Characters:

9/10. The characters are so well done in this film that even the absence of a character makes for one of the most compelling villains in all of film history. Of course, I'm talking about "man", whose specter looms large over much of the film. He manifests himself in others, like the poor pheasant who we see have a nervous breakdown and try to fly away before being shot. We only know her for a few seconds and are devastated when man brings her down. It is made pretty clear that in this world, man is a terrifying monster and it is a harsh reality to face that we have that capacity.

I just want to squidge them all!!!
All of the other characters are beautifully animated. The artists found a perfect balance between realism and personality. They are believable as animals but have enough human characteristics to make them sympathetic. There was much care taken to give specificity to the mannerisms and quirks of each creature in the forest. The pay-off was a forest filled with relatable characters who you feel a real emotional pull for. It is why the joys are so vivid and the tragedies so affecting. You get the feeling that every possum and duck and mouse would have a story just as interesting if you took the time to learn it, which we eventually would for many in Disney's True-Life Adventure series.

We watch Bambi grow from an awkward young thing into an adolescent. In him we see every child and we see ourselves. We see the little one taking his first steps, learning how to interact with others, mimicking gestures along with words to learn language. We see him being bashful in the throes of first love when he first encounters Faline and we watch their romance blossom. We watch him exuberantly try new things, like skating on a freshly frozen pond. We see him faced with death and tragedy. And we see him tackle them both with dignity and strength. Bambi is actually quite a lovely role model.

I think I remember seeing Nancy Kerrigan
do this move in the '94 Olympics. No?
Another character that makes a real impact is, of course, Thumper. Here, Disney learned a lesson that would serve the Peanuts cartoons well later in the sixties. If you find quirky, real, unpolished kids and use their idiosyncrasies as inspiration, there's gold in them there hills. From the moment you hear his voice, you are immediately charmed. The sequence when he recites the "If you can't say something nice" saying is a brilliant performance from a kid being himself coupled with an insanely talented animator using what he's given to full advantage. 

The Music:

8/10. There are about a thousand words of dialogue in the entire screenplay of Bambi. That ain't nothin'. It means that the scoring plays a very important part in the storytelling. The music was written by Frank Churchill ("Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf", Snow White, Oscar winner for Dumbo), who sadly committed suicide shortly before the movie was released, and Edward H. Plumb. The songs function very differently than plot-advancing numbers of charm songs. The chorus is used as another instrument and the lyrics are another color in the palate. The voices sing of the two major themes of the movie- love and renewal, reinforcing those ideas without being intrusive. Supporting the artwork instead of overpowering its imagery. Each of the songs is absolutely wonderful. Simple, elegant, and evocative.

The score is mightily impressive. During Bambi's first moments, it is charmingly awkward and halting. It matches the droplets of rain as they fall. When the bucks are seen butting heads in the field, the music gets more intense. It becomes low and ominous during the forest fire. The music highlights moments, guides your emotional journey and serves as foreshadowing of things to come. The lack of dialogue here makes the importance of its success even greater and, luckily, what is arguably one of the greatest film scores of all emerged from the challenge.

The Gay Scale:

8/10. One word accounts for most of Bambi's queerness. Flower. The cute lil' critter has become a bit of a gay icon. Sure, there's a song called "Let's Sing a Gay Little Spring Song" but we know that they really just meant happy. Flower's appearance is when all of the gender creative little boys' ears perk up and they think, "Ah. There I am." Here is a shy, giggly little nubbin of a skunk who doesn't mind being called a pretty flower. He bats his girlishly long eyelashes and gazes lovingly at Bambi with his big crystal blue eyes because this is probably the first time he has ever been seen as beautiful.

Do that dainty wave proudly, little one.
You are loved.
I like to think that because of this Flower carries a torch for Bambi. He loves the Flower he sees reflected in Bambi's kind eyes. During everyone's twitterpation, Flower does meet an (allegedly) lady skunk, who looks suspiciously like him, and is the first one to head off with a mate, but we all know that back in the forties guys did what guys were supposed to do for the most part regardless of their sexuality. So he gets kissed, turns bright pink from his fancy hair to his dainty feet and goes off to make babies. Later, we discover that he has named his little one after Bambi. I smell unrequited love.

Regardless, Flower is a gentle soul who is absolutely adorable and seems to be accepted as he is by his little group of friends. It is a lovely message to send to little ones watching who feel like purty flowers themselves the way that I did when I first watched this movie. Flower always stood out to me in the cast of characters and has stuck with me as sort of an spirit that encourages me to be unafraid of embracing the sweetness within myself.

More Tyrus Wong concept art just cuz it's amazing.
The Bottom Line:

9/10. If Snow White created the basic formula and proved an animated feature could be done at all, Pinocchio and Fantasia expanded the artistic palette, and Dumbo focused on clear storytelling, then Bambi is when Disney learned how to synthesize all of these aspects into a movie that is as close to perfection as I think Disney has ever reached. There may be movies that I enjoy aspects of more, but Bambi is lovely, timeless, well-paced, and beautifully told, with adorable characters, gorgeously powerful music, stunning art and animation, and a budding gay icon thrown into the mix. It also manages to convey a message without resorting to obvious moralizing. I, for one, will never really get hunting for sport and, no joke, this movie has a big part in that. Whenever people ask me which film surprised me the most during the original Disney Project, Bambi is always my answer. It's impact as a child was indelible and seeing it through adult eyes reinforced that impact on an even deeper level. It is even more moving than you remember and more sophisticated and powerful than you can imagine.

The Miscellanea:

I will not lie to you. I haven't seen Bambi II yet. It was just released on Blu-ray and, being the completist that I am, I almost ran right out and bought it just because. I slowed my roll, read the reviews, saw that they were less than sparkling and refrained. The straight to video sequels are rarely great. Even the better ones (Lilo & Stitch II, Return to Neverland) are good but not nearly on par with the originals. I did, however, get a copy of the soundtrack mostly because I listened the song that Alison Krauss did for it on Spotify. The video below is the song that she does in the movie called "There Is Life". The animation looks fine, but unspectacular, especially in relation to the amazingly high bar that was set by the original. But the song is lovely. Her voice is like a cozy quilt you wanna just wrap yourself up in. The rest of the soundtrack is quite fine, with some pieces of the sequel's score, songs from the original film, one from Martina McBride, and one more featuring a pre-Tiana Anika Noni Rose.

We all know how I feel about animator Andreas Deja. This is a very cool video that was released around the time of the Bambi Diamond edition Blu-ray disc where Andreas shows you how to draw Bambi. I love how easy he makes it look. I've never been very talented with visual art. The only thing I can really draw is a funky lil' happy face with huge eyes and his tongue sticking out. Beyond that, I'm mostly useless. Maybe one day I'll give it a shot. Meanwhile, if you're so inclined, let Mr. Deja give you a crash course.

Did you know that Bambi actually preceded Smokey the Bear as the face of forest fire prevention? But the characters were only licensed for a year in the forties, so Smokey was created when that time was up. Bambi and his friends still stopped by to help the cause, though, like in this ad from 1968.

And last but not's even adorable in Dutch! Please stop me from from putting myself into a giggle coma!

So, how did you feel about Bambi? Were you as astonished by the whole affair as I was, or am I just unusually swayed by precious woodland creatures? Were you as convinced that there is unrequited love between Flower and Bambi? After The Watcher in the Woods I swore that I would never venture too far into the forest again. That hasn't changed, but after this movie, I'll certainly be more inclined to take a stroll out in nature. As long as creepy Bette Davis stays back at the manor house.

Since I feel like I was a little cheap with our DATE Night this week, I thought next week I would make a grand gesture and fly us down to South America for Saludos Amigos! How does that sound? Just make sure you don't drink the water. We all saw the Sex and the City movie. I probably won't be quite as amused as the girls were about loss of bowel control. Ew. Subject change. Uh...South America next week! Yay! Margaritas are on me!

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