Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sleeping Beauty - A perfect introduction to Blu-ray?

It no longer looks like a great DVD folks - it looks like film. The sharpness becomes an added bonus - one that can actually distract from the narrative - it is so distinct. Be careful not to swoon too much!

If something looks like film, it distracts from the narrative? The irony of this is almost unbearable. Yet I think, not all hope is lost.

The distancing effect of technological novelties
There has been a lot of moaning about 3-D being a distraction as well. Had it simply been accepted as the minor narrative advancement that it really is, I’m sure no one would complain, because a well-used device should go unnoticed by the average viewer (how many people complain about intensified continuity or too many close-ups in current Hollywood cinema?). But with ridiculously overinflated marketing campaigns and the need to wear glasses, our whole attention is deliberately misguided to a minor storytelling device that works a lot better when not noticed consciously. Maybe it is supposed to detract from the other deficiencies of some of the films.

In other words, the more unobtrusive possibilities of 3-D could only be exploited if 3-D became normal. But since it seems impossible to get rid of the glasses in the near future, this won’t happen any time soon. So it is beyond all question that 3-D is a fad once again. There are technical and financial reasons for this as well, of course.

Unless you have to wear glasses and pay more, adaption to technical novelties and different media is usually pretty fast on the condition that the immediate benefit of it is obvious. Nowadays, easy handling, availability and low costs are generally more important than technical quality. On this ground it is not surprising that Blu-ray Disc is not yet the mass medium it was designed to be. It speaks to the same diminishing group of people who care about the quality of the movie going experience in general.

But – to come back to the DVDBeaver quote – how can sharpness “distract from the narrative”, if it doesn’t when we see the same movie in a cinema on superior 35mm? Because we are used to a certain quality in cinemas but not on our TV screens. There’s another reason: if you’re picky about image quality, you positively want to see the improvement over DVD. So I’m sure this distracting side effect wears off as soon as we are used to watching HD.

Adaption can be your friend
Do you remember what it felt like the first few time you watched a movie on DVD – or for that matter on a laptop or even an iPod, if you care for such an imbecility? I was so impressed with the “improved” picture and sound quality (compared to the much loathed VHS) that I was paying more attention to technical issues than to the storyline. Needless to say that the emotional experience suffered regardless of the movie. I’m sure this technical awareness was the same when sound, color and widescreen were introduced. For example, it’s no co-incidence that countless showcase movies with no substance accompanied these changes (This Is Cinerama, anyone?).

Now I have the same feeling with BD again. I know people who buy movies just because they look good on Blu-ray, no matter what they think of the content. One can enjoy picture and sound quality like one enjoys caressing satin or fur. Reviewers sometimes even mention the “tactile qualities” of digital eye candy.

For me, a 2K transfer can never substitute for a 35mm print. But I’m excited that it has the potential to reproduce images a lot closer to their original appearance than any electronic format before. (Well, theoretically that is. I won’t digress into the many ill-fated paths the studios are taking with this potential, because Robert A. Harris has already done that here (The Great Grain Debate) and here.)

The perfect introduction to Blu-ray
As long as watching films on Blu-ray is still the exception with many people only slowly converting to the new format, it was probably Disney’s best move to pick Sleeping Beauty as their first BD release, because it actually benefits from the circumstances: it is loaded with detail to an almost nauseating level, it was shot in Super Technirama 70 and it doesn’t work on an emotional level anyway.

I don’t approve of the restoration methods, because the movie now looks like it was made on CAPS during the Katzenberg era. The new restoration has warmer colors (by the way, whatever happened to Lou Romano’s self-explanatory screenshot comparison?) but I don’t think at this point anybody not having an IB-Tech print for reference can tell what they were supposed to look like. In the 14 years since its last theatrical re-release we have seen all kinds of variations.

It is a wide-spread belief that you don’t see the advantages of hi-def in animation as much as in live-action. Thankfully Sleeping Beauty proves this wrong. One of the wonders of high-definition is the possibility to keep lines unharmed by compression and reduce color bleeding substantially.

As a real bonus some of the special features, especially Grand Canyon, are included in HD as well. This half-hour showcase presentation (no dialogue, just music) once again benefits immensely from the novelty of the format. I’m sure it wouldn’t have found its audience in 1959 hadn’t it been for the relative novelty of Cinemascope. For good measure it is well restored and you can actually see that it was shot on film.

Well, Sleeping Beauty was the first movie I have seen on Blu-ray and I have to admit that this was the first time I really liked it. For the first time I wasn’t disappointed by its many shortcomings. I like films for many different reasons, not just for their emotional impact, but with Beauty I’ve always had this overwhelming feeling of a great missed opportunity with a few brilliant scenes. Somehow I’ve come past that and I think it had a lot to do with being distracted from the story. I can simply enjoy it now for what it is: a manneristic “moving illustration” with strong 1950s American overtones.

However, my copy of The Searchers is sitting on the shelf until I’m used to HD. After all, enjoying John Ford’s flawed masterpiece simply on a technical level wouldn’t do it justice.

For more screencaps see DVDBeaver (there was no DVD attached to the European BD of Sleeping Beauty, so I'm not yet able to do my own screencaps. Fortunately, this omission has been corrected on Pinocchio.)


Lorraine said...

Eep! Shortcomings on Sleeping Beauty?? That's my favorite, so I'm curious why you are disappointed in the storyline. Or is it merely technical/cinematic shortcomings in your opinion?

Oswald Iten said...

First of all, I don't want to spoil it for you! One of my all-time favorites is The Jungle Book and I sure know that there's a lot to criticize about that story. So I have learned to accept that favorite films don't necessarily have to be "good" films.

Sleeping Beauty may be one of the most beautiful films to look at and I even like the rotoscope animation. But one of the major problems (in my opinion) are the weak characters and their relationships. If it's a story about Aurora, she doesn't have enough scenes for us to care for her, also she's never consciously facing the villain. I cannot relate emotionally to any of the characters.
If it is a story about the three fairies ("parent" characters often seem to be the secret protagonists of later Disney movies), which I think it is, then again the character arc is missing, we are not witnessing them growing as characters.
There are a lot of other issues and it looks like late in production someone tried to sneak in some comic relief, which wouldn't have been necessary with a more sincere storyline.

As I said, technically/cinematically it is brilliant. And I hope you'll always be able to enjoy it. Maybe I'll do some posts about it later.

Fortress Guy said...

This movie is so visually striking. Made for Blu Ray!

I am glad they finally got the original aspect ratio squared away.

Here is my take on the movie with lots o' pics if you are interested: