Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray impressions (long post)
On Tuesday, I received my copy of Sleeping Beauty, the first of Disney’s animated classics to make it to Blu-ray. A 2-disc set (plus an utterly pointless “bonus DVD” version glued to the front cover), this Platinum Edition was quite clearly an extremely cost- and labour-intensive undertaking, and you can read more about the process in a very interesting interview with Theo Gluck, Director of Library Restoration and Preservation for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, as well as an interview with the considerably less informed Sara Duran-Singer, Senior Vice-President of Post Production at Disney.
Of course, what I’m sure everyone wants to know is how the end product looks. I’ll make this simple right off the bat: if you want a general, non-critical response, go and read any of the multitude of reviews written on various web sites that give it ratings of 100% or 10/10 and call it the best thing since sliced bread. For a slightly more in-depth analysis, read on.
First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: this is not the Sleeping Beauty that was released in cinemas in 1959. What I mean by that is that it is subject to the same degree of clean-up and revisionism that Disney has applied to the home video releases of its more prestigious animated titles since the Masterpiece Edition DVD of Alice in Wonderland in 2004 (I’m discounting red-headed stepchildren like The Aristocats and The Fox and the Hound, which were subjected to considerably less rigorous treatment). In other words, any trace of film grain has been scrubbed away, the colours have been altered (quite substantially, in some instances), and it essentially now looks like a film that was made in 2008 rather than 1959. Oddly enough, when something similar was done to Patton for 20th Century Fox’s recent Blu-ray release of that title, cinephiles the world over were up in arms. When Disney does it to their animated films, however, there is a curious lack of uproar. Perhaps it’s because, as an animated film, certain narrow-minded individuals don’t believe it to be worthy of “serious” attention? I doubt that this is the case, however - a brief glance at any number of film-related forums will reveal dozens of people who clearly love the film dearly and are over the moon about this new Blu-ray release.
That’s absolutely fine. I’m glad that people are enjoying this new disc, and have absolutely no problem with that. My concern is with the technicians at Disney, whose house practice of scrubbing the grain from their films goes completely against what I’m looking for when I pop a disc into my player. If a film never had grain to start with, then fine - I’m not expecting something like Ratatouille or Beauty and the Beast, both created entirely in the digital domain, to be sourced from prints (although, sometimes, I do think it would be nice). In the case of a film from the 50s, though, seeing something that has been processed to the extent that it no longer looks like it ever touched film is more than a little off-putting.
That said, for what it is, Sleeping Beauty looks very good indeed. Excellent at times, in fact. There is an extremely impressive amount of detail in the backgrounds, for example in shots 4, 8 and 9 below. The encoding is, for the most part, extremely good (barring a few isolated instances of artefacting). The expanded 2.55:1 aspect ratio (versus the 2.35:1 ratio of previous releases), greatly improves the image composition and reveals all sorts of details at the sides of the frame that were clearly intended to be seen. Unfortunately, barring the overly clean look, you also have to contend with the tell-tale side effects of such heavy noise reduction, mostly in the form of mangled outlines: take a look at the spears in shot 2, or the owl’s eyes in shot 7. For a particularly destructive example, gawp at the mess that is shot 5 - by far the worst-looking few seconds on the disc and something that is, mercifully, the exception rather than the rule.
There is a final point that I would like to make: the issue of the colours. As with the Platinum Edition DVD of Peter Pan, there has been some amount of debate as to the colour timing of this release. A comparison with previous releases of the film (such as the one performed by Chuck Pennington at the Golden Age Cartoons Forum) reveals major differences, and often not for the better. Look at the various different versions of the shot of Aurora and the three fairies (the first one in Chuck’s comparison): the 2008 DVD release, which is derived from the same master as the Blu-ray version, looks noticeably “off”, particularly in terms of Fauna (the green fairy)’s outfit. Put simply, the colours clash and don’t “read” properly. Contrast this with the previous releases, all of which look more natural. For an even more egregious example, take a look at shot 5, previously discussed above: there is far too much similarity in the different shades of blue in Merryweather’s costume for the image to read properly as a whole. Compare this with the 2003 DVD release, where there was proper delineation between the different shades of blue, making the image much easier to look at rather than a mish-mash of clashing hues.
Now, Disney staff have been quick to point out in interviews that the original animation cels and backgrounds were used as a reference during the colour timing. However, I rather fear that they have missed the point here: essentially, they are neglecting the fact that the artists specifically chose colours with an eye towards how they would ultimately look when printed to film, which is obviously not going to be the same as how they look on paper or an animation cel. Warner did exactly the same with their Looney Tunes DVDs, with equally problematic results. A couple of comments on the subject can be read at Cartoon Brew. Says Eric, in the context of the Looney Tunes DVDs:
Maurice Noble [stylist and co-director on many of the Looney Tunes cartoons] once explained to me how he would over saturate the colors in a character or a scene to compensate for the inferiority of the film. Once on film, the color would be toned down to about what he intended. This is where you could run into a problem during restoration.
This is followed by a post by Jeff Kurtti, a film historian and authority on all things Disney. What he says is particularly pertinent to Disney’s art practices:
The true reference point for restoration is a primary color film positive source, not the original animation art.
Studios such as Disney did extensive color testing on cel set-ups to determine how paints, backgrounds, and exposures would affect the final film image, many of the animation art colors are purposely distorted in order to “read” correctly on film. (There is a selection of camera tests like this on the “Snow White” laser disc and Platinum DVD.)
Alice (of Wonderland fame) on cels, for instance, has decidedly green blond hair, in order to “read” on film as golden yellow.
Ultimately, my overall impression of this transfer is that, flaws aside, it is a very good one. It could have been a great one. However, thanks to Disney’s revisionism practices, it falls shy of perfection, meaning that, as good as it is, there are a number of moments that will take observant viewers out of the film itself, which I’m sure we will all agree is never a good thing. Overall, I’d say that the massive improvement in detail makes this a more than worthwhile upgrade over the previous standard definition releases, but it’s frustrating thanks to the number of things that have gone wrong along the way. Take a look at the captures below and judge for yourselves.
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC, 17 GB)
NB: thanks to Lyris for providing some of the screen captures.