Recommended Editions of Disney Animated (and Partially Animated) Features:
Some of these may be subjective and I'm completely open to debate on all picks.
I'm also hoping that education of the differences might improve demand and availability of proper versions.
A NOTE ABOUT V.2: It turns out that starting with the 1994 release of Snow White, Disney started restoring their films in a manner that completely eliminates all of the qualities of the original painted cells, Xerography and/or film medium. They are essentially reanimating their films. In many instances they have performed this process even more aggressive a second time in 4k for their Blu-ray releases. When I'm aware that a release is a Franken-film (reanimated) I will NOT make it my primary recommendation.
The Sleeping Beauty featurette from 2003 explaining the new 'restoration' process: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-z0o26HD40
The results of this method can appear unnatural and separate subjects from the light sources and/or background. In this article: http://colorfulanimationexpressions.blogspot.com/2008/06/thinking-about-digital-restoration-of.html under the section "Removing the grain of history" is a good explanation of just what is wrong with doing it this way.
Many films listed below will now have a 'Purist' suggestion, which will be the most accurate representation of the original film regardless of the quality (LD, VHS, etc.) When there is a 'Purist' recommendation, I will also attempt to give an 'Acceptable Alternative' for those that are a bit less picky. The AA will be a higher quality digital format that may include anything from minor color changes and clean up to Disney's full-on Franken-film digital crime, as long as there is nothing glaringly terrible about it.
Some other facts...
In general, the first wave of DVDs were transferred poorly from old film prints usually under the banner "Limited Issue/Edition". While less digitally marred than later releases, the age of the film source, vertical blurring to thicken lines to prevent interline twitter, increased contrast and/or saturation and/or other tweaking to accommodate the technological limitations of sharing a master with VHS releases and standard definition 4x3 CRT TVs. Quality is usually poor.
"Gold Edition/Collection" and "Special Editions" frequently provided an upgrade, but could also share a master with a previous release. These are usually a better alternative.
"Platinum Edition" DVDs are a mixed bag. At this point digital restoration is in full swing, but is often more carefully done. This could be because the technology was fairly new, or that the people in charge were more respectful of the films. These DVDs also present a more subdued image with whites that aren't bright. This may be to compensate for the bright default settings of more modern TVs.
"Diamond Editions" are struck from HD 4k masters and re-restored using more aggressive techniques. This is likely to accommodate a new generations' taste and because HD revels more artifacts.
When VHS is suggested, I don't tend to have a lot of information. It helps to know that the best ones tend to be the so called "Black Diamond" tapes, but are actually the "Masterpiece Collection".
And, a frequently asked question about Laserdiscs: Many releases came in both a CAV and CLV format. The best way to think of it as long play and short play speeds. The CAV format could only fit 30 minutes on a side. As a result the quality was superior but it took more discs to accommodate a movie.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): First 'fully restored' by Lowry in 1994. This is also when the Masterpiece VHS and laserdiscs came out. As far as I am aware there is no home video format that has not been reanimated.
The 2001 Platinum Edition DVD is bright and likely inappropriately so.
Purist recommendation: Film reels(?)
Acceptable Alternative: The 2009 Diamond Edition Blu-ray or 2009 2-Disc DVD. Over restored, but they likely represent the closest to the original color palette.
Platinum vs Diamond screenshots: http://forum.blu-ray.com/showpost.php?s=c7e0fe56be745fb231c352c02bef1dbb&p=6882905&postcount=124
Pinocchio (1940): Color timing issues are the concern in the digital restorations and a negative impact on lighting depth. There IS a chance the restoration is correct. The problem is a lot of people feel that it is accurate to the cells but not how the animators expected it to look once transferred to film.
Purist recommendation: The 1987 CAV Laserdisc/1985 VHS (no DVDr preservation available).
Acceptable Alternative: The 1999 Limited Issue/2000 Gold DVD (which was the same disc repackaged and the same transfer as the 1993 CAV Laserdisc). It does contain some ghosting artifacts from digital noise reduction, but is generally clean and vivid.
1999 DVD vs 2009 DVD/BD comparison: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews44/pinocchio_blu-ray.htm
1987 LD (1985 VHS), 1993 LD (1999 DVD), 2009 DVD(BD & 2003 PAL DVD) downloadable screenshot comparisons by drsd2kill: http://www.mediafire.com/download/chwc9xvdrb7zp0a/Pinocchio.htm
Fantasia (1940): Concerns are censorship of a black centaur during the Pastoral Symphony segment as well as the loss of the original narrator.
Originally released at 125 minutes, the movie was trimmed for various releases. The cuts persisted for so long that when Disney sought to restore the original runtime, the Deems Taylor audio was in an unusable condition. All narration was redubbed by Corey Burton."
The laserdiscs were the last release to still have the Deems Taylor's narrations.
DVD and BD (2000 and 2010) have the restored runtime, but with new narration by Corey Burton.
A reconstruction project with Deems Taylor and the 1982 Kostal RE-recording of the music is being worked on by ww12345: http://originaltrilogy.com/forum/topic.cfm/Fantasia-1982-Soundmix/topic/13353/
While it is unclear how much digital restoration was done when this film was taken to Blu-ray, the 2010 releases do show a significantly better image.
Purist recommendation: 2001 60th Anniversary DVD (also available as a 2000 Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 box). At this point we can be pretty sure Disney did not use the worst of their restoration methods on Fantasia. A safe bet for the finicky.
Acceptable Alternative: The 2010 BD/DVDs (that come with Fantasia 2000). Exhibit much better image quality, but like all BD releases have a chance of having been aggressively restored.
Ultra Purist recommendation: If you want Deems Taylor you'll want the shorter running laserdisc.
If you want the uncensored scenes you're currently out of luck.
The Reluctant Dragon (1941): "Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio: A Glimpse Behind The Studio Magic" (2002) contains the full theatrical film with a restored transfer. There are a 2007 Disney Movie Club and a Disney Movie Rewards Exclusive release. It is unknown if they are the same restored transfer.
There is no reason to believe the restoration was anything more than a bit of cleanup.
Dumbo (1941): The 2001 60th Anniversary DVD and 2011 70th Anniversary BD and DVD are both wrong for different reasons. http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews50/dumbo_blu-ray.htm
The 60th Anniversary Edition has colors that range towards pastels and is over bright. It is also very grainy and unrestored.
The Big Top Edition still shows some grain, is soft dark and dull. It looks nothing like a Technicolor film.
The 70th Anniversary DVD & BD has been restored to death. No grain, repainted, dull whites, plastic looking and questionable liberties taken with colors.
Purist recommendation: 1995 Laserdisc may be the best. The 1982 Laserdisc source print was beat up, but is reported to have very accurate colors.
Acceptable Alternative: Gah! Look at the comparison screenshots and pick the one that doesn't make your eyes melt or head explode.
My screenshot comparison of 60th vs Big Top vs 70th: http://www.mediafire.com/download/qjz2ow0yvqp2wyw/Dumbo.htm
Interesting puff piece about the 70th Anniversary restoration: http://www.hometheaterforum.com/topic/308674-disney%E2%80%99s-restoration-of-dumbo-and-efforts-to-preserve-their-film-library/
Bambi (1942): The Diamond Edition (2011) BD and DVD is marginally better than the 2005 Platinum Edition, but also much more aggressively restored.
There is a screen cap comparison half way down the page here: http://www.dvdizzy.com/bambi.html
The colors are also fairly close: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDCompare9/bambi_.htm
Downloadable screenshot comparisons by drsd2kill: http://www.mediafire.com/view/lfb1kcq99jreiy9/Bambi.htm
Purist recommendation: 1990 Laserdisc.
Acceptable Alternatives: The 2005 Platinum Edition is less heavily restored and contain colors consistent with the 1990 LD. The 'teleporting raccoon', a production error Disney wasn't able to fix, is corrected in this release. This edition may exhibit the so-called 'crawling fur' artifact of film grain removal.
The Diamond Edition is considered one of the least destructive of Disney's Blu-ray transfers. Original effects such as ripple glass water are preserved.
Note: The 1997 LD is the only edition to have the original RKO logo, which has been replaced on all other release. Unfortunately, because of color timing and brightness 1997 is NOT recommended.
Saludos Amigos (1942): There is censorship of Goofy smoking. "Walt & El Grupo", the 2008 documentary DVD contains "Saludos Amigos" uncut as a bonus feature in Academy ratio with a Dolby 5.1 audio mix.
Victory Through Air Power (1943): Walt Disney Treasures - Walt Disney on the Front Lines (only release).
The Three Caballeros (1944): 2001 DVD is preferred if it's cheaper because of a slightly higher bitrate.
The 2008 release has an improved 5.1 audio mix that isn't drastically different. It shares disc space with "Saludos Amigos" which is unnecessary if you got "Walt & El Grupo". Either way.
Make Mine Music (1946): Censored. The Martins and the Coys segment is removed as is a brief sideboob. Laserdisc or PAL DVDs are uncensored ('All The Cat Join In' segment is still censored in these editions).
Recommended: The Doctor M Restored Edition.
Song of the South (1946): Song of the South - Br'er Preservation Edition v1.1 (includes a second disc of bonus features) or ww12345 NTSC conversion. Both are sourced from BBC broadcast capped by Mentor. ww12345's used more modern filters and color correction but may have unnecessarily applied slow down to the audio track(?)
A preservation from a 16mm print is being worked on: http://originaltrilogy.com/forum/topic.cfm/Song-Of-The-South/topic/4346/
Fun and Fancy Free (1947): One DVD release, no issues.
Melody Time (1948): Pecos Bill smoking is censored. R2 or R4 PAL DVDs are not censored.
Recommended: The Doctor M Restored Edition.
So Dear To My Heart (1948): One DVD release, no issues.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949): One DVD release, fair quality.
Cinderella (1950): 2005 and 2012 BD/DVD releases have severely altered colors and some fine detail has been scrubbed from the image.
Purist: VHS or 1995 CAV Laserdisc. There is a LD preservation by Molly, the "Non-Lowry Version" synced to the Platinum Edition mono track available on TPB, but I don't recommend it (see below). An updated preservation is being discussed.
Acceptable Alternative: The 2012 Diamond Edition DVD or BD. The damage is done at this point so the improved detail and light levels make the 2012 release preferable to the 2005 Platinum release.
It should be clear that there are trade-offs to the restored releases. Lines have that licked candy stick appearance that over processing brings. Some detail has been scrubbed, but other detail is now visible from the improved definition. Some of the lost detail may partially be an illusion because of the lack of vertical blurring in the new transfers.
Here are my comparison screenshots of the Non-Lowry LD2DVD, Platinum Edition DVD and Diamond Edition DVD: http://originaltrilogy.com/forum/topic.cfm/Recommended-Editions-of-Disney-Animated-and-Partially-Animated-Features/post/653541/#TopicPost653541
The take away from my screen shots is that while the VHS and LD releases have more accurate colors and some detail that has now been lost, the currently available LD2DVD release fails to articulate that detail.
1992 Laserdisc vs 2005 DVD Screenshots: http://www.dvdizzy.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=16200
VHS 1997 vs 2012 BD Screenshots: http://forum.blu-ray.com/showpost.php?s=c7e0fe56be745fb231c352c02bef1dbb&p=6399775&postcount=1
Alice in Wonderland (1951): The 2000 Gold Edition is vibrant, contrasty and short on image detail.
The 2011 Blu-ray, while quite vibrant and attractive looking, is reported to be overly digitally altered. Original effects, such as ripple glass for water have been removed and replaced with digital substitutions.
Lowry restored the film in 2004. These DVDs run slightly towards the duller/less saturated side, but still fairly good. The extent of the digital changes in this restoration, if any, are unclear.
Purist: 2000 Gold Edition. Digital and predates the Lowry restoration.
Acceptable Alternative: The 2004 Masterpiece Edition OR 2010 Un-Anniversary Edition (both have the same transfer with original mono and a mild 5.1 mix). The only difference is the extras. The 2010 disc was released to coincide with the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland theatrical release.
Note: The 2011 Blu-ray/DVD combo comes with a DVD that is still the same transfer as the 2004/2010 releases and NOT the same master as the Blu-ray.
Peter Pan (1953): Restored by Lowry around 2007 for the Platinum DVD release. The colors were altered to be warmer than previous releases and so much detail was scrubbed that even old analog versions have better detail.
The 2013 Diamond Edition exhibits colors somewhere between the pre-restoration look and the Platinum Edition and is no longer blurry. Unfortunately, effects like Tinkerbell's glow and fairy dust are damaged by the rotoscope method of restoration.
Pre-restoration releases, especially the 2002 Special Edition, have been described as "cold" colored. To my eye the newer releases have done terrible things to anything that was blue.
Purist: 1991 Laserdisc/1990 VHS(?) boast some unique colors that are different from all other releases. The accuracy is unclear though. This release also contains fine detail in the artwork and more complexity in the backgrounds than in any other release.
Acceptable Alternative: The 2002 Special Edition is the sharpest, better colored edition before the unfortunate 'restorations' found on newer discs. This DVD is cooler colored and has some halo artifacts from edge enhancement.
The 2013 Diamond Edition BD/DVD isn't recommended, but may have more accurate colors... or not, just avoid the Platinum Edition DVD.
2003 DVD vs 2007 DVD vs EU BD vs US BD: http://forum.blu-ray.com/showthread.php?p=6858529#post6858529
Screenshot comparisons of four versions: http://originaltrilogy.com/forum/topic.cfm/Disneys-Theatrical-Animated-Features-Best-Sources-List/post/644110/#TopicPost644110
Downloadable screenshot comparisons by drsd2kill: http://www.mediafire.com/download/qykmip45y9xmzpx/Peter_Pan.htm
Lady and the Tramp (1955): Produced in both Cinemascope and Academy Ratios with different animations for each. Digital releases claiming to contain the Academy Ratio are a lie and actually pan and scanned Cinemascope prints.
Academy Ratio: You would need a 1998 VHS or LD. Molly may be working on a preservation.
Purist: 1999 Limited Issue. Softer image, non-animorphic letterboxed and far from perfect quality. Contains only a remixed 5.1 audio track. At least it predates Lowry's work.
Acceptable Alternative: The 2006 Platinum aka Special aka 50th Anniversary Edition shows much more detail but has some hallmarks of being over processed. The 2012 Diamond Edition BD/DVD has an even better picture than the Platinum DVD. Unfortunately, I cannot find comparison screenshots to judge if the restoration is better or worse.
It should be noted that the restored original 3.0 audio track contains dialog in all 3 front speakers. The enhanced mix uses the more modern style of anchoring dialog in the center channel only. You may want to avoid the new mix.
Screenshots of Limited Issue vs Platinum Edition vs R2 Special Edition: http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/writings/dvdimage-tramp.html NOTE: The images are resized to match and inaccurately make it look like the Limited Issue has more image detail.
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