Classic Disney Animation in 3D! A Review of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King on Blu-Ray 3D
The Backlash Against 3D
3D has become a commonplace in movie theaters, but here at the end of 2011, some are predicting (even insisting) that the current fad for stereoscopic movies has run its course. Dodgy live action movies shot in 2D, fudged into unimpressive 3D in post-production, have made the public wary and even cranky about 3D cinema. And even for the flawless 3D in many CGI animated films, the box office up-charge is a real downer.
I'm in sympathy. Lousy presentation and rushed, lazy effects work have tarnished a format that is already perceived as not much more than a gimmick. These days, when I find a 3D film that I'd like to see, I can't get any of my friends excited about going. I can't blame them.
I enjoy 3D. I agree that it's gimmicky, and I can embrace that. Occasionally, I'm pleasantly surprised by decent movies that put the format to good use. (Avatar, Tangled and Rio are recent films that impressed me with 3D spectacle in ways that complemented their stories.) But, I think 3D is best used as an occasional spice, a fun extra, but not a staple on the cinema menu.
Who Needs 3D TV?
I promise, I'm getting to the Disney films very soon, but first, a word about 3D TV. A couple of holiday seasons ago, the electronics industry was insisting that we'd all be adopting active-shutter glasses, 3D-ready hi-def televisions and 3D Blu-Ray players to enjoy 3D at home. The price tag was exorbitant. The number of quality titles was dismayingly low. I wasn't tempted by the prospect. But this summer, 3D television made its way into my home.
I have been without a TV set for the better part of the last decade. (Hulu and Netflix have been my main link to popular culture for the last few years.) But, for business reasons (honest), I found myself in need of a television and an Xbox 360. (I'm not kidding!) I went looking for a reasonably priced HDTV, and I found the Vizio E3D47OVX, a reasonably priced 1080p LCD television that uses passive viewing for 3D. I'm here to tell you, passive viewing is the way to go for 3D in the home. The glasses? They're exactly the same polarized lenses you are given at your local cinema. (in fact, you could bring your Real-D glasses home from the theater, and use them to watch a 3D blu-ray in your living room.) For a much lower price, this system (in tandem with a 3D enabled Blu-ray player) delivers a stunning, sharp and colorful 3d image, with very little "ghosting" or crosstalk, and incredibly bright, vibrant colors. I'm not a techie, but the 3D I've been able to experience with this set is much better looking than anything, and I mean anything, I have seen in theaters. And the ease of use of the non-powered glasses makes a huge difference.
I'm sold and I'm preaching. Good 3D in the home with inexpensive passive glasses is a blast! You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars in order to let a few friends in on the fun, either. If you enjoy 3D even a little, you should look for a demo of this passive system at a big box retailer near you. Me, I'm downright giddy about it. (Vizio and LG are currently making these TVs. Check 'em out.)
Don't Mess With The Classics
Okay, so here I am cheering 3D on in spite of the critics. But I think my friends and I are united in disapproving the odious practice of tinkering with classic films. (George Lucas, back away from the editing bay!) Don't colorize, re-think, re-edit or reshuffle movies that we totally loved the first time around. This seems like a fine maxim for filmmakers to live by. And then I heard that two classics from Disney's 90s renaissance were about to be converted into 3D. The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast were both much-loved hand-drawn movies that had admirable depth (of story and characterization) but were decidedly 2D, and finely crafted to be that way.
If you've seen traditional cel animation of the past that was shot in 3D, you know that it has typically come off looking like a lot of flat layers. (The Donald Duck short Working For Peanuts is a good example. It used to play in the Fantasyland Theater, where I saw it several times.) Stacking up layers of cels and backgrounds tends to emphasize the fact that the figures are not rounded and dimensional. They start to look like cutouts in a toy theater.
So, I was a little apprehensive about these two conversions. Would they look like a paper doll puppet show? Would the characters be artificially rounded out until they no longer look like the original animator's drawings? It seemed like a gamble, maybe even a cynical ploy to line some already very deep pockets.
It Does Look Like A Toy Theater!
Out of curiosity, and lacking hi-Def copies of these two films, I purchased both of them on the day of their video release, October 4th, 2011. (As much as I'm a pretty big disney fan, I actually hadn't bought either of these on any home video format yet. Kind of astounding, actually.) I rushed home (safely!) and began my viewing with Beauty and the Beast. And sure enough, the opening shot looked like a series of flat layers, a toy theater. But, I had to admit, an astonishing, dazzlingly colorful toy theater. (Actually, I like toy theaters. I have a couple.) There is charm to this style. It reminded me of looking into an old View-Master toy, but with far greater clarity. Then came the not-so-dimensional (but gorgeous) stained-glass window prologue, and finally the movie proper started ...
Oh, Isn't This Amazing!
Okay, I'll spoil the surprise. The 3D conversion is glorious! There is just enough roundness to the characters to keep the illusion of solid form compelling without being distracting. (Or distorting.) Certain trees, buildings and other forms are carefully mapped over geometric shapes, some distant layers retain a beguilingly flat storybook-like quality. But, this world invites the viewer to step right in. And astonishingly, it is a more believable dimensional world than many that are fully modeled and rendered in today's CGI epics. (I think it is the relative simplicity and suggestion of the art. It isn't busy with fussy textures.) These lovingly drawn and painted pieces of art are somehow folded and molded into a world that feels real but looks like a dream. And the colors are vibrant, evocative, and 100% classic Disney.
The conversion was overseen by John Lasseter, and his usual commitment to quality shows. Consider the opening musical number, "Belle." It features an entire town full of people going about their business in the background of many shots. In 2D, some of this overlapping action was cluttered and confusing, but 3D allows the viewer to see these figures as if on a stage, clarifying where they are in relation to each other, making their individual paths of action easier to follow. Indeed, many shots in the film felt like they were happening on a very grand stage, lending a special flavor to what really is a Broadway musical in animated form. The theatricality worked to the advantage of this particular story, and I can't be the only one who applauded at its conclusion. (I can't wait to share this viewing experience with friends!)
One last thing about Beauty and the Beast. I saw this one many times on its original release, and I can safely say I burned out on it sometime well before the turn of the century. I didn't even buy it on DVD. I didn't feel a need to see it again. But, by last Tuesday, it had been at least 15 years since my most recent viewing, and it turns out, I was ready for the reunion. It's easily my favorite of all the Princess-oriented movies. (Maybe because Belle isn't a princess until the very end, and it isn't really her goal to be one.)
I don't know if the 3D would be a distraction if I wasn't already so familiar with the movie. But here, I found that the depth drew me into the story. Maybe it was the long absence making my heart grow fonder, but I haven't been this emotionally drawn in by Beauty and the Beast in a long time. (I may have a few quibbles and nits to pick with the film, but I didn't even think about them during this viewing.) Bottom line: This was a joyous experience, a direct hit on my inner kid, an utter trump of my analytical critical side. It doesn't happen often, folks. I hope others have a similarly terrific experience with it.
A Heretic In The Lion's Court
Okay, I've got to admit up front that I have always had trouble loving The Lion King. I acknowledge that it is a classic, a hugely popular, successful and trend-setting animated feature, no question. I liked it. I just didn't like it nearly as much as everyone else. As a result, I didn't watch it nearly as many times as certain other Disney films of the era. That made my 3D revisit a series of revelations. There was plenty that I didn't remember about it. And now, I get to revise, somewhat, my opinion of it. (Essentially, the good parts are far more powerful than I had remembered, and the parts that bothered me then bother me as much or more now.)
Indulge me in a brief venting about what didn't work for me. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don't care what I think. I'll understand.) The Lion King has a really weak third act. The energy goes slack right after Simba decides to return to Pride Rock. There's so little tension or suspense, and the decision to animate key parts of the finale in slow motion just makes this problem worse. My other minor grievance: I blame this movie for the unfortunate (and still going strong) trend of having comic characters in animated features make out-of-their-world references to popular culture. If Bambi had broken out into a chorus of "Give A Little Whistle," it would have been a ridiculous, spell-breaking choice. I feel the same way about the presence of 'In the Jungle," "It's A Small World" and other tunes in this film. And late in the story, Pumbaa delivers a one-two punch, referencing Taxi Driver and They Call Me MISTER Tibbs in a scene that appalled me then and still bugs me now. Maybe the kids don't notice, but this isn't just a kids movie, and that bit kills the story dead for me every time. End of the negative Nellying.
On The Other Paw
What this movie gets right is so potent, thrilling and emotionally resonant, it's easy to see why it was such a sensation. The voice casting is perfect. The young lion cubs are winning and cute without being the least bit cloying. Most importantly, the relationship between Mufasa and his son Simba hits every note spot on. (They share a moment of togetherness near the end of the first act that, accompanied by Hans Zimmer's gorgeous score, gets a bigger cry out of me than the 'Baby Mine" sequence in Dumbo.) And I hardly need to mention the pivotal moment of crisis in the center of this story - a spectacular sequence that hasn't lost one bit of its dramatic, even traumatic, power. And yes, most of the comic antics of Timon and Pumbaa charm me.
So, what did 3D do for this film? It's still a virtually perfect transformation, on the technical level. The added depth allows these lovingly hand-rendered environments to take on an extra-inviting quality. The vistas are more wide-open and less cluttered than those in Beauty and the Beast, and so, the 3D makes less of a difference. (in B&B, the 3D helps unravel a too-busy stage. Here, it's more just a pleasant enhancement.) That said, some of the views really are breathtaking. And the color, again, is astonishing, even transporting. On VHS, this movie could seem murky, dusty and dull. Here, the colors are so right, they practically tell the story by themselves! This is a benefit that viewers can enjoy on non-3D Blu-Ray just as well, of course.
I'm pretty sure this is going to be the way I watch both of these features now. (And the quality of the presentation means I am going to go back to The Lion King far more frequently, silly intrusive bits be darned!) Heck, I want a lot more of these! Tarzan would be killer in this format. Fantasia could be a real mind blower! Bring 'em on, I say! (Yep, my curmudgeonly critic is sure taking a vacation over these discs.) I know everyone's mileage is going to vary, but I'd love to hear what others think of either of these releases, or about the classic films themselves.
A Few Final Notes
Both of these releases are multi-disc packs. Each includes one 3D Blu-ray disc with the feature on it, and nothing else. (The 3D versions on both films represent their original theatrical cuts, without additional songs that may have appeared in later editions.) A second Blu-ray includes, in both cases, alternate versions of the film. In the case of B&B, a later edition adds the "Human Again" number, and an alternate version of The Lion King includes the "Morning Report" number. Discs of extras, standard DVD copies of the films and digital copies for download to mobile devices are included in both sets.
In my rush to come here and praise the 3D versions of these beloved classics, I have not yet ventured into the extras. I may return and add a few words about them once I spend more quality time, but, for now, let me just reiterate: the 3D versions on both of these films reignited my interest in and love for them. I'm looking forward to hearing how others feel about them.