Friday, July 29, 2011

Sources and Origins: Felix Salten's Bambi

If you were to describe the Disney animated feature Bambi and Felix Salten's novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods in the broadest possible terms, they would sound an awful lot alike. Both start with a newborn baby deer named Bambi and follow his as he is introduced to the world by his mother, loses her to the hand of man, and then grows up to mate and have children of his own.

There are many details that are different. Disney granted their Bambi with memorable, loveable companions, especially Thumper, Flower, and the wise Friend Owl. There are hares and owls in Salten's novel, but there have neither the personality nor prominence of the movie versions. No skunks show up at all.

The biggest difference though, isn't one of details, but of tone. Disney's movie is a full of joy and discovery, balanced by a moment of great tragedy and hardships to endure. Salten's Bambi has a few joyful moments near the beginning of the novel, but the overall balance is very different. As the chapters wear on, the tone is increasingly dark and somber. The threat of man becomes nearly constant, and aging, solitude, and depression wait on every page.

Even in those beginning stages of childhood innocence, the other forest creatures are not the sweet, respectful Disney creatures. Many are either preoccupied with their own interests or outright rude when approached. In time, even Bambi's mother grows weary of his constant need of her attention, telling to stop laying up against her like a baby and that he needs to learn to spend some time alone.

When the hunters (always called He or Him in the novel) finally come, their party doesn't just result in the death of Bambi's mother - it's an outright massacre. Pheasants are felled, other deer are killed, and poor friend hare's wife dies in desperate confusion over why she can't seem to move anymore. It's bloody and horrific, and I'm glad my first encounter with it is as an adult rather than a child.

There's a subplot that begins to suggest that humans are not uniformly evil creatures. Bambi's weak cousin, Gobo, is captured by Him rather than killed, and later returns to the forest to explain to the others how much he likes Him now. He was fed and petted and given shelter which he enjoyed during rain and winter. It soon becomes clear, though, that this time among Him has left poor Gobo both ill-equipped to survive in the wild and too stupidly trusting of Him. The next human he encounters kills him.

It's all well written and I'm sure the harsh realities it describes are a much more realistic depiction of the life of wild animals living in the forest, but I'll take the Disney adaptation anyway. Salten's novel is too bleary, too relentlessly dark. Perhaps it is true that we all suffer, grow old, lose the ones we love, lose our passion for life, and ultimately must survive alone, but that's not the lesson I want from my talking animal children's novels.

Like the movie, the novel ends with Bambi encountering his twin children. But where the movie plays that as a note of hope and a sign of the continuation of life, in the book you just kind of feel bad that these kids area going to have to deal with all the things Bambi has already been through.

Also, in the book Faline is Bambi's cousin. Ew.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fun with Bambi from around the internet

As I've said before, screenwriter/blogger/film analyst Todd Alcott has been a major influence on how I think and write about movies. He's written an excellent, in-depth analysis of Bambi's story and structure: The introduction, Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

From the introduction:
What weird, artsy, pretentious, avant-garde smartass dared to make a movie with no plot and a passive protagonist? Was it Godard? Bunuel? Brakhage? No, it was Walt Disney, the man whose name is now synonymous with toothless, benign, formulaic "family entertainment." Walt Disney. Disney’s two features previous to Bambi were the 2 1/2-hour salute to classical music, Fantasia, and the gorgeous 61-minute parable Dumbo. Don’t let people tell you that Walt Disney was some kind of reactionary, conservative fuddy-duddy peddling colorful fantasy. At the top of his game, Walt Disney was the most exciting, most experimental, most daring moviemaker alive. Bambi is the peak of his art.

And now, for a less serious take on Bambi, the animated classic Bambi Meets Godzilla (in case one or two of you still haven't seen it):

Here's some footage from Animal Planet in which a Canadian photographer discovers the real life Bambi and Thumper in his backyard:

Bambi is so cute you could just eat him up, right? Especially if he was also a cake:

Funny Food Photos - Bambi Cake

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From the Movies to the Parks: Bambi

For one of the great classics of Disney animation, Bambi has very, very little presence in the Disney Parks. There is no (and has never been) a Bambi ride, though Bambi does show up in one attraction in one park: it's a small world in Hong Kong Disneyland. He and Thumper have apparently wandered very far from home and wound up at the North Pole. It makes no sense, but they do get to recreate some of the famous ice-skating scene.

And... that's about it. Bambi topiaries sometimes pop up, and you can also meet Thumper and Miss Bunny, usually found in Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A logical plea to return to craziness: bring back The Adventurers Club!

Just a few months ago, Disney announced plans - big on hyperbole, short on details about Hyperion Wharf, the new title and concept for the area of Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World that had once been the center of nightlife known as Pleasure Island. Last week, they announced that those plans are on hold and being reconfigured.

With that in mind, I thought I'd post my hope that Disney reverses one of the worst decisions it has ever made.

On the whole, I don't really miss Pleasure Island that much. I never set foot in any of the dance clubs, though those places certainly had their fans and they were better than empty buildings. I did enjoy the Comedy Warehouse, though it wasn't an every-trip, must-see for me. But there was one other place on Pleasure Island that was like no other place on Earth - an incredible, hilarious, and inspiring interactive, immersive comedy/musical/theater/magic show/bar known as The Adventurers Club.

Visitors to the club entered into a parlor area decorated with exotic artifacts and photos of club members off on various expeditions (along with detailed, hilarious captions). Around the back was a staircase leading down to the lower level where the real fun was waiting. Decorations became even denser and wilder - a suit of samurai armor with a diving helmet, a T-Rex skull with the skeleton of an aviator in its mouth, a replica of The Artemesion Bronze that answers the old question about what was in his hand by placing a fishing pole in it.

But even better than the amazing décor are the members of the club themselves, waiting to greet you, interact with you, and initiate you in to the club itself. There's kooky club president Pamelia Perkins, dashing womanizing pilot Hathaway Browne, sourpuss club treasurer and ichthyologist Prof. Otis T. Wren, Sassy jungle explorer Samantha Sterling, and flustered know-it-all curator Fletcher Hodges. The club is served by dry-witted Graves the butler and a saucy French made (the only character whose name changes depending on the actress). Also on hand is nerdy Junior Adventurer Emil Bleehal.

Oh, and I nearly forgot my favorite character: lewd, drunken, elderly adventurer Colonel Chritchlow Suchbench, always ready with a song or an insult. The Colonel was a puppet looking down on the club's main salon. He wasn't the only non-human character present, either. The head of a Yakoose (a rare creature whose head is mounted on the wall) would occasionally wake up and comment on the action. A huge stone head of the goddess Babalonia would frequently come to live and talk and breath smoke too.

There were two small rooms attached to the main salon where mini-shows would take place - the mask room full of talking masks from cultures around the world, and the treasure room where Beezle the genie would appear in the armoire. Then there was the library, a larger room with audience seating where the adventurers would put on more elaborate, somewhat more formal shows, along with accompaniment from phantom organist Fingers Zambini.

Maybe you begin to get the idea. There was comedy and spectacle everywhere. There was constant activity and entertainment. There was also a bar ready to fill a glass with whatever drink you ordered, but specializing in the club's signature drink, the Kungaloosh.

Disney prides itself on creating attractions in which the audience feels full immersed, surrounded by interesting details, inspired by something new and creative, enthralled by illusions, and thoroughly entertained and delighted by the characters they encountered. Never has there been an attraction that more thoroughly accomplished all of these goals than the Adventurers Club. Never.

So what happened? I won't get into the whole story of what went wrong with Pleasure Island. Maybe the idea was always a bad mix with Disney's family appeal. Maybe it was mismanaged or just in the wrong spot (smack in the middle of the two shopping areas of Downtown Disney). Maybe Disney had to make changes to Pleasure Island.

What they did, though, was just dump the whole area. And the Adventurers Club was the baby they threw out with the bathwater. It was a shortsighted and wasteful decision, and clearly wrong to anyone who had spent a few minutes inside.

Some say the club wasn't making money. This is not shocking. Beyond admission, there were only the drinks to pay for the place. You couldn't even buy snacks there. If you wanted to stay in the club for hours on end to enjoy it's many nightly shows, you likely eventually got hungry. If so, you toughed it out or had to leave the club to get food. Even some simple appetizers and snacks could've made the club money and kept people around longer. Let's say you had a great time in the club and wanted to buy a souvenir - a shirt, a shot glass, a mug, a hat, a club pin... for most of the club's life, none of these things were available. Disney, so big on their gift shops, very rarely made Adventurers Club merchandise available.

But let's pretend for a moment that even snacks, merchandise, or even increased admission wouldn't make the club into a moneymaker. Just for the sake of argument, let's pretend nothing we could think of would turn the club into a direct moneymaker. Here's an important detail worth remembering: the club did not need to make money directly to make money for the company. There were people who so loved the club that it would be an important part of deciding to spend their next vacation at Walt Disney World. There are people who, wanting to take in each of the park's evening events AND a night at the club might make their vacations at Disney World last one night longer than they would've (or are now doing) with the club closed.

The good news is this: with outside companies still unwilling to sign on to fill up the vacant spots in Downtown Disney, the club is still standing. Rumors and online reports say it's not so pretty inside anymore - most of the décor has been stripped away, some we've even seen show up at other spots around Disney World. But the club still stands. Cleaning it up and redecorating certainly isn't beyond Disney's abilities. Many of the brilliant performers from the club can still be seen around WDW. Returning them to their best use and filling in any new openings would be easily done.

You know who else would come back in a heartbeat? The fans. We're still ready to heed the call to adventure. Open the doors, pour us our drinks, and sell us some souvenirs. We're ready to recite the club creed once more:

We climb the highest mountains,
just to get a better view.
We plumb the deepest oceans,
because we're daring through and through.
We cross the scorching desert,
martinis in our hand.
We ski the polar ice caps,
in tuxedos looking grand.
We are reckless, brave, and loyal,
and valiant to the end.
If you come in here a stranger,
you will exit as a friend.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Winnie the Pooh: Harikiri or Avada Kedavra?

Did you know a Disney animated feature debuted at the theaters last weekend? It's true. Winnie the Pooh, Disney's 51st official animated feature film opened on Friday, July 15, the same day as the final installment of the mega-successful Harry Potter franchise.

Seemed like the movie was committing suicide to me, but I heard some people calling it savvy counter-programming, thinking the Harry Potter franchise had grown too dark for little viewers and that families with small children would be looking for something more family friendly to see.

What a load of malarkey.

Even though the Potter movies certainly matured over time, they were still appealing to a lot of people Disney should've been trying to appeal to with Winnie the Pooh. Even if families felt the Potter movies had become too intense for their kids, any buzz Pooh might've hoped to have was drowned out by the roar of Pottermania.

I don't know how well Winnie the Pooh might've done if it hadn't opened against the monster movie of the summer, but as it is it opened in 6th place, earning $7.8 million. That's a pretty sorry turnout for the kind of movies Disney built their empire on.

Tellingly, Pooh also finished behind two other family movies - the latest "hilarious" Kevin James fatty-fall-down fest "Zookeeper" and Disney/Pixar's Cars 2 (in its fourth week of release!).

Maybe Potter wasn't the only problem.

Whatever the cause, let's hope Pooh's failure isn't blamed on the fact that it was traditional animation. The medium is not the problem. If I was the conspiracy theorist type, I might think Pooh was placed against Potter by someone who hates traditional animation and wants it to die for good.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

First look at Stanton's John Carter (and what the rest of the Pixar boys are up to)

A couple of Pixar's biggest directors have been shooting movies with actual live human beings in them Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille) has directed the upcoming fourth Mission Impossible movie, and as of today we get our first look at Andrew Stanton's (director of Finding Nemo and Wall*E) upcoming John Carter feature with Disney (no, it's not about Noah Wyle's character on ER, it's based on the classic sci-fi novel.

Get a load of the trailer here

Looks really fun, and after his aforementioned movies, I have a lot of trust in Stanton. Meanwhile, Pete Docter (Up and Monster's Inc.) is sticking with Pixar for his next movie, though we don't know just what it'll be yet. No word on if Toy Story 3's Lee Unkrich will be helming another Pixar feature, but I'd be surprised if he didn't. John Lasseter, on the other hand, has his hands pretty full overseeing Pixar, Disney feature animation, and consulting on the parks (maybe that's part of why his Cars 2 was not up to standards. Don't spread yourself too thin, John!).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Chronological Canon: Bambi

In the history of storytelling, there have been endless coming-of-age stories of a boy becoming a man. Bambi is a little different, though, it's the story before that one: the story of a baby becoming a boy, of a child discovering the world.

"Story" almost doesn't even seem like quite the right word for Bambi. We're simply following a character during the first year of his life. Watching as he discovers what it is to be alive and experience the change of the seasons. Our protagonist, Bambi, has no real goals save the vague instinct to survive and to learn, and there's no real antagonist either. The presence of man is a danger, but not really a villain. Man is as unknowable a force to Bambi as the wind or the rain.

You might not think that would make a very good formula for a feature-length film, and yet Bambi is always interesting, always entertaining. There is, of course, plenty of funny business going on. The Disney animators were at the top of their game at this point when it came to filling screen time with amusing bits of animal funny business. Simple scenes like showing the variety of woodland creatures waking up in the morning or watching as Bambi and Thumper have very different experiences walking on ice for the first time are full of moments that are both amusing and delightful without ever seeming forced. Thumper, by the way, is possibly the most genuinely adorable sidekick in Disney's history.

Thumper... ON ICE!

In the decades to come, Disney would at times add unnecessary "funny" animal sidekicks who might seem out of place or their humor forced. They seemed to feel obligated to try to recreate the moments that Bambi seems to present so effortlessly.

Also, Bambi's story is both completely alien to us, and utterly relatable. He's a different species, learning to manipulate a very different kind of body. He lives among a variety of animal creatures, and must deal with the changes of weather and the seasons in different ways than we do. But for all that, the larger story is the same one we've all experienced and have seen every child experience: he's born into a world in which he understands nothing, and must learn to walk, to speak, to interact socially, to take risks, to seek shelter, to trust, to distrust, to love, and to deal with loss. In the broadest sense, Bambi's story is probably the most relatable of any of the Disney animated features.


Speaking of dealing with loss, it's also among the most heartbreaking. The death of Bambi's mother is so shocking and sad it remains somewhat controversial even today - close to 70 years since its initial release.

But what is Bambi without the loss of Bambi's mother? Without that central tragedy, the whole endeavor would become too uneventful, too cute, and too light a trifle - still lovely and entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. Without the loss of Bambi's mother, we would still watch the little deer grow, but we ourselves wouldn't grow at all.

Hi, I'm your dad. Now that your mom is dead I will start caring about you.

I've come close to making a couple of absolute statement about Bambi above. "It may be the most relatable Disney animated feature." "Thumper is possibly the most adorable animal sidekick. Let me come out and make on definite, absolute statement about Bambi: It is the most beautiful of all of Disney's animated features.

Look at the light touch on those flowers and the watercolor background.

From the first frame to the last, Bambi is a gorgeous movie. The soft-edged, light touch Disney had pioneered with Snow White reaches its zenith here in the lush forest setting that is Bambi's world. Every instant is full of rich, gorgeously rendered detail. It all seems completely realistic, and yet is stylized enough to be art rather than meticulous scientific recreation.

Then, at key moments, the animators make bold choices in both form and color, using a more representational style to underline key moments. Take a few looks:

Awesome stuff.

Sadly, Bambi is the last Disney animated feature to use quite so gentle, soft, and lush an approach to its art. There are many beautiful animated features that followed, but none quite so lovely as these three, especially Bambi. Afterward, the studio had to become more mindful of every penny during the war years, and never quite returned to the rich storybook style of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi. It's been a very, very long time, but part of me still holds out hope that they might try again someday. Until then, it doesn't get better looking than Bambi.

If I were forced to say something negative about this movie, I'd say the only thing that I don't love are the voices of Bambi, Thumper, and Flower in the final scenes, their second set of voices. They had to change, of course, but the switch is always jarring to me. Flower's new voice in particular, just doesn’t seem to fit.

But what a minor caveat this is about a great masterpiece of animation. Deceptively simple, unapologetically sentimental, endlessly endearing: Bambi is one of the greats.

I give it nine out of ten Mickey's:

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July: America on Parade

Happy Fourth of July from the Disney Revue!

Enjoy this look back at the first 200 years of American history with Walt Disney World's bicentennial celebration, America on Parade:

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dad poll results, movie attraction poll opens

Our Disney Dads poll has closed and we have a tie! The two dads you'd most like to have as your own are Mufasa and Mr. Incredible. Zeus had a strong showing at third place.

Our new poll is now up. With recent news about the Jungle Cruise movie in the works rumors about a movie with a journey up a mountain and an encounter with a yeti (the Matterhorn or Expedition Everest?), we're asking which theme park attraction that we haven't seen made into a movie yet could potentially make for the best source material for a feature film. Find the poll over to the right and make your pick.

Not included in the list is the joke every article ever written about an attraction being made into a movie includes: "it’s a small world." While I agree that small world would not make a good movie, I'd love to see an "it's a small world" cartoon short in the style of Mary Blair's concept art for the attraction. Wouldn't that be delightful?

Answer: yes it would.