Disney aspect ratio conundrum

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?

Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:48:27

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