It’s a good time to be a Blu-ray and Disney buff. Of course, this has been true ever since Blu-ray became the format of choice, beating HD-DVD in the format wars from a few years ago. (Who doesn’t have fond memories of the format wars? Oh, sure, there were casualties, but we had fun, didn’t we? Of course, it’s not as memorable as the Rock ‘n’ Roller Cola Wars Billy Joel sang about it, but what is?) The last few months, in particular, have been fruitful for Disney fans who own Blu-ray players. In fact, it’s come to a point where such fans’ wallets are getting too light. If you haven’t reached this point yet, you may get there this week, because Disney is releasing six—count ‘em, six—films on the HD format: The Aristocats, Chimpanzee, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World in a two-movie collection, The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under in a two-movie collection, and The Tigger Movie. Whew. You got all that?
The good news for any fan of these movies as well as fans of Blu-ray transfers of older films is that Disney’s six releases are an excellent upgrade. The bad news—at least for this Disney fan—is that the six films, all told, aren’t exactly great films. There’s a lot to sift through on the surface, but not as much once you drill down into the nitty-gritty. There are a handful of impressive special features spread across all six releases. However, as each of these releases are at least 2 discs each (they’re Blu-ray/DVD combo packs), it’s a bit of a letdown that Disney didn’t pack each disc with as many in-depth features as possible.
Let’s be clear about one thing: if you are a fan of any of the movies mentioned in the first paragraph and you have a Blu-ray player, buying these sets is a smart move. Disney’s Blu-ray transfers have been excellent in the past, and these discs aren’t an exception. From the bright, pastel colors in The Aristocats to the pristine evocation of the jungle in Chimpanzee, each film looks exceptional on a HDTV. The real standout is Pocahontas, the 1995 film that may be part of the Disney Renaissance but came at the tail end qualitatively. The animation in Pocahontas has always been one of its strong suits, though, with artful, experimentally colorful touches throughout the love story (loosely inspired by reality) between an English settler and a Native American princess. The image is striking and clear on the Blu-ray, making some sequences, such as the “Colors of the Wind” number, jaw-dropping in their beauty.
The Pocahontas two-pack also features one of the most engrossing special features any of the Blu-rays have to offer. It’s called “Drawing Inspiration: The Lost Story of Hiawatha,” and details an animated feature Walt Disney attempted to mount back when he was alive, based on Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” Animation scholar Charles Solomon and Pocahontas co-director Eric Goldberg pore over storyboards detailing the entire story, which would end up giving the Disney animators inspiration for Pocahontas. Simply because it’s never been seen before in such a major fashion, this feature is enough for any Disney or animation buff to buy the two-movie set.
Another truly intriguing special feature is on the Chimpanzee Blu-ray, called “On Location: The Making of Chimpanzee.” If you’ve heard the Mousterpiece Cinema episode where Michael Ryan and I discussed this 2012 documentary, you know that I had serious issues with the narration from Tim Allen. Not only was it frequently unnecessary—in that the images on screen needed no explanation—but it often anthropomorphized the chimpanzees in a way that just sucked me out of the film. During the end credits, the people behind the scenes, from camera operators to researchers, discussed the story of Oscar and his male protector, and how they went about capturing it on film. Their talking-head sequences, as well as the audience being shown a quick glimpse of what it was like to live and film in the jungle, was more exciting to watch than what preceded those credits. This making-of documentary, split into multiple parts, pays off on that end-credit sequence and more. Any fans of BBC nature documentaries like Planet Earth and Human Planet will be thrilled by this documentary, moreso than the film itself. The intricacies of the work these men and women did and the challenges they faced are as compelling as anything Oscar deals with in Chimpanzee; thankfully, the documentary moves swiftly between the humans’ and chimpanzee’s tribulations.
I wanted to make one note about the two collections here that put together two films, for the Pocahontas and Rescuers films. I’ve been a bit skeptical of Disney’s decision to bunch films together—as when they released Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 on a four-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo—for a number of reasons. Some of the time, they bunch together movies I can’t imagine a lot of fans are champing at the bit for. (Unless you are the rare consumer who’s long desired both Pocahontas and its direct-to-DVD sequel in a convenient pack.) The rest of the time, Disney bunches together features, like the two Rescuers films, which could arguably merit separate releases. Certainly, The Rescuers Down Under isn’t a massively beloved Disney animated film, but it is a theatrical feature and a notable one—the first (and only, depending on if you consider Fantasia 2000 a typical follow-up to a predecessor) theatrical sequel to any Disney animated classic. Are we meant to believe Disney couldn’t fashion a full release for each film? Sadly, we’ll never know. Both two-movie packs are essential for fans of the films, but the generally spare special features sections are disappointing.
Though many films owned by the Walt Disney Company perhaps warrant a Blu-ray release more, the six films they’re offering for public consumption this week—The Aristocats, Chimpanzee, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, and The Tigger Movie—are fine entries into the Disney Blu-ray catalog. But the features are, mostly, standard-issue. If you end up purchasing each of these, it’ll mean you’re either the biggest Disney completist out there, or your kids are in desperate need of any kind of family entertainment.
– Josh Spiegel