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Vault-emort: Harry Potter and the Disney Vault: Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?

I’ve known about the “Disney Vault” ever since I started buying DVDs, well over a decade ago. It’s the reason why you can’t simply go into a movie shop and ask for a copy of every Disney movie, as the company regulates the titles coming in and out of release on various home entertainment platforms at any given moment, giving consumers only the smallest window of opportunity to pick up a given childhood classic before snatching it away for another six or seven years. While I have some serious problems with the practice, it’s a shrewd economic move, and I always wondered why Disney were the only studio to really do it.

Well, Warner Brothers recently announced that they’d be doing something similar, pulling the theatrical versions of the Harry Potter films from DVD and blu ray on the 29th December 2011. That leaves movie fans with only forty-eight days in which to pick up their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II. I suppose this sort of development was inevitable, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Will a lot of film fans feel a bit hallowed by the news?

I can understand why it appeals to the company. It creates a sense of exclusivity around the films, and it actually motivates people to pick them up when given the chance. I don’t generally put off buying a new Disney release, because I know pretty well that the blu ray might not be there the next time I walk into the shop. It also provides a seemingly infinite opportunity for countless reissues and special editions, with Disney actually having several “varieties” of special editions, like “diamond” or “platinum.” In fact, given how the announcement from Warner Brothers seems to expressly mention the “theatrical” editions of the movies, I suspect that something similar is in the works for Harry Potter.

The problem with such an approach is that not many people seem aware of it. As I noted, I didn’t discover the Disney Vault until I started asking why I could buy The Lion King on DVD, despite the fact it’s one of my very favourite films. I know that I’ve had to explain the concept to friends and family looking for a particular film – the real irony being that they are unaware of the system even after they can’t find the film. They just assume a given title was “out of stock” or something like that, which means they’re more likely to dismiss and forget about buying the film when it is eventually released.

Pride of my collection?

However, my main problem with this is more fundamental than that, and it’s an exception that is pretty much particular to the kinds of films that are subject to this release management. I have made my peace with the fact that any number of classics are still not available on blu ray (Vertigo, anyone?) or even that many films won’t be released in my particular geographical “region” (I’ve had to import more than a handful, I tell you). While I’m not thrilled at such things, I accept them as a practical reality of film collecting. Logistically, we simply can’t have everything on DVD or blu ray, and I’m just glad to see a lot of it available. Indeed, many would argue that the thrill of the “hunt” is part of being a true cinephile.

My objection to taking this approach towards Disney films concerns their intended audience: kids. Call me a crazy old film fanatic, but I consider exposing children to classics of Western animation a very valuable part of any cultural education. I want my relatives to grow up having seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella. I think that’s a key part of childhood, and I think that those films are really best seen at a young age. I think that they have the most impact on a youthful imagination, and that they connect best before children have grown up and been exposed to more cynical and modern entertainment. I also think that serve as a wonderful cornerstone to a cinematic education.

What have we got ourselves tangled up in?

I think every film fan should see The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, for example, but it doesn’t matter if you see it at the age of twenty-five or ninety-five: it’s a fantastic film that will be as stunning no matter when you see it. The same logic applies to films like Citizen Kane or The Godfather. I’d consider those films essential parts of any film fan’s diet, but I don’t think that there’s a “right” age to see them. I think any film fan deserves the chance to watch them, but I could live with them being released at intervals over years, for a fanatic to pick up at the next “window of availability.”

In contrast, the eight-year gap between the original DVD release of Snow White in 2001 and it’s re-release in 2009  means that a young child could easily miss that opportune window, especially if a parent is unaware that the “Disney Vault” exists. In an era where childhood is growing increasingly short, it seems a genuine shame that a child could grow up without seeing a film like the original Disney animated canon. I know that some people have objections to Disney, and would suggest that less exposure to the company is a good thing, but I reject that notion. I think that those cartoons are a rich part of a shared cultural experience, and it seems almost cruel to lock them away in a tall and dark tower not unlike we saw in Tangled.

Disney will be dancing all the way to the bank...

Families aren’t always rigorously planned, and I know that Disney DVDs are probably the last thing that any young couple are thinking about when they find out that they are going to have a child. It seems a bit unfair that a young father could miss the chance to watch The Little Mermaid with his daughter because he never released there was a strict moratorium in place. I know that’s hardly the most important thing, but I think that family is made up of the very little things, and the fact that this very simple parent-experience is impossible for so many families actually makes me quite sad. Then again, I’m just a big softie at heart.

The Harry Potter films are something similar, if for slightly older kids. I can see a lot of young teenagers sort of “growing up”with the films, as they did with the books, providing the perfect counterpoint to personal development – Harry and his friends genuinely evolve and grow over the films, in a way I don’t think any other ensemble ever has. I think that it would be a real shame if a parent couldn’t pick up a box set on the spur-of-the-moment in five-to-ten years from now.

Family viewing...

This is one of those things I’ll never really understand, like hugely staggered release schedules. I mean, I can understand a week or even a month between a release in the States and in Europe, but I never understood why studios would have it so that the film was almost out on DVD in one market before releasing it in another. In this era of “the global village” and on-line shopping, that seemed like a sure-fire way to encourage all sorts of international traffic. Just as I imagine the Disney Vault means there’s an obsene amount of money to be made in the second-hand market.

Ah well, time will tell, I guess. I haven’t decided if I’m going to buy the Harry Potter box set, or if I can wait another eight years.

4 Responses

  1. It seems like a shameless cash-in. And I don’t know if it will work, it seems like most of the students on campus here are downloading the film illegally anyway.

  2. It might make commercial sense, but there just seems something wrong about limiting any kind of art in this way. What if Art Galleries allowed visitors only two weeks a year? People would be outraged. I consider it morally wrong and I don’t even like the Harry Potter movies (other than the fifth one).

    • That’s a very fair point. I think sometimes I’m too accepting of “films as property” when it comes to directors (George Lucas) or studios (here). It frustrates me, but part of me just embraces the idea that it’s their film, they can do what they want with it, as much as I hate it.

      And the fifth one? I thought the fourth one and the final one were the best myself. The fifth one was solidly in the “treading water” phase, if you ask me.

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