7 Films Remastered in 4K You May Not Know About

I've said it before, but it's still true, that whenever we have a new video format the movie studios eagerly line up to sell us our favorites all over again—from VHS tape to Laserdisc to DVD to Blu-ray. But today, with movie streaming swamping video discs sales, the line of consumers eager to replace their existing discs is now shorter than ever.

Ultra HD's, however, appear to be fighting the trend. UHD re-releases of popular films are showing up like flies to a picnic. One oddity, however, is that most of these new releases aren't getting any serious promotion from the studios. When I recently checked the Ultra HD Blu-ray section at my local Walmart (the closest brick and mortar retail outlet that stocks video discs; the nearest Best Buy a half hour and a toll bridge away) I saw several new UHD releases of older movies that I hadn't seen mentioned on-line or in-print. Neither do the studios appear to be sending many of these catalog titles out for review.

Below is a sampling of a few 4K/HDR re-mastered titles I've recently purchased, along with brief comments on their picture and sound quality. They've all been formatted for Dolby Atmos, but my auditioning was done in 5.1 from their lossless Dolby TrueHD cores. The audio on the plain HD versions, also included with all of these releases, is typically in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio but not in either Dolby Atmos or DTS-X. All the titles here are from Disney or Marvel, the two labels most active in these re-releases (essentially the same company since Disney acquired Marvel in 2009). They're all HDR10 HDR, not Dolby Vision, and at full Ultra HD pricing even for the oldest of them. This is the Mouse House, after all!

Many but not all of these titles suffer from Disney's current practice of mastering audio at a level lower than titles from other studios, sometimes by 5dB or more. That's easily compensated for in most systems. But watch out if you later switch to another movie mastered at more conventional level. You might be blasted out of your seat.

Two of the animated films discussed here, The Lion King and Aladdin, have had recent theatrical remakes. Aladdin's was live action with CGI enhancement, but The Lion King was remade with photorealistic computer animation promoted as live action. But both entries below refer to the original hand-drawn animated versions from the early '90s.

The Little Mermaid... Easily the oldest of the titles here, but a universally recognized classic. Its release in 1989 clearly kick-started a new golden era for Disney animation, inspiring other studios to rev-up or create their own animation studios as well. That trend continues today, with more animated feature films being released each year than were produced in entire decades prior to 1989.

I've always found the ending of The Little Mermaid something of a cop-out, wrapping things up far too easily. But I can't argue with the movie's success. While the audio is no match for today's best, it's still very good. Two of the songs alone, Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl, are almost worth the price of the disc. But the use of HDR here is modest as is the perfectly fine but unexceptional color palette. If you already own the HD version you might not need to step up to this one. And I've always been disappointed by the animation here; it's competent but surprisingly flat looking and lacking in detail even for the hand drawn variety. Disney may well have been hedging their bets, keeping the budget down at a time when the odds for a smash hit animated feature weren't promising. The studio could do better, and for the next two entries below it did. Dramatically.

The Lion King... Beauty and the Beast won all the plaudits three years earlier, including the only Best Picture Oscar nomination ever given for an animated feature. That development, however, shook film actors so much (the largest voting block in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences) that they forced animation thereafter to be confined to the new purgatory of Best Animated Film. At least a half dozen other animated films since then, including this one, were deprived of at least the Best Picture nomination they deserved.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray here is outstanding, with nearly flawless hand-drawn animation (including a convincing simulation of depth and an early use of computer enhancement for a wildebeest stampede). The HDR isn't striking except in a few scenes, but the color and detail offer plenty of eye-candy. The sound is solid, if just a little bright in a way common in the early 1990s.

Aladdin... The first half here drags a bit, but only because we know now what's coming: perhaps the best performance of the late Robin William's career and certainly a candidate for the best voice performance in animation history. He went on to other things, but never topped this gig.

While not quite as classic as The Lion King, this release has its own charms, with gorgeous color throughout (the Cave of Wonder sequence is indeed a wonder), good use of HDR where needed, and other treats. The sound is also good and comparable to The Lion King's, though deep bass in both is used sparingly.

Ratatouille... There's a ton of Pixar-Disney productions I could have chosen here, including any entry from the Toy Story franchise that started the computer animation revolution. Many Pixar films are now on Ultra HD Blu-ray with more due soon, but this one, out now, remains my favorite. It's the unlikely story of a rat who loves to cook. As I watched it for the first time in years, but for the first time in 4K/HDR, it surprised me on a number of levels. With outstanding sound (including a far higher dynamic range and deeper bass than you might expect) plus stunning detail, color, and impressive HDR, it's not to be missed.

Frozen You'll notice a common thread to a few of these titles; they were released just prior to either a live action version of the same story or, as here, a sequel to it. Frozen is one of the latter, with Frozen II coming soon as I write. While not entirely successful as a story, Frozen is one of the most gorgeous works of animation ever produced at Disney, Pixar (this one is pure Disney, not Pixar), or anywhere else. It definitely works well enough for me to tempt partial or full repeat viewings. The colors here are rich and deep, the HDR impressive, and the detail unsurpassed. But I've always been a little uneasy with the sound, as many of the songs have a canned feel that doesn't match the environment in which they're set. That includes THE song that everyone loves to hate. Just let it go; it's a great song, and it may be the first to include "frozen fractals" in its lyrics!

Guardians of the Galaxy... While I still consider its sequel, cleverly named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, to be superior, I enjoyed this UHD version of the Guardians' origin story far more than I expected considering that its plain HD release left me a little cold. While this entry is still a bit confusing in spots, and its villain more cartoony than most, it's a stunning visual and audio achievement in 4K/UHD. The colors are jaw-dropping, the audio dynamic range is exceptional, and the dramatic use of HDR is icing on the cake.

Thor... I'm likely the only viewer for whom this is a favorite Marvel superhero film. Yes, some scenes, particularly in Asgard, do look a bit dark in the way that Ultra HD transfers sometimes do. But its dramatic use of color and HDR, a crushing audio dynamic range with powerfully extended bass, perfect casting, the almost Shakespearean direction by Kenneth Branagh, and the flight through the cosmos under the closing credits accompanied by Patrick Doyle's epic score, are but a few of the reasons this film is a favorite. It also doesn't go over the top in the way that many later Marvel movies do, with much of the Earth-based action and destruction confined to a small town in New Mexico.

jnemesh's picture

I bought ALL of the new Marvel re-releases in 4k/UHD! All of the ones that were "missing" (Ant Man 1, GotG 1, Dr. Strange) finally got a 4k release, and I was able to complete my MCU collection in 4k at last. Many of them with SteelBooks (although, sadly, not all). I also got the ANIMATED Aladdin in 4k, which is OUTSTANDING (much like their 4k Lion King release). Good stuff all around.

Mongo's picture

C'mon, Tom.
You're in the minority thinking Vol2 was better than Vol1.
Most fans, like myself, have been waiting on tenterhooks for a Vol 1 4k.
Regardless of box office, Vol 1 is a better film subjectively.
Obviously, the 1st one always has the most impact.
2 well-crafted films

Thomas J. Norton's picture
I generally do prefer origin stories, which is one reason why Thor is my favorite of the three dedicated Thor films. That, together with its epic feel, manageably small scale, bittersweet ending, and superb score.

I did like GOTG 1 better when I viewed in 4K/HDR than I had before. Perhaps knowing what's to come also gives more resonance to its beginning. A close call for me.

Olaf the Snowman's picture

May be TJN could also review the new Revel Performa F226BE floor-standing speakers ($7,000/pair), for Stereophile? ........ They are the same price as the Monitor Audio Gold 300 speakers recently reviewed by TJN, for Stereophile :-) .........