Sunday, February 27, 2005

Deerly Beloved

Watching the new DVD of Bambi, a movie I hadn't seen in years, I was reminded of something -- something, I mean, apart from the fact that we don't actually see Bambi's mother die (like most people who watched this movie as a kid, I could have sworn that I saw the death onscreen, so great was its impact). That's the almost complete lack of sound effects in the movie. Have you ever noticed this in Disney's early features? Basically a lot of them use sound effects only for offscreen actions, like the gunshot that kills you-know-who or the sound of Bambi falling into a puddle. And sometimes if a particular action is important enough, like Thumper thumping, it'll be represented by a sound effect. But apart from that, Bambi mostly uses voices, music, and nothing else; the fight scene between Bambi and that other deer is without sound effects, as is Bambi walking through the snow, Bambi's dad (who, I take it, is an old guy who got a girl pregnant, ran off, and doesn't pay child support) running to warn the other deer about Man (tm) in the forest, and almost everything else that would normally be represented by a sound effect in a film, whether animated or live-action. It's rather odd, once you notice it, and I'm not really sure why Disney was so reluctant to make use of sound effects.

The other thing I was reminded of is the way these Disney movies use songs. You'll remember that in the early '90s, almost every animated movie was a musical with big production numbers, a practice that got out of hand in movies like Pocahontas or Hunchback of Notre Dame, which sometimes seemed to have more music than animation. A reaction set in, and now most animated movies either have no songs or use them more or less as background music. Disney's movies aren't exactly musicals, but they aren't exactly nonmusicals either. They have songs, and most of them (though not Bambi) have characters who sing), but there are very few musical "numbers" per se. Instead there are animated sequences that are built around songs, like the Pink Elephants sequence in Dumbo or the "Little April Shower" scene in Bambi; the animation takes its rhythm and basic subject-matter from the song, but the story interest of the sequence is almost entirely created visually, rather than taking visual cues from the lyrics as a full-fledged musical does. The point of having songs -- and this is brought up a couple of times in Disney's story conferences, transcripts of which are read aloud on the DVD's "Inside Walt's Story Meetings" feature -- was as an alternative to doing a scene in dialogue; it was felt that animated movies should have as little dialogue as possible, so using a song to set the basic subject of a scene was preferable to using lines of dialogue.

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