I’ve brought this topic up before, but with this threesome of HD releases, ask yourself how much of a fan you are. Do you love Robin Hood? Or Oliver & Company? Or The Sword in the Stone? (I will refrain, except from this parenthetical, for adding to those questions a perplexed “Why?”) If you do, or if you absolutely must own every Disney Blu-ray, or if you know someone who fits either of those criteria, then any or all of these are for you. The rest of us should look elsewhere, sadly. However, even for those of us who might find each of these films slightly wanting in the story and character department, these Blu-rays are intriguing to look into for the transfer alone.
The Disney aficionados among you likely do not need to have the xerographic process explained, but for the rest: this animation process was the lay of the land at Disney and other animation studios throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially, meant as a way to save time and money on animating cel after cel, frame after frame of characters and settings. The majority of Disney’s animated features, from right after Sleeping Beauty all the way up to The Little Mermaid, not only employed the xerographic process but suffered as a result. The visual legacies these films left behind, among them The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, is that they were lazy, somewhat cheap, and almost sloppy to look at. Robin Hood, in particular, is somewhat well-known in animation circles for its “Phony King of England” sequence, not because of the song or the bouncy dances on screen. No, that scene is mostly recognizable because it literally copies character movements from previous Disney animated features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Jungle Book, down to characters shaking their butts at the screen, a la King Louie and Baloo.
Granted, the Robin Hood Blu-ray will not fix this problem. Whether you like the movie or not—and though I’m not a fan, I know it’s got a strong fanbsae—Robin Hood will always feel a bit more slight, in part because the animators weren’t breaking any ground with the animal version of the story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. The movie has, at best, a laid-back charm that eventually becomes too oppressive because it only emphasizes how little effort there appears to be in this feature. But songs like “Oo-De-Lally” as well as the opening credits sequence, performed by Roger Miller, have a nice, breezy rhythm and mild enough wit. As a whole, Robin Hood still feels too slight, but now that it’s on Blu-ray, it actually looks halfway decent. Excessive xerography aside, the film has, thankfully, not fallen into the trap that other older animated films sometimes do: the HD transfer doesn’t highlight the 1970s-era flaws of the animation. Instead, the colors are heightened and brighter, and the character work looks slightly more professional and artistic. Robin Hood is too copied over, but the transfer’s solid.
The same goes for The Sword in the Stone, at least specific to the transfer. Thankfully, this 1963 animated feature has never suffered from looking so totally unoriginal in its character design or environment, but the retelling of how the gawky little boy named Wart became the future (and not phony) king of England has always relied more on episodic gags than a truly memorable whole. The centerpiece remains the sequence in which Wart’s mentor, the famed wizard Merlin, faces off with a dark wizard named Mad Madame Mim, as they transform themselves from humans into various other creatures. Though the backgrounds are a bit too dark, muting the overall effect, this scene gave the animators a chance to show off in ways that the rest of the film only sporadically offers.
Both The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood have Blu-rays with meager special features, although each one has one new feature: an alternate opening and a deleted storyline, respectively. Neither is particularly earth-shattering, but both are in HD and if you’re one of those diehard fans, you may well salivate over the handful of minutes of supplements offering what might have been. (The Robin Hood storyline, in which Prince John presumes he’s being sent love letters, is as silly and lightweight as the finished product, but seeing as the entirety of the storyline is over seven minutes, it was for the best to cut it.) However, the best example of the problem with the supplements on all three Blu-ray discs is this fact: the longest supplement on any of them is a 14-minute storybook of Robin Hood narrated by Disney voice-actor stalwart Corey Burton, ported over from a previous DVD version.
Even worse, the Oliver & Company Blu-ray, released to commemorate its 25th anniversary, has no new special features at all, and even fewer features than either of its prior DVD releases. Those that are included are baffling or unintentionally funny, such as the two old-school shorts, in which Pluto is the star facing off against various nasty-seeming cats. Considering that Oliver & Company is that rare beast within the Disney animated-feature canon, a movie that doesn’t actively demonize cats, it’s odd that the added shorts (which are thrown on mostly just so there are more special features) would…actively demonize cats. And then there’s the five-minute behind-the-scenes video that is so hilariously dated—touting songs performed by Billy Joel and Huey Lewis to cater to “today’s highly hip moviegoers”—and vaguely racist—the narrator lauds Cheech Marin for his “unmistakable Hispanic spice,” though, being fair, the movie doesn’t give Marin anything else to do with his character. It’s kind of painful to watch.
The movie itself does fall into the “HD only serves to enhance flaws” trap. Somehow, strangely, a 25-year old movie looks much worse on Blu-ray than a 40-year old movie or a 50-year old movie. As much as Robin Hood may suffer from the xerographic process, there’s very little hint of wit or invention in the animation style and quality of Oliver & Company. Outside of the characters—even the villainous Sykes, who seems more like a template for future Disney villain MacLeach—the backgrounds, designs, and settings are all very lackluster, to the point where this movie looks like it’d be better off having been a pilot for a TV series in the Disney Afternoon block. What’s most shocking is that this film came just a year before The Little Mermaid, which may not have the best overall animation in the entirety of Disney’s canon; still, that movie, even on DVD, is leaps and bounds above this one in any transfer.
Of course, your mileage may vary. You may be reading this, shaking your head because all that matters to you is that these movies are finally on Blu-ray. And they are. And if you don’t need new special features, then you’ll be happy. But anyone who wants to learn more about each of these movies, and maybe even would want a commentary from the filmmakers or animation historians or the like, will be disappointed because they probably pored over the current supplements when they were on DVD, not Blu-ray. The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, and Oliver & Company are not among the most massively popular Disney animated films, even though they have garnered cult followings over the decades. Those of you in such fanbases will rejoice over this trio of releases. The rest of us will have to wonder if Disney will ever give a canonized animated feature a sumptuous, supplement-packed Blu-ray again.
— Josh Spiegel