In his 1968 book The Disney Version, Richard Schickel cites Bambi as an example of Walt Disney's prime aesthetic weakness: hiring artists to draw the world in such realistic detail that he might as well have engaged a photographer. Bambi's exception to photorealism is its cute, doe-eyed, rounded-edge critters, but they're a bigger exception than Schickel admits. The 70-minute 1943 feature isn't so much animated as illustrated like a vintage children's book, with elegant painted backgrounds occupied by simplified faces. The story is even simpler, following the seasons as a deer named Bambi is born, gets orphaned, grows up, and falls in love. It's the model for future "circle of life" children's movies about parentless heroes—especially the big one, The Lion King—but Bambi is more primal, moving like a dream from highlight to highlight.
In fact, the movie's a little show-offy at times. The rippling puddles that fill the frame during the song "Little April Showers" and the blinding blizzard during Bambi's mom's infamous death scene call attention to themselves, becoming almost more of an attraction than the episodic plot. But the film's artistry isn't limited to reproducing nature. When Bambi locks horns with a romantic rival, the fight is rendered in washes of color that touch on abstraction in a manner Disney borrowed from his own Fantasia. For all the heavy-handed moralizing about how the pristine natural world gets spoiled once "man has come to the forest," Bambi's message ultimately comes through in its design alone. Who would want to see animals as adorable as Thumper and Flower destroyed by careless hunters and forest fires?
Just as Bambi's look and tone outdo the story, so Bambi's DVD features outdo the movie. The first disc contains a remarkably innovative alternative to a straight commentary track: A troupe of voice actors recreate Bambi's story meetings while the movie plays and images from storyboards and concept paintings drift across the screen. The seamless demonstration reinforces the impression of the original Disney team as a group of bright, versatile guys, able to think equally in terms of art and craft. The dominant voice throughout belongs to Walt Disney, urging his staff not to let the story get in the way of personalities or comic business, and insisting that they "caricature the animals as animals." Amid Disney's lectures on "the difference between the poetic and the bizarre," he hits on the exact recipe of pretension and populism that makes Bambi special, describing it as "a symphony based on the story of Bambi."