Thursday, 4 November 2010

Disney Fiercely Protecting Their Legacy on Blu-ray...

As a huge fan of animation I have eagerly devoured every one of the Disney Blu-ray releases from the so-called "animated classics" canon* as they have been released. Not especially prudent use of my money, as I already owned them all on DVD, yet the superior treatment afforded to the 50th anniversary release of 'Sleeping Beauty' in 2008 convinced me that they were well worth investing in, yielding new insights into the old classics. As well as being presented in its original aspect ratio (Super Techirama 70) for the first time since it's 1958 release, 'Sleeping Beauty' received a glorious array of extra features, the best of which was a commentary track by Pixar legend John Lassester, film historian Leonard Maltin and veteran Disney character animator Andreas Deja.

What made that commentary so brilliant was its unprecedented level of depth, as it looked at all the circumstances behind the film's production, even including picture-in-picture images which allowed for archive interviews with the film's animators, as well as storyboards and concept art, to be displayed alongside the relevant bits of the movie. Happily Disney followed suit with their next Blu-ray animation titles, investing just as much love and care in 'Pinocchio' and Pixar's 'Wall-E', both of which boasted those same picture-in-picture commentaries (dubbed "Cine-Explore" in the promotional materials).

However, I was really disappointed to find that the same treatment has not been afforded the subsequent releases. Don't get me wrong: 'Dumbo', 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', 'Princess and the Frog' and 'Beauty and the Beast' have, by any other studios standards, benefited from a decent array of extras and the main feature has been provided in the best possible quality. But the thing about those other commentaries was that they were much more in-depth than the standard director's observations that we usually hear. They contextualised the films they accompanied wonderfully and the picture-in-picture element gave you the chance to see some interesting supporting materials alongside the feature. For example, when being told about the influence of Hieronymus Bosch paintings on Eyvind Earle's designs for Malificent's goons in 'Sleeping Beauty' we were also shown the paintings themselves. To my mind that was the way every Blu-ray commentary should have been done since. Certainly, those features certainly made me less reticent about re-buying films I already own on DVD.

But it seems Disney has its own quite canny and interesting new strategy for converting its customers to the format, eschewing extras as the big selling point. Disney have for a while now been at the forefront of the move to include a DVD with each Blu-ray as standard (they've been doing this since 'Sleeping Beauty' was released two years ago), but earlier this week (when buying 'Beauty and the Beast') I noticed a very clever and hugely interesting new development. With previous releases Disney has put out a cheaper standard DVD version alongside a more expensive Blu-ray version (with DVD included), however 'Beauty and the Beast' is the same price in DVD form as it is in its Blu-ray incarnation. The reason? The DVD edition now includes a "bonus" Blu-ray version of the film! In familiar DVD packaging, standard-def customers are now unwittingly buying Blu-ray.

Many may express anger at this bold move. After all, aren't Disney charging the majority of people extra money for something that they don't want/need? Well, yes. But, as a supporter of that format who hopes to see it take off (and take over) I welcome the move. What better way to move the discs into people's homes Trojan horse style? Of course there is more in it for Disney then just creating a user base for the next generation of home entertainment players. It is also a rather ingenious way of allowing their cherished classics to retain their value in a world where the £19.99 DVD is a thing of the past.

Disney has always been justly protective of these films, re-releasing them and subsequently withdrawing them from stores in an endless rotation designed to keep them "special", and what better way is there to reasonably keep the value of these films up? (And I say this as someone who has paid the full price for many of them more than once.) You never see a Beatles CD on sale for less than £10 for the same reason you never see a Disney classic in the bargain bins: like Apple Corp, Disney just won't let it happen. Just try making money selling copies of 'Men in Black II' once it's been available for 99p (or possibly less). Once you reduce somethings value you reduce it forever. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Whilst I wouldn't argue too strongly against those who would argue that Disney's keeping these films sacred is chiefly for financial gain (yes, they are a company with shareholders), I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the idea that the Mouse House is historically run by people with an earnest desire to maintain the company's heritage. After all, in 2006 Disney were rumoured to have paid a huge multi-million dollar sum to acquire the rights to Mickey Mouse's ancestor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Universal. Oswald, the first big claim to fame of Walt Disney in his earliest days as an animator, was purchased at the behest of the Disney family (the real family... that wasn't a creepy corporate metaphor) for no other purpose than maintaining Walt's legacy. Whilst Oswald merchandise is no doubt now available, it is not really a big money spinner - at least in the short term - and certainly not enough to offset the cost of buying the rights. You could say Oswald is just Mickey Mouse with longer ears and fewer fans: and you'd be right. But I guess at the corporate level buying him is the equivalent of paying out for the Blu-ray hoping to get that little extra you were missing.

Anyway, I have just sat through the commentaries on 'Princess and the Frog' and 'Beauty in the Beast' and wanted to spout off about it all somewhere. I am super excited by the prospect of the 'Fantasia'/'Fantasia 2000' box set which comes to Blu-ray on Monday - and which will no doubt cost just as much on Blu-ray with a free DVD as on DVD with a free Blu-ray! I am interested to see what form Disney's home video releases take in the next few years, namely on the subject of which titles will be re-released and what sorts of features they will boast (especially in the post 3D-TV era). Whether Disney's new pricing strategy will continue beyond 'Fantasia' and 'Toy Story 3', who knows? Could it continue into releases by other studios? As the format comes close to being half a decade old, surely the next few years are decisive if it's to become a feature of the living rooms of people other than early adopters and obsessive collectors. In summary: I hope more people are persuaded to buy these things so Disney can keep releasing them.

*As a random geeky sidebar: whilst Disney's effort to preserve a hallowed canon has been consistent for years, what actually constitutes an "animated classic" is under almost constant revision somewhere in the marketing department of the home entertainment wing. In the mid-90s predominantly live-action features such as 'Pete's Dragon', 'Bed Knobs and Broomsticks' and 'Mary Poppins' were treated as part of the canon, whilst the 2000 release 'Dinosaur' has only recently begun to be included in the official reckoning - now listed as number 39, with everything from 'The Emperor's New Groove' onwards shifting up a number.

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