Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky butts heads with all his rivals.
Our review of Bambi II (Blu-ray), published August 23rd, 2011, is also available.
"A prince does not 'whoo-hoo.'"—The Great Prince of the Forest (Patrick Stewart)
A couple of years ago, Saturday Night Live ran a "TV Funhouse" cartoon advertising a mock sequel to Bambi. Bambi 2002 featured rapping forest animals, bullet-time battles against the hunters, and Bambi using kung-fu against Arab terrorists. Is the real Bambi II everything we feared it would be? Has Disney sullied another priceless classic with a cut-rate sequel?
Facts of the Case
There is a gunshot—and silence. Bambi calls for his mother, but she is no longer there. Bambi's father, the Great Prince of the Forest, announces sternly, "Your mother can't be with you anymore." Death has come to the forest.
What happened next, in those cold months before Bambi reached adulthood in the coming spring?
There is a narrative gap in the original 1942 film Bambi. This is not a complaint, just an observation. After Bambi's mother dies—a classic narrative trauma for generations of American kids—the story picks up in the spring. Bambi has recovered emotionally, and Uncle Walt can return to a happy depiction of funny forest animals. The only hint we have about those missing months in Bambi's life comes from his father: "Come, my son." They walk off together. The film expects us to fill in the rest.
This is not unexpected. In Disney films, fathers are typically full of bluster (the king in Cinderella) or absent altogether. Mothers are nurturing (Dumbo, Bambi) and protective—unless, of course, they are stepmothers. Even putting Freud aside for the moment, we should note that Disney fathers have been, at least until recently, rarely there. Even Walt Disney—dead forty years now—haunts the company he founded is a painfully conspicuous way. "What would Walt do?" is the constant refrain, as if the absent father (who in reality often had to be kept in check by his level-headed brother) could impart some unimpeachable wisdom from beyond the grave.
If you want to read Bambi II as an unconscious attempt by the Disney Company to channel the spirit of its absent father then, so be it. After all, the project was originally titled Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest, spotlighting the father's role in the story; however, I suspect it might be a bit of a stretch to see the Great Prince as Walt. Still, if it gets you to give this made-for-video production of Disney's Australian DisneyToon Studios a shot, go ahead.
Given all the awful sequels Disney has cranked out in recent years, Bambi II is likely to be overlooked, another shelf-filler that undiscerning parents will grab for their kids and Disney-philes will avoid with a sneer. That is unfortunate. On its own merits, this film is pretty good. Nothing in it made me cringe in embarrassment, and I suspect even Walt would have found it cute. It finds a natural narrative break in the story and inserts itself neatly, without glaring anachronisms and with art direction that meshes reasonably well with the original.
Bambi II immediately makes it clear that it does not want to be simply derivative. The opening shot is a striking, overhead composition. Bambi's low-angle POV from the original film has been superseded by an immediate distance: this is the perspective of the Great Prince himself. This film is as much about the father as the son. How does a parent comfort a child who has suffered a trauma? How does a father learn to understand his role as a parent? In this sense, Bambi II has as much to say to parents as to children.
To make all this work requires developing the Great Prince into a convincing parent. Patrick Stewart is the key here: he gives a restrained, underplayed performance. This is not a rehash of the "wise father" from The Lion King. The Great Prince is more thoughtful, reticent, and even unsure of his own role in Bambi's life. Stewart manages to give the character a sympathetic dignity. This is a parent who must teach his child to move ahead while also mourning himself. Tricky stuff, and Stewart could have easily phoned this one in. But he actually gives the best performance I've seen (or heard, as the case may be) from him in years. And Alexander Gould, picking up the voice of Bambi, is already an old hand at this stuff, having voiced another animal kid dealing with father issues: Nemo.
It helps that Stewart and Gould have a good script to work with, one that paces out Bambi's development (and his father's growing acceptance) steadily over the course of the film. When the story shifts focus to Bambi, the humor is fairly subdued compared to the wise-ass antics of, say, Timon and Pumbaa. Thumper must babysit his giggly sisters for a Groundhog Day ritual. Bambi must deal with awkward puberty ("My antlers are coming in," he tries to brag to Faline, who isn't impressed). He also tangles with the bullying Ronno—who points out what we always knew, that Bambi is a girl's name. Flower the effeminate skunk has little to do, but at least until Disney makes Brokeback Bambi, we'll never know the truth…
Visually, the film tries to emulate the original art design, painted this time entirely on computers. It is not as detailed as the 1942 version, and nothing beats Tyrus Wong's luscious backgrounds, but under the supervision of Andreas Deja, the film gets close enough. The linework is handled with a light touch (except in the case of Ronno, who I suppose is supposed to pop out a little more to match his aggressive personality). Disney is obviously proud of the work here, offering the disc in a pristine anamorphic transfer and even throwing in an expansive DTS soundtrack (in addition to Dolby 5.1). Low-end activity is light, but the rear channels are used effectively throughout.
Speaking of the audio, the film's only real downer is a handful of forgettable songs that switch off with the serviceable underscore that echoes melodies from the original. But the songs are over quickly, and none of them will make you cringe. And thank the forest gods that nobody in the movie actually breaks into a musical number.
Extras are pretty forgettable as well. For the kids, there is a hide-and-seek game and a drawing lesson with Andreas Deja. We also get the requisite making-of featurette and a rather sparse "trivia track." This set of alternate subtitles often leaves several minutes between bits of trivia, so it probably is not worth paying much attention to.
Is there anything here as traumatic and frightening for kids as in the original Bambi? No. There is a nicely creepy bit where the hunters' "deer call" sounds like Bambi's mother, and there is a surprisingly effective chase scene at the climax, but nothing as devastating as the original. And you know Bambi has to be fine, because the final act of the original has yet to unfold. So if your kids made it through the death of Bambi's mother and the forest fire without therapy, they should have no problem handling Bambi II.
But the best thing that can be said about Bambi II is that it gives the parents something to watch as well. We can empathize with the anxiety and eventual pride of Bambi's father. We can enjoy the lovely art design. Disney and its rivals always advertise their products as experiences "for the whole family." In the case of Bambi II, it is actually true.
Ironically, this fact only underscores how weak much of the rest of Disney's recent films have been in comparison. We can only hope that the artistic success of Bambi II can translate to more fulfilling original works from Disney in the coming years.
The Great Prince is called in for questioning as to how he could allow his son to have a girl's name. Otherwise, this case is dismissed.
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