03 February 2012

Disney Daze: Week 5: Bambi

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

I find myself absolutely astounded by how incredibly different the first five Disney films are from one another. Watched in such quick succession their defiant individuality becomes ever more apparent. While all five films are spearheaded by an auteur with a clear and consistent worldview, when it comes to style and substance they appear to almost willfully rebel against the successes of their predecessors. To think that the word Disney has become shorthand for a very formulaic type of storytelling when all of these films stand proudly on their own individual achievement. Where Dumbo stands as a monument to economical, streamlined storytelling, Bambi defies convention by being less a narrative feature than a tone poem.

Bambi's production was one of the most troublesome the studio ever mounted. The rights to the story were acquired by Disney in 1937 and he began production in earnest, hoping the film would be the company's second feature film after Snow White. Difficulty paring down a script to Walt's satisfaction was nothing compared to the struggles of realistically animating the forest creatures. After a number of fits and starts the work was shelved as focus turned to other productions. Once Pinocchio and Fantasia were well under way, Walt returned his attention to the story. To achieve the realism required for the film, a makeshift zoo was housed on the company's Burbank lot where deer, ducks, owls, and skunks were kept so the animators would have live models. The intense study paid off handsomely. The characterizations in Bambi are unlike any in the Disney canon. The creatures are certainly cartoons but they move as if their hides hid real muscle and bone.

When discussing Dumbo I mentioned that when watching the quickly and inexpensively-produced fourth feature we do not miss the technical hallmarks of other early Disney films, the incredible special effects or lavish multiplane tracking shots. While this is most certainly true, boy oh boy, does the opening of Bambi bluntly remind you of what you've been missing. In an opening multiplane shot to rival Pinocchio's first day of school and Fantasia's "Ave Maria" pilgrimage, we are treated to a sumptuous tracking shot that weaves through trees and past streams as the forest awakens to a new dawn. The shot is a powerhouse, not only in its flawless technical composition, but in its economical means of storytelling as well.  The shot sets the tone of the film beautifully, introducing its preoccupation with naturalistic animation and the transcendent appreciation of pure existence.

A brief description of the multiplane camera may be in order since I find myself referring to it far more often than I had initially anticipated. The device was invented by Mickey Mouse co-creator and the first Disney Studios animator Ub Iwerks, during a defection from the company in the 1930s. The multiplane camera allowed for a more realistic representation of depth in animation by having various layers of painted backgrounds attached to a rig that would allow each individual plane to be moved a particular distance toward or away from the camera. When all of these layers were filmed together, the image onscreen appeared to be three dimensional and incredibly realistic. The eighty-year-old technology actually looks more convincing than today's gimmicky obsession with computer generated third dimensions. Plus, one need not wear clunky glasses! The process was painstaking but created some of the most magnificent shots ever achieved in cinema.

The first half of the film depicts Bambi's childhood growing up as prince of the forest. He learns how to walk, talk, and jump with help from other creatures in the forest, notably a bashful skunk he mistakenly names Flower and a bratty little bunny named Thumper. If I have one bone to pick with the film it is with the character of Thumper. He's a source of levity in a rather dramatic film and I understand the need for that service but the character occasionally grates, overstaying his welcome with brash boasting and drawn out apologies. It would be much more gratifying to spend more time with Owl whose curmudgeonly demeanor betrays a compassionate heart, or the retiring Flower who continually charms in his brief scenes.

Instead of pursuing a traditional story arc with a clear objective, Bambi is a series of small interludes showcasing one aspect of learning and maturation. The film's greatest sequence is the depiction of a storm's progression. Starting out with Bambi's curious study of a drop tinkling on a leaf, we move organically to a downpour and a crescendo of crashing thunder, before the clouds part to reveal a pink sky, and the camera pans down to a pool of water where a few more drops deposit themselves, completing the circle. The section is a microcosm of the entire film's cyclical nature. The sequence is set to the beautiful tune "Little April Shower" written by Frank Churchill, composer of such classics as "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", "Baby Mine" and "Whistle While You Work". Unfortunately Churchill's work on Bambi would be his last. He committed suicide before the film's release, shooting himself at his piano.

While Bambi may have the least recognizable soundtrack of the first five features, music plays a more important role here than in any of the narrative films preceding. There is so little dialogue in the film that music is played almost continuously from beginning to end, in what becomes a seventy-minute symphony. The two notable exceptions come first when Bambi's mother warns him of man's presence in the forest and later after her passing. Both sections of silence last a full 18 seconds. Because of their supreme scarcity the silences are ever more powerfully felt.

The film is divided at the point of this second silence. After heeding his mother's warnings Bambi runs frantically from the meadow away from unseen Man's evil presence. He returns safely to the thicket but his mother does not. As a heavy snow falls - almost blocking out the entire frame - a scared and lonesome Bambi runs into his father who tells him that his mother cannot be with him anymore. The entire sequence is handled so beautifully that I struggle to think of a cinematic death that is more poignant and effective than the offscreen murder of Bambi's mother. This is the zenith of animated art, a far cry from a happy-go-lucky mouse whistlin' "Dixie" on a steamboat less than fifteen years earlier.

In certain respects Bambi is Walt Disney's most radical film to date. Fantasia telegraphs its experimental nature before we even get to the feature. In promotion, presentation, and introduction we are given ample warning that what we're about to see is SpecialBambi itself is far more subversive. To see a supreme example of false advertising, take a look at the film's original theatrical trailer from 1942. The film is marketed as one of the greatest love stories ever told and the voiceover tries mostly in vain to connect various forms of love to such disjointed images as Bambi locking horns with a rival, his paramour Faline being hunted by vicious dogs, and the entire forest burning to the ground. Admittedly the twitterpated sequence is one of the most enjoyable depictions of first love ever filmed, but Bambi is far from a love story. The film is a story concerning the entirety of life, and while love is a necessary component, so is birth, death, fear, loss, and pain. Bambi's unflinching portrayal of these themes vaults it to the highest echelon of cinematic expression.

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