In the past I’ve mentioned what I call the Disney aspect ratio lottery — a reference to Disney’s bizarre practice of releasing the animated films from a significant chunk of its history in a dizzying number of different aspect ratios, often chopping and changing between them from one release of the same film to the next. To this day, there is a huge amount of debate about how the films released following the take-off of widescreen ratios and the demise of the Academy ratio are meant to be viewed.

Back in the VHS days, when pretty much everything was presented in 1.33:1, regardless of whether not it was intended to be viewed in that way, it was a relative non-issue. With the advent of DVD and the move towards respecting filmmaker intent on home video, however, things became a bit more complicated. Historians… well, Wikipedia… tells us that the Academy ratio became obsolete in cinemas fairly soon after the widescreen “revolution” of 1953, with “all major studios […] matting their non-anamorphic films in the projector to wider ratios such as 1.66, 1.75, and 1.85.” And yet, the initial DVD releases of virtually every Disney film from the 50s through to the early 80s retained the Academy ratio. (The exception is 1977’s THE RESCUERS, which has always been 1.66:1.) I don’t remember there being much controversy surrounding this subject at the time, though I recall always feeling that THE FOX AND THE HOUND looked unnaturally cropped at 1.33:1.

Common sense would dictate that, with the demise of the Academy ratio in cinemas, all of these films would have been exhibited theatrically in ratios somewhere between 1.66:1 and 1.85:1, and indeed the instructions to projectionists accompanying a number of these films explicitly state that the intended ratio is 1.75:1. And yet, when widescreen versions of these films finally began to appear on DVD in the mid-to-late 2000s, I and several other viewers immediately commented that they looked overly cramped vertically due to the matting at the top and bottom of the frame. I often use this frame from the 2008 Special Edition DVD of THE ARISTOCATS, framed at 1.75:1, as an example:

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

The 2012 Special Edition BD, framed at 1.66:1, looks slightly better in terms of composition, but still looks unnaturally cramped:

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

THE ARISTOCATS has now been presented in three different aspect ratios: 1.33:1, 1.75:1 and now, on the aforementioned BD release, 1.66:1. (Apologies, I don’t own a copy of it in 1.33:1, so can’t post a corresponding capture to the ones above.) ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS, by contrast, has only ever been presented in 1.33:1 on home video, despite the reel leaders for original prints of the film supposedly stating that the intended theatrical framing is 1.75:1. However, I challenge you to take a shot like the one below and crop it to any widescreen ratio without completely destroying the exquisite composition:

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

Actually, I might as well give it a go. How about this (1.66:1):

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

Or this (1.75:1):

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

Or even this (1.85:1):

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

1.75:1 may be how Disney’s own documentation states it is meant to be projected, but I highly doubt anyone would be willing to claim that the 1.75:1 image above looks in any way right. Small wonder, then, that despite the fact that it would almost certainly have been projected in widescreen in the vast majority of theatrical presentations, it has only ever been released on home video in the Academy ratio.

Updated Friday, 4 October, 2013 at 13:32: Another source contradicts Jack Theakston’s information, claiming that the pressbook for ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS explicitly directs projectionists to frame it at 1.33:1, or, and I quote, “you will lose top and bottom of picture”. Can anyone with access to the pressbook substantiate this?

I’m not expecting to convert hearts and minds with these examples. People have strong opinions as to how these films should be presented, and there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. (From a personal point of view, I believe that the first film to look anything other than wrong in a ratio wider than 1.33:1 is THE RESCUERS. Everything prior to that looks uncomfortably cramped vertically, whereas THE RESCUERS looks fine in either 1.33:1 or 1.66:1, and THE FOX AND THE HOUND never looked right until last year’s BD release, which was the first time the film was presented on home video in a widescreen ratio.) What I want to establish is that there is significant CONFUSION, and that no-one, least of all Disney, seems to know with absolute certainty which route to take.

The chart below lists every Disney animated feature film from ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS until HOME ON THE RANGE, along with the ratios in which they have been presented on DVD and BD. The “theatrical ratio” and “negative ratio” fields have been included for the sake of completeness, but should be taken with a large pinch of salt given that they are derived largely from the notoriously unreliable IMDB (and, in the case of the theatrical ratios of many of the later films, my own experience of seeing them at the cinema). Indeed, as far as I’m aware there is no such thing as a 1.66:1 ratio negative unless it is hard matted to that ratio, meaning that these numbers make little sense for the likes of THE RESCUERS and OLIVER & COMPANY. For the digitally inked and painted titles (THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER onwards), one could take “negative ratio” to mean the native ratio used within CAPS, the studio’s Computer Animation Production System, in which case 1.66:1 is entirely feasible (and certainly seems to have been the most popular way of presenting the relevant films on DVD and BD over the years). With all that said, take a gander at the numbers below and marvel at the phenomenon that is the Disney aspect ratio lottery.

The Disney aspect ratio lottery

Updated Sunday, 27 October, 2013 at 15:58: As pointed out by Daniel in the comments section, THE LITTLE MERMAID was originally released as a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD in 1999. The chart has been updated accordingly.


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