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'Bambi,' Disney's First Circle Of Life

Upon watching the restored version of "Bambi" on DVD this week, I was struck by how familiar the story felt. Then I watched the accompanying documentary on the making of the film, wherein contemporary Disney staffers acknowledged their debt to this 1942 film when they scribed and animated "The Lion King." Long before Simba witnessed his father Mufasa's death on the African Serengeti, children worldwide experienced their first vision of birth, death, and rebirth through "Bambi."

"Bambi" is one of those films that kids see at an early age. In fact, at the age of three, it was the first movie I ever saw in the theater, though I don't remember it at all. No doubt I was one of many children who, after the film was over, asked their parents quietly where Bambi's mother went (a quick email to my mom revealed the forest fire scene made a big impression on me). And though I don't remember it either, it's likely that seeing "Bambi" was the first time I ever thought about death.

Of course, all this talk of death makes "Bambi" seem like a morose picture, which it is not. The charming, economically told story (70 minutes) is not only about death, but also about friends, and growing up, and parallels the characters' life cycle with that of the forest.

The movie "Bambi" was based on a novel by Felix Salten. After reading the book in 1935, Walt Disney hoped to make the picture his follow-up to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Instead, both "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" were made before "Bambi" lit the silver screens in 1942. It's a good thing, because the increase in technology allowed the film to feel more realistic than any animated film previous to that time.

Starting with the Oscar-winning short film "The Old Mill" (which is included as a bonus on this DVD set), Walt Disney pioneered the use of the multiplane camera, a device that allowed for one camera to shoot through layered panes of painted glass that could be moved independent of one another. This technique created the illusion of depth and realistic movement across great stretches of background.

Still galleries of background artwork included on the DVD set reveal the artists who worked on the film were taking a very impressionistic approach to background work. If you look closely at "Bambi," you'll see that many of the trees and plants are painted and drawn in an impressionistic style, but the overall feel of the film is one of realism. And even though "Bambi" features talking animals, the animals in the movie were drawn in such a way to make them still believable as animals that spoke, and not necessarily animals that walked and talked like humans (like, say, Mickey Mouse). In fact, during the production of the movie, several live animals were kept on Disney Studios property for animators to study. Afterwards, they were released to the wild.

This 2005 release marks the first time "Bambi" has been available on DVD, and for the project, the studio retrieved the original camera negative from the Library of Congress, scanned each frame, and cleaned it up to such a polish that the colors practically leap off the screen. The film looks as if it could have been made in the past ten years. The sound of "Bambi" has also been improved, with a surround-sound mix that actually delivers. There's none of that tinny sound heard on some LPs in the 1960s that were "electronically processed to simulate stereo." This is a rich, full soundtrack. For audiophile purists, the DVD also boasts a mono mix.

And speaking of Thumper, one of the best treats on this set are interviews with the three actors who originally voiced Thumper, Bambi, and Faline. Peter Behn, who voiced Thumper, had no communication with the Disney studio after the film's release, and was found after a nationwide search. He now lives in Vermont and runs a real estate brokerage firm. Cammie King appeared as Bonnie Blue Butler in "Gone With the Wind," and after she voiced the young Faline, in "Bambi," she retired from film. And Bambi's voice, Donnie Dunagan, who was born in San Antonio, reveals that after he entered the U.S. Marine Corps in 1952, he didn't tell a soul of his involvement in the film, for fear of being called "Bambi" forever by his fellow leathernecks! Nowadays, he, like the other former child actors, says he is proud of his work on the film.

Despite the fact that the Disney Studio slaps the word "masterpiece" onto virtually all of its catalog films, it can be said that "Bambi" lives up to that description. By tackling life and death, and environmental themes, and doing so with a helpful dose of humor from friends Thumper and Flower, "Bambi" is truly the Prince of the Forest.