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Disney aspect ratio conundrum


(Also posted at DVD Times)

In Disney fandom, there is a long-running debate surrounding the intended aspect ratios of a number of the studio’s animated features, including everything from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) up to and including The Fox and the Hound (1981). For a long time, the eight films encompassed by this 20-year period were all available on DVD in a 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, barring The Rescuers (1977), which was released in 1.66:1. No-one could really decide exactly which ratio these films were meant to be shown in: theoretically, they were all released at a time when cinemas equipped to display Academy material were no longer common, so it makes sense to assume that they would have been exhibited in a ratio somewhere between 1.66:1 (European widescreen) and 1.85:1 (American widescreen). This was substantiated somewhat by the admittedly unreliable IMDB, which listed an intended ratio of 1.75:1 for these titles.

The DVDs, however, suggested otherwise. Many argued that Disney would not have released these films in 1.33:1 on DVD if that was not their intended ratio, especially given their otherwise solid track record for presenting the other Animated Classics on DVD properly. Opponents of this theory pointed to The Rescuers as the odd one out, wondering why Disney would have made this film in widescreen and then gone back to the Academy ratio for their next project. Likewise, the obviously cropped DVD and VHS releases of The Fox and the Hound strongly indicated that something foul was afoot in Neverland.

The release of a new edition of Robin Hood, however, goes some way towards answering these various questions. Previously, this film was, like its counterparts from the 1961-1981 period, released on DVD in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which showed no obvious cropping. Personally, I always suspected that, barring The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, all the films of this 20-year period were being released in an open matte format - substantiated by the fact that zooming the DVDs in on a widescreen TV generally resulted in few if any framing problems. Now, Robin Hood has been released in a new “Most Wanted Edition” (how on earth do they come up with these titles?), and it turns out to be a 1.75:1 anamorphic presentation (i.e. with very thin black bars on either side of the widescreen frame). The Ultimate Disney review, which includes a screenshot comparing this release to its 1.33:1 predecessor, clearly shows that the earlier version was open matte. Indeed, flicking between the two captures of the same frame from both releases, it’s clear that, on the left and right hand side of the frame, there is barely even a pixel’s worth of difference. At the top and bottom, however, the new release obscures a considerable amount of the dead space that was present on the previous release.

The reviewer admittedly does have some reservations about this new presentation, pointing to the fact that “some elements do feel slightly cramped in the vertical direction”, and a few of the screen captures accompanying the review do substantiate this. I’m not particularly convinced, however, by the various arguments he puts forth in favour of 1.33:1 being the intended presentation (although, to his credit, he doesn’t attempt to claim one or the other to be the “correct” way to view the film). It seems, to me at least, clear that Robin Hood (and, therefore, presumably also One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Aristocats and so on) were exhibited theatrically at around a ratio of 1.75:1 (which falls fairly squarely between 1.66:1 and 1.85:1), therefore making this new DVD an accurate representation of its intended appearance. I consider Robin Hood to be one of the worst films from a generally poor period in the Disney studio’s history, but I’m sorely tempted to pick up this new version and bin (or, more likely, eBay) my old fullscreen disc.

The only question now is why did they go to the effort to get Robin Hood right, but weren’t willing to take this extra step for The Fox and the Hound?

Posted: Saturday, December 02, 2006 at 4:53 PM | Comments: 6
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD | Reviews



With all the fuss over proper aspect ratios, why not just include widescreen and fullscreen versions in the one package?
They did for Sleeping Beauty & Finding Nemo.

Looking at those screenshots on the UltimateDisney review, i must say the old 2000 release is much, much better. And that is a shame.

Posted by: Phantom, December 2, 2006 10:57 PM


Are you referring to the framing differences or to the other differences - colour, sharpness, etc? The old fullscreen release is too sharp and colourful, in my opinion: it’s edge enhanced and has a very harsh, garish look overall. Based on the screenshots, I’d say that the new release looks much more like how I would expect a film from the 1970s, painted with a deliberately muted palette, to look.

I agree with you about including both versions in the same package - it’s probably what I’d do, all things considered, given that many people will have grown up with the fullscreen version and will be used to all that dead space - but I really don’t think I’d describe the 2000 release as “much better”.

Posted by: Whiggles, December 2, 2006 11:19 PM


Your probably right, as i don't own the old dvd, but from that review, the fullscreen picture looked more brighter and sharper than the new widescreen one.
The Disney releases are usually pretty thorough, but they seem to be dropping the ball of late. The Fox and the Hound being a prime example. Seems like they are rushing alot of new releases onto the market. Possibly to make a quick buck before the eventual Blu-Ray releases hit.

Posted by: Phantom, December 3, 2006 12:03 AM


Some of those screencaps do indeed look a bit cramped, but it's difficult to tell the correct ratio from the pictures only. Maybe the original ratio would be 1.66:1? The release of "The Rescuers" would be in favor of that.

But maybe the movies from that period don't really have one specific original ratio - maybe the animation was done with both TV airings and cinema showings in mind and thus it was created in some kind of "middle way" that would look okay on both?

Posted by: BobaFett, December 3, 2006 2:24 AM


Yes, I wonder if a ratio of 1.66:1 would have given the characters more room to “breathe”, so to speak, while still maintaining the intended widescreen composition. Certainly, the approximate ratio of animation paper is fairly close to 1.66:1, which would probably explain why most Disney films from The Great Mouse Detective onwards have been presented in that ratio on DVD (barring a handful of exceptions like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 2.35:1 efforts like Atlantis and Brother Bear).

The argument for there being multiple possible ratios also makes a lot of sense, and is certainly something that I think is probably true of Disney’s most recent films too. All of them have a fairly loose sense of composition, to the extent that adding a bit of space here and taking some away there tends not to make a major difference. Of their most recent films, only the Cinemascope Atlantis is hugely affected by altering the ratio.

Posted by: Whiggles, December 3, 2006 4:09 PM


Of course, it’s also true that, these days, even 2.35:1 films tend to be composed with an eye to making pan and scanning (for Panavision) or open matting (for Super35) as straightforward as possible. A composition like the iconic one in Profondo Rosso, where Marc stands at one end of the screen and Carlo at the other, in front of the fountain, would almost certainly never be done today. Indeed, one of the things that impressed me so much about Atlantis, despite its flaws, was that the layout artists actually seemed to use the entire frame instead of just confining the important action to the centre.

Posted by: Whiggles, December 3, 2006 4:12 PM

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