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1 item from 2006

The Little Mermaid; Lady and the Tramp; Dumbo; The Fox and the Hound

3 November 2006 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Release dates: Oct. 3; Feb. 28; June 6; Oct. 10

You may as well just go out and buy each new rerelease of Walt Disney's classic cartoon animated features, since each iteration has entirely different colors than the one that came before, and it has probably long been forgotten what the real colors for the films are.

Okay, we're exaggerating, but every time a cartoon comes out, the shades of hues are different, the color temperatures are different, and here and there, yes, a color is completely altered. Is it for the better? Perhaps, but there was nothing wrong with the previous releases, color-wise, so it really is just dabbling here and there to justify the claim that it has been "restored."

The latest masterpiece to get tapped by Tinker Bell's color wand is "The Little Mermaid", issued as a Platinum Edition 2-Disc Special Edition by Walt Disney Home Entertainment (retail $29.99). It is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Disney's previous release (January 2000) was letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1, which loses nothing on the sides and adds picture information to the top and bottom of the image, but it had no 16:9 encoding.

At times the colors on the new version are brighter and at times the colors on the older version are brighter. You could flip a coin to say which presentation is preferable. Take the flamingos during the Kiss the Girl number. Should they be pink, as flamingos are, or should they have a slightly purple tone, because it is nighttime? On the old version, they're pink, and on the new one, they're purple-ish. Either one looks great, and either one has meaning, so you end up accepting them both.

Unlike the picture, the sound is improved for the better. Disney calls it "Enhanced Home Theater Surround Sound," a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track that is distinctively fresher and stronger than the older Dolby mix. The 83-minute program has alternate French and Spanish audio tracks in 5.1 Dolby, optional English subtitles, a sing-along option, and an Ashley Tisdale music video.

There is also an excellent commentary track featuring directors Ron Clements and John Musker, and composer Alan Menken. They talk in detail about developing the project, and about the challenges they encountered, both in terms of animating specific sequences and in carrying the Disney baton to a new generation. They speak wistfully about the contributions of Howard Ashman, who did more than just write the lyrics and dialog, as the vision of blending the animation with a musical-comedy sensibility was what drove him to drive everyone else.

Additionally, they share some great trivia (Mickey, Goofy & Donald can be seen early on) and deliver intelligent insights about movies and life. "People think just because something is "retro," going back to the '30s and '40s, that a reference will mean nothing because our audience are kids, and they don't realize how much in the subconscious of our culture can be accessed by artists. It's not just whatever is contemporary. There's a lot that's timeless in this."

The second platter presents 26 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes. All were wisely trimmed to move the story along and in the right direction, but several feature songs with entertaining lyrics. There are 76 minutes of retrospective featurettes, and Jeffery Katzenberg was even roped in to share his experiences in guiding the film's creation.

There is a lengthy segment on the history of the story itself (including conceptual artwork from a planned Disney version in the '40s), an elaborate profile of Ashman, a detailing of the film's various inspirations (one, for the witch, was the actor, Divine) and more discussions about the breakthrough that the film represented for Disney. For those who need the background information, it is best to watch the documentaries before listening to the commentary, but both are intelligent and rewarding.

Along with a 2-minute promo reel and the somewhat apprehensive first theatrical trailer, there is an 8-minute documentary featurette about the real sea life celebrated in the film, and an extensive still frame section that contains production photos, developmental artwork and even the artwork for the Forties version.

At one point, Disney planned a theme park ride based upon the film, and although it was jettisoned (it appears to have been too simplistic), there is a 15-minute segment that tells the story of its development and, among other things, depicts what its experience would have been like, using realistic computer animation.

Finally, a new cartoon short has been included, based upon another Hans Christian Anderson story, "The Little Match Girl". Running 7 minutes and set, without dialog, to music by Alexander Borodin, it is a classy piece of animated filmmaking.

Disney's Platinum Edition 50th Anniversary Edition of "Lady and the Tramp" (retail $29.99) not only alters the colors of the earlier release (January 2000), but the textures as well. The image is clearly spiffed up, with brighter and more solid hues -- and again, it can be a coin flip at times as to whether the older colors or the newer colors are better; Lady's ear hair was more consistently brown on the older version but now changes almost schizophrenically as she passes from light to shadow, and sometimes looks a touch too orange -- but in solidifying the colors, it also seems that what grain there is on the older presentation is eliminated, taking detail away from backgrounds or incidental objects.

On the whole, the new version does look better than the older one -- and it has been given 16:9 enhancement, which is also a great improvement -- but the older one never really looks bad, just not quite as polished.

The letterboxing has an aspect ratio of about 2.55:1, adding even more picture information to the sides of the image than the older letterboxed version had. The first platter of the two-platter set also contains a cropped presentation of the film, and once in a while the framing differs from the older cropped presentations, not that it matters much.

The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is again punched up a bit, though the older mix wasn't bad and the differences are not as pronounced as they were on Little Mermaid. The 76-minute program has alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby and optional English subtitles.

The second platter contains a good 52-minute retrospective documentary about creating the 1955 feature. Two deleted scenes, running a total of 13 minutes with introductions, are included, one being a very bizarre fantasy sequence that looks like something out of Tex Avery.

It took more than a decade to develop the film, and in 1943 storyboards were generated for an earlier version of the tale -- more Lady, less Tramp -- which is explained and then presented in its entirety with narration in a good 24-minute segment. Along with three trailers, an interesting 4-minute segment on "The Siamese Cat Song", a Steve Tyrell music video, a personality game, a trivia game, a kids documentary about dog breeds hosted by Fred Willard and running 9 minutes, and an extensive still frame collection of developmental artwork and other materials, there are some wonderful excerpts from two of Disney's TV episodes promoting the film, restored to color for the first time and running a total of 46 minutes.

The old 60th Anniversary Edition of "Dumbo" (November 2001) has brighter colors than the new Big Top Edition (retail $29.99), and so in sequences such as the train passing by the sunset, the older version is greatly preferable, even though the image is slightly grainier and less detailed. The elephants are greyer on the new version sometimes, and on the old version sometimes, though generally, the colors of the other animals are consistently better -- more accurate browns and greys -- on the new version. So again, you basically have to hold on to both of them.

The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound appears to be identical to the earlier release -- a pleasing mix with a viable dimensionality. John Canemaker's excellent commentary has been retained from the earlier release, as has the less valuable 15-minute retrospective documentary, the two classic Disney cartoons, a minute-long introduction to the film from a TV broadcast, the 8-minute "Elmer Elephant" animated short from 1936, the 9-minute "The Flying Mouse" animated short from 1934, an artwork still frame gallery, and a "read along" storybook segment. New to this release is an interactive piece for kids about circus animals and a Jim Brickman music video (the older version had a Michael Crawford video). The 1941 feature runs just 64 minutes.

Contrary to its promotions, Disney's new 25th Anniversary release of "The Fox and the Hound" (retail $30) actually has an identical picture transfer to Disney's previous release (Jul 2000). At least we could not see any difference between the two.

The full screen presentation is stable and solid, with bright hues and crisp lines. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is a fair improvement over the old DVD's standard stereo track, however, and there are a few more extras, including a 6-minute retrospective documentary about the creation of the 1981 feature (you kind of wish it were longer, as it explores the "changing of the guard" between Disney's older and younger animators during the creation of the film); a modest but rewarding still frame section featuring conceptual art, production photos and ad art; a simple choice game; a "read along" segment; a sing-along segment for one of the film's few songs; and two classic Disney cartoon shorts, the 1951 "Lambert the Sheepish Lion" and the 1941 Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Pluto, "Lend a Paw", both running 8 minutes and both, like the 83-minute feature film, about animals who are supposed to be natural enemies making friends with one another.

The complete database of Doug Pratt's DVD-video reviews is available at . A sample copy of the DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter can be obtained by calling (516) 594-9304.


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