Today, for the first time, you can buy a Signature Collection Blu-ray of Walt Disney’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Depending on the depth of your home media collection as well as how good your long-term memory is, you may be forgiven for looking at the calendar, seeing that it’s February 2, and wondering if you’re living your own special version of Groundhog Day. “Isn’t Snow White already on Blu-ray?” Well, yes. At least, it was. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first released on Blu-ray in 2009, as the inaugural entry of Disney’s Diamond Edition collection of Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D releases. And before that, it was the first film of Disney’s Platinum Edition, which ran through the 2000s, beginning with VHS and DVD releases and ending with DVD and Blu-ray releases. (Sadly, the Mineral/Jewel era of home media collections is over.) The Signature Collection is Disney’s latest attempt to make many of its major films available on home media for short spurts of time, before they’re placed back in what is best known in modern culture as the Disney Vault.
There may well be vaults in the Walt Disney Company buildings, much like the ones Scrooge McDuck uses to swim around his vast oceans of cash. (In this scenario, then, Bob Iger is the Scottish duck.) But, in fact, the Disney Vault–a familiar-enough phrase throughout the lives of most people born in the 1980s or afterwards–is not real. Instead, it’s a marketing term concocted to stoke interest among the public so that the company could re-release its films, either in theaters or on VHS/DVD/Blu-ray, every seven years. And with the release of Snow White on another Blu-ray, it’s a good time for us all to face an important truth.
The Disney Vault is the absolute worst.
The Disney Vault is why, depending on your home-media preferences, you may soon own two different versions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on Blu-ray, let alone the old DVD edition. It’s worth noting: Snow White isn’t the first Disney animated film to get a second Blu-ray release; in 2014, while it was part of the Diamond Edition, Sleeping Beauty was given its second Blu-ray release after being part of the Platinum Edition. Even as we progress down the high-definition road from the days of 720p and 1080p to 4K and beyond, there’s not a discernible visual difference between the Blu-ray versions of either Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Sleeping Beauty. The Signature Collection Blu-ray makes Snow White looks lush and glorious, but no less or more so than the Platinum Edition Blu-ray.
And there’s not much better news regarding special features either. The Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition added five new special features, including a series of never-before-seen deleted scenes, totaling 40 minutes. However, the 1-disc Blu-ray (the overall release is two discs: one Blu-ray and one DVD) excised 18 of the bonus features on the Platinum Edition Blu-ray. Eighteen. Not eighteen minutes’ worth of bonus features. Eighteen bonus features. The situation with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ dueling Blu-ray supplements is similar. On one hand, there are seven new features, including an alternate version of the first time Snow White meets her prince as well as comments on the production from Walt Disney himself. (Also, one of the “new” features is just a super-sized version of a previous Blu-ray feature.) But some of these new features are, shall we say, insubstantial, such as the 70-second rap about the fairy tale or the YouTube-ready video touting seven of the “fairest facts” about the film, which are covered in more depth elsewhere.
Like the Sleeping Beauty Blu-rays, there are fewer of the older special features here, though there’s not quite as many absent. One of the biggest sections of the Platinum Blu-ray for Snow White is called “Hyperion Studios,” and features an extremely exhaustive look at the film from stem to stern, detailing the animation, the layout, the sound design, the story meetings, and more. Some parts of these are all present on the new Blu-ray, in a condensed half-hour feature that jumps from topic to topic with more speed and less context. The older Blu-ray included Silly Symphony shorts included to clarify early examples of Disney’s animation ambition. This one has none of those. Like the Diamond Edition version of Sleeping Beauty, the Signature Collection release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a 2-disc set: one Blu-ray and one DVD, which means there’s less room for the massive amount of special features that were once present. So we get two versions of the same movie; only completists need the new Blu-ray. Anyone else will buy it only because they don’t already have the Blu-ray, which Disney hopes is the case, hence the vault.
Why does Disney do this? Why release multiple versions of the same film on the same format with few updates and too many reductions? Why do so for a short period of time before removing these films from the market? To make sure that a whole new gaggle of toddlers and elementary-school-aged kids get a chance to see Disney movies for the first time. Consider this comment from Marcelle Abraham, Executive Director of Public Relations for Buena Vista Home Entertainment: “The Little Mermaid is a great example of this…It came out on video in the Spring of 1990. Now there’s a whole new generation of young people who haven’t seen it.” You may note that Abraham’s explanation seems a bit dated, and therein lies the rub: Abraham said this in the fall of 1997, on the eve of a theatrical re-release of The Little Mermaid.
Nearly twenty years have passed, and modern society has cycled through different popular home media formats since then, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray and digital purchases. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for instance, has been available to purchase since mid-January on iTunes and other digital platforms; this is now standard practice for Disney movies released on Blu-ray, that they’re available digitally two weeks before they are physically.) Theatrical re-releases are sadly rare, especially after Disney’s attempt to revive a handful of modern animated classics with 3D post-conversions underperformed at the box office to the extent that a new re-release of, coincidentally, The Little Mermaid was halted. When the Disney Vault concept began in the 1940s, it made fiscal sense: the Disney Studios were being contracted by the U.S. government to make World War II propaganda in favor of the fighting effort against the Nazis, and they had a minimal cashflow. Thus, they would re-release a beloved classic like Snow White. Now, the concept of the Disney Vault makes no sense.
Later, in the article cited above, Robin Miller, Head of Worldwide Product Development for Buena Vista Home Entertainment, says the following regarding The Little Mermaid: “…there are a lot of people out there who do not own a copy of this film and can’t wait to get their hands on it.” Miller’s not wrong, for one a simple reason: the film was unavailable on home video for reasons that are not only crassly materialistic, but weirdly self-destructing. Films that are part of the Disney Vault are, or have been, available for varying amounts of time to purchase; when the Platinum Edition began, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was available on DVD for just under 4 months. (Its Diamond Edition release was available for 18 months.) A handful of the Diamond Edition films–including The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians–are available until the end of this April, while Aladdin will be available until April 2017. But the others in the group, including The Lion King, aren’t available to buy. Unless, that is, you want to spend an exorbitant amount of money: right now on Amazon, The Lion King is available on Blu-ray for $77 from an outside seller. The worst-case example is Pinocchio: Last available in a Platinum Edition back in 2009, it has not been officially available for purchase for almost 7 years, and it’s only available for close to $100 online. Based on the earlier criteria, it should have been this spring’s big Blu-ray release from Disney. But instead, we’re getting Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast (which was already released on Blu-ray as well as Blu-ray 3D to tie into a 2012 re-release in theaters) is rumored on fan forums to be coming this fall.
On one hand, it can be said that the Disney Vault succeeds, in that it drives up demand for potential and future home media releases. If, for example, you didn’t get a chance to buy Pinocchio on Blu-ray seven years ago, you might rush to Amazon to pre-order a copy if Disney re-released it this spring. It’s not even available to buy digitally. (Unless you really do want to drop 100 bucks on a resold copy.) But the flip side is that people become alienated by the Disney Vault, even driven to pirate films. For one anecdotal example, consider a comment made by a British actor in 2010, who said that because he’d purchased The Jungle Book previously on VHS, he felt morally justified in pirating the film in higher resolution. While he’s not innocent, Disney doesn’t do a very good job of discouraging piracy when it tacitly refuses to release many of its older films in perpetuity as opposed to on a selective basis.
There’s a likely valuable discussion to have about the Veruca Salt-ization of the world–wanting everything now, now, NOW–and how detrimental it is to our culture. But the Disney Vault stands alone. While it’s not uncommon for other studios to release multiple copies of its films, from extra-special editions to releases with unique packaging, it’s rare for the earlier copies to be taken out of print to the point where you have to wait years to buy a version of a film. (Even something like the Star Wars films, where George Lucas has done his able best to hide away the closest thing we have to untouched versions of the original trilogy, isn’t quite as bad; it’s not as if there wasn’t some version of the trilogy available to buy.) However, Disney makes us wait, for some of its films, at the mercy of some of its others.
Here’s something else to consider. Disney’s home-media division may like to re-release some of its films–regularly 16 of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 54 feature films (55 when Zootopia opens next month)–on Blu-ray. But not all Disney animated films (#NotAllDisney) have gotten that far. Five of the studio’s animated features–Make Mine Music, Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Melody Time, and The Black Cauldron–have never been released on Region 1 Blu-ray. Before last fall, Aladdin was another film not on Blu-ray, at least in the United States. Those other five films are, certainly, not among Disney’s most beloved or fondly remembered pictures. But it’s 2016. It’s not wrong to suggest that many, many, many films are on Blu-ray, a fair few of which aren’t films people clamor to own. While there are countless pictures that aren’t, at least in the Region 1 format, few of them are owned by a company that’s worth roughly 100 bazillion dollars. Three of these films are available to purchase if you’re a Disney Movies Anywhere subscriber, but the company’s push to get people to focus on digital media hasn’t caught on nearly as much as it should. It’s especially challenging for big-name films like Pinocchio, The Lion King, Bambi, and Beauty and the Beast; even if you want to buy them for digital streaming, you can’t. The Disney Vault doesn’t just control physical media.
The Disney Vault, by its very name, suggests a long and detailed history associated with the company name. For animation junkies and film fans, a detailed accounting of Disney’s past would be more than welcome on the company’s releases of its animated films. Having this kind of information would, perhaps, not complete the entire puzzle, but it would offer more context and insight than we have now. From a financial standpoint, driving up demand makes sense for Disney. But releasing a select group of films–particularly popular ones, at that–on a delayed schedule that the studio doesn’t even stick to anymore suggests that the Disney Vault’s initial construct no longer serves any purpose. We don’t need multiple versions of Snow White on Blu-ray, especially if each one sacrifices a bevy of supplements in the process. We don’t need the Disney Vault anymore. Bob Iger doesn’t need a literal vault in which to swim through his company’s riches, and neither do we.