On one hand, it’s hard not to applaud the Walt Disney Company for its recent and seemingly tireless efforts to release as many of its older films that aren’t considered categorically huge successes onto Blu-ray. (Later this year, we’ll see everything from the Santa Clause trilogy to Babes in Toyland get a high-definition release from Disney.) A company this vast could totally ignore something that didn’t make them billions of dollars from merchandising, ticket sales, and so on, but they give new life to somewhat forgotten or barely cult-like movies. However, so many of their Blu-ray releases feel like an occasion for interested consumers to double-dip, just to get a brand-new coat of paint on a movie they like. Such is the case for Pete’s Dragon and The Great Mouse Detective, two new Disney Blu-rays that don’t offer much outside of the movie transfer.
The Great Mouse Detective arrives on Blu-ray for the first time, with a so-called “Mystery in the Mist” edition including a DVD of the film. This 1986 animated feature was something of a more successful bridge between the old-fashioned animation that was left behind with The Fox and the Hound and the Disney Renaissance period that would begin with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Technological innovation peeks its head in the climax of the movie, set inside of Big Ben as Basil of Baker Street, the mouse version of Sherlock Holmes, faces off against his own Moriarty, the slimy, Vincent Price-voiced villain Professor Ratigan.
In some ways, the HD transfer for The Great Mouse Detective is most remarkable because it manages to be both an improvement on the VHS and DVD versions—the animation cels are clearly heightened to be brighter—while not looking overly pristine, extra-shiny or fake. Every scene looks very much like it came from the mid-1980s without feeling sloppy or looking worse for wear. Disappointingly, there are very few special features on the Blu-ray, only one of which seems particularly edifying, a short behind-the-scenes featurette. The other features are a sing-along track to Ratigan’s opening song and a laughably fast rundown of detective work throughout history, culminating with a kid-friendly “mystery” to solve. We’ve yet come to the day when feature-length commentaries are required on new DVDs and Blu-rays, but one for The Great Mouse Detective would be more than welcome.
Pete’s Dragon is, perhaps, the more apparent example of double-dipping. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack only has three special features (one of which appears on both Blu-ray and DVD), and all are from the 2009 DVD version. There’s no hyperbole in saying that the only difference between the 2009 version that you may own and this new Blu-ray is the high-definition transfer applied to the movie. Regarding that, Pete’s Dragon stands out as an odd outlier in the Disney Blu-ray library. The live-action in the film looks exceptional, with crystal clear and crisp imagery. However, Pete’s Dragon, in line with movies like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is a hybrid of live-action and animation, as the young boy Pete interacts with a large cartoon dragon named Elliott. Unfortunately, the presentation of Elliott in this Blu-ray highlights one of the fears people have always harbored about high-definition technology being used on older, pre-HD work: that instead of looking clearer, brighter, and more polished, footage would look sloppier, that flaws would become more obvious with HD. Pete’s Dragon is one of the films from Disney’s xerography era, where the animation process was made shorter and emphasized copying more than anything else. Though The Aristocats, another xerography-era film, looked pretty solid on Blu-ray, the same can’t be said for the animation in Pete’s Dragon. Really, it’s because the live-action here looks so good that the presentation of the animation falters.
One note: there is a strange and glaring typo on the Pete’s Dragon Blu-ray packaging and disc, listing the running time as “approximately 88 minutes.” Perhaps only the most dedicated fans (or, in the case of yours truly, those who have a good memory for such pointless pop-culture detritus) will take notice, but while Pete’s Dragon has multiple versions with different running times, the version on the Blu-ray is the same as the one on the 2009 DVD, running roughly 128 minutes. Likely, someone misread 128 minutes as meaning 1 hour and 28 minutes, but take heart, Pete’s Dragon stalwarts: Disney has not cut this film to shreds. They just screwed up with the packaging.