Walt Disney's The Aristocats

A scene from The Aristocats (Walt Disney)

For decades, Walt Disney Pictures operated on a strict seven-year rotation. A given animated classic would be pulled out of the vault for a limited release -- a summertime run, maybe, or a Christmas reissue -- and then pulled out of circulation so another title could enjoy its time in the sun.

The advent of videotape let the studio apply the same strategy, releasing Pinocchio or Dumbo or Snow White on VHS and Beta around Christmastime, selling a few million copies and then declaring a moratorium on new product. If you missed the window of availability (or your kids wore the tape out, which was far more likely), you were screwed.

And then came DVD, which changed two things: Discs lasted a lot longer than videocassettes -- unless a child got at yours with a fork -- and sold in far greater numbers than tapes ever did. Disney shifted gears, invoking moratoriums only on its biggest titles... the better to reissue them in souped-up remastered editions further down the road.

With Blu-ray came the higher price tag of 3D editions, and the opportunity of selling existing titles all over again. But still, the pace was slow... until this year, when Disney announced it'd be stepping up its animated and live-action catalogue releases in a big way. That's why you've been seeing beloved Touchstone titles like Adventures in Babysitting, Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion popping up in new Blu-ray editions, and why this week, Disney's releasing more animated titles on Blu-ray in a single day than it has all year.

We're not talking about the top tier of classics, mind you. Most of the titles in this week's wave -- The Aristocats, The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under -- are definitely mid-level Disney, films produced in that murky period after the studio's golden age but before its renaissance with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. And then there's Pocahontas, the post-renaissance epic that felt like a stumble after The Lion King; The Tigger Movie, a 2000 attempt to restart the Winnie the Pooh franchise that didn't quite recapture the magic, and Lady & the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure, one of those regrettable direct-to-video franchise extension dealies.

No, none of these films rates the Diamond Edition banner that graces the most beloved of Disney discs. But I don't believe that matters to the millions of kids who grew up loving them, and will want to revisit them as adults or even share them with their own children. (Well, maybe not Scamp's Adventure, but you know what I mean.) And rather than just dumping these titles onto the market, Disney's taken the time to craft loving special editions. And they're not being jerks about double-dipping; the two Rescuers films are being released in a single package, as are Pocahontas and the straight-to-video Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.

Now, in the case of Pocahontas films, that's just smart marketing; I doubt there's much demand for the sequel. But as far as the two Rescuers films go, it's a bargain; the sequel is actually better than the original, though you might not have known it from the way Disney marketed it back in the day.

As with most animated films that come to Blu-ray, the enhanced presentation of a 1080p/24 transfer allows a new level of appreciation for the craft of the image; I don't think I've ever seen The Aristocats or The Rescuers look as good as they do on these discs, and I saw both of those films on their original runs. (Admittedly, I wasn't the most discerning viewer, but these transfers seem much cleaner and brighter than the 35mm prints of those long-ago Saturday matinees.)

And The Rescuers Down Under finally looks good at home, thanks to BD's ability to show film at its native speed of 24 frames per second. The early CG effects used in the film didn't translate to NTSC's 30-frames-per-second rate as well as Disney's animators would have liked; seen at their properly rendered speed, they mesh with the hand-drawn characters and backgrounds far more smoothly.

Those are all technical points, of course, and the real appeal of these films is that they're a great deal of fun. Again, maybe not Scamp's Adventure, but The Aristocats is still a joy, and The Tigger Movie lets you spend an hour and a half with those beloved A.A. Milne characters, and even Pocahontas has some glorious moments, though it's obvious directors Eric Goldberg (who co-directed The Rescuers Down Under) and Mike Gabriel never properly figured out the story before the film went into production. And now they're available in the best possible presentation, in editions meant to last you to the next generation.

Personally, I'm a little freaked out. Maybe the proponents of online streaming and direct downloads are right, and the end really is near for physical media. But if Disney's rushing to get everything out before the market collapses, they're doing a hell of a job. Let's encourage them.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com