Why Are Disney's UHD Blu-ray Soundtracks Falling Short of the Mark?

Maybe I’m just in a bad mood from having dental surgery yesterday, or maybe there’s something odd happening at Disney these days. But what, exactly, is going on with some of their Ultra HD Blu-ray soundtracks?

Some of their recent releases have problems you wouldn’t expect. They’re not fatal, but do suggest inconsistency.

First we have to go back a few years to the release of Frozen. It’s not yet available on Ultra HD Blu-ray (why not?), but when I reviewed it I was a little disappointed in the sound. I’ve subsequently been able to let it go and enjoy it, but it still appears to lack a bit of the air and dynamic punch I hear from the best Disney titles.

Then, more recently, came Thor: Ragnarok. It was criticized by some for being mastered at a low level (significantly lower than the level used for the menus) and for its limited bass — or at least limited compared to the expectations set by Disney Marvel movies.

I recently completed a (not yet published) review of Ralph Breaks the Internet and complained about the sound there as well. A re-listen after press deadline, and after re-tweaking my system, left me with a much more positive feeling about it. But it still fell a bit short of what I expected, given the best sounding recent Disney titles such as Avengers: Infinity War. Perhaps I was just being too picky given the different requirements of the two films.

I recently picked up the Ultra Blu-ray release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid and was initially disappointed in its audio track as well. Compared to the audio on my Diamond Blu-ray edition it was lacking in both dynamics and high frequency air. Those critiques remain. But a further listen revealed its strengths.

The earlier version is sometimes harsh, with an occasionally odd channel balance. The UHD version is sweet almost to a fault. It has little deep bass, though the bass on the original HD release, typical of the film’s era, is also hardly overwhelming. But the sound in the UHD release perfectly complements the beautifully animated visuals, particularly the songs. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are highlights, the former clearly the inspiration for (and superior to) “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast). The soundtrack also makes heavy (but always appropriate) use of Atmos, enhancing action sequences, ambience (though in the real world there isn’t much ambience under water!) and the evil machinations of the sea witch — one of the scariest Disney villains.

While the hand drawn pre-CGI animation of The Little Mermaid may look dated to modern eyes, it’s beautiful in its own way. The Ultra HD release doesn’t add a much to the video from earlier releases, but the overall balance of picture and sound is definitely worth a look if this film is one of your favorites. I’ll still argue that, among the last group of Disney’s hand-drawn animated films, the The Lion King has the more open, immediate, and dynamic sound (it’s terrific on Ultra HD Blu-ray) . Nevertheless, fans of classic animation shouldn’t overlook The Little Mermaid.

Disney’s lame promotion of its Ultra HD catalog titles is, however, troubling. I picked this one up at Best Buy, along with the Ultra HD release of Captain America: The First Avenger — totally unaware that either of them had become available. While there, I also saw an Ultra HD version of Bambi. I didn’t bite on that one (I suspect that if you have the original on Blu-ray the UHD might not have much more to offer, given its 1930’s technology). But the gradual demise of places where you can browse and discover new disc releases doesn’t help.

reallynotnick's picture

"I also saw an Ultra HD version of Bambi."

If you did you might be the first person to ever see that because I'm pretty sure it does not exist, at least I've never heard of it and can't find anything about it via a Google search.

utopianemo's picture

Ed, you're not the only one to notice this; there are many a forum thread discussing the same issue. And the Star Wars franchise is another big problem. I noticed on The Force Awakens that in certain sections, the dialogue is highly compressed. And on both The Force Awakens and the UHD Blu Ray of The Last Jedi, the overall signal level was SIGNIFICANTLY lower than on a typical Blu Ray or UHD Blu Ray.

prerich45's picture

Yep, they've been horrible!!!!! Levels are lower than BD's in general. Is it an experiment to see if people really care about sound quality?

SayWhat's picture

Nope, no more. Disney titles have sounded terrible at least since Thor, and I absolutely resent them butchering the most recent Marvel movies. My dollars have been withdrawn.