I didn’t have Disney releasing two of the year’s most stunning 4K Blu-rays on my 2023 entertainment bingo card, discs so good that they should make you consider buying movies again if you’ve been otherwise limited to streaming, but here we are. Is this the beginning of Disney giving 4K Blu-rays the TLC it once bestowed on VHS tapes and DVDs?
A recap of recent history: When Disney Plus launched during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, home video collectors were unsure how to feel. The dreaded “Disney Vault,” the company’s method of selling films every few years for a limited time, had come to an end with the vast majority of the company’s movies available to stream at the viewer’s whim. On the other hand, would the company be motivated to maintain its cadence of restoring (and re-restoring) classics with new technology?
Reality, as usual, ended up being more complicated. After a triumphant launch, Disney Plus subscriber numbers slowed, and the home video market began a gradual revival — perhaps in reaction to fan-favorite movies and TV shows being unceremoniously removed from streaming services.
Nearly three years later, Disney has released 4K HDR restorations of time-tested classic Cinderella and modern classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. They’re breathtaking, albeit for different reasons.
For me, The Nightmare Before Christmas’ restoration is the standout, and perhaps the most visually stunning 4K Blu-ray I’ve seen this year — and I’ve watched quite a few. The restoration is crisp and clean, without going so far as to digitally remove film grain and the little flaws of the actual film material that give this movie a different texture than the familiar sheen of modern digital photography.
But what makes this disc special is how the modern restoration process combined with the current state of home video benefits the particulars of the film itself. On a decent OLED TV with HDR, this film looks as good as, if not significantly better than, any time you’ve seen it in theaters. The Nightmare Before Christmas’ beauty stems from its contrast of pitch-black darkness and radiant bright light.
Producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick’s emphasis on contrast made it tough for home video distribution to accurately present The Nightmare Before Christmas in the past. Black color gradations looked crunchy when streamed online, and older TVs weren’t able to do the tricks of modern TVs, like turning off individual pixels while brightening others to their maximum luminescence. But the 4K HDR disc on an OLED TV solves for all that.
Or, to put it in casual movie fan language: When Jack steps in front of the glowing moon during “Jack’s Lament,” he’s so dark as to become a silhouette, and the moon is so bright around him that it burns like the sun. And all of this happens without losing visual detail on either Jack or the moon.
The 4K resolution is a gift to those of us who love stop-motion animation because of the human touch. You can now see the paint dust around the eyes of Lock, Shock, and Barrel, and the jack-o’-lantern face carved into Zero’s glowing orange nose.
My colleague Petrana Radulovic spoke with veteran Disney animator and director Eric Goldberg about the Mouse House’s first big 4K release of the year, Cinderella. That restoration did away with the digital noise reduction that plagued the company’s previous release, but also corrected colors that had been misrepresented for decades. Did you know Cinderella’s dress has been wrong all this time?
As far as the Disney Vault is concerned, it feels like we have the best of both worlds at the moment. Disney Plus provides reliable streaming and access to many films that previously would have cost a fortune on the secondhand market. And if Cinderella and Nightmare are signs of things to come, we also get the return of Disney to the home video market, a former king retaking the throne.