The Little Mermaid [Blu-Ray]
Director : s Ron Clements & John Musker
Screenplay : John Musker & Ron Clements (based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1989
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time not that long ago when the animation division of Walt Disney Studios was in trouble. After turning out numerous classics during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, the animation division had begun to sink into mediocrity, producing a string of interesting, but flat films, including The Rescuers (1977), The Black Cauldron (1985), and Oliver & Co. (1988), that deviated from the traditional Disney formula and were quickly forgotten. The Black Cauldron was a particularly notable failure, as the ambitious, 70mm fantasy-adventure movie (the first Disney animated movie to be rated PG) was in production for four years and cost more than $25 million, but was not able to recoup its production budget at the box office. Despite all the advances in technology (including limited deployment of CGI), it looked like Disney animation had lost its magic touch.
And then came The Little Mermaid, which for better or worse (depending on your view of Disney animation), will always be remembered as the movie that restored the studio’s almost-lost grandeur. Under the guidance of the screenwriting/directing team of John Musker and Ron Clements and the songwriting duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, The Little Mermaid revitalized the notion of what can be achieved with pen and ink and once again elevated Disney to the status of undisputed king of mainstream cinematic animation.
The Little Mermaid marked the return to both the musical formula, which had largely been discarded during the previous decades, and using fairy tales as source material, hallmarks of Disney’s early and most iconic films—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950). The film is a modern reworking of Hans Christian Anderson’s 1836 fairy tale about a young mermaid named Aerial who yearns to be human so she can be with her true love, a prince named Eric. If you’ve ever read the original story, you know that it has a downbeat, decidedly un-Disney ending, which, of course, had to be changed so that Aerial could end up with her prince in the end. Virtue and persistence are rewarded, while evildoing is punished.
Aerial (beautifully voiced by Jodi Benson) is updated into a modern-day teenager with all the spunk, naiveté, and casual recklessness of any urban, mall-shopping adolescent, albeit with a fishtail and seashell bikini top. The youngest and most strong-willed of numerous sisters, she constantly runs headfirst into her stern, but loving father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), who distrusts humans and doesn’t like the idea of Aerial going to surface where she might be “snared by some fisheater’s hook.” To keep an eye on her, Triton assigns Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), a musically inclined crab with a Jamaican accent to watch over her. But, as anyone who has ever tried to keep an eye on a teenager knows, there is little to be done once Aerial has her mind made up. Desperate to meet Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), Aerial goes to Ursula, the Sea Witch (Pat Carroll), who promises to make her human—for a price. Ursula will give Aerial three days to make Eric fall in love with her. If she does, Aerial will stay human forever. If she doesn’t, she will belong to Ursula forever. And, if that isn’t enough, Ursula demands as payment Aerial’s beautiful voice, which Eric had earlier heard and fallen in love with.
The storyline is lifted almost exactly from the original fairy tale, but it is energized and reimagined as a grandiose romantic fantasy complete with a host of memorable characters. Among the most memorable are a scatter-brained seagull with good intentions named Scuttle (voiced with comic glee by Buddy Hackett) and a pair of evil eels aptly named Flotsam and Jetsam (both voiced with snaky viciousness by Paddi Edwards).
The Little Mermaid’s return to the musical formula was bolstered by some of the best musical numbers ever put in a Disney film and a smooth, Broadway-style integration of song and narrative. Alan Menken’s eclectic musical array, which draws from old sea chanteys, theatrical-style ballads, and calypso, to name a few, is enhanced by the clever wordplay of producer/lyricist Howard Ashman, who was best known at the time for his off-Broadway musical production Little Shop of Horrors (which had been turned into a film two years earlier). The standout music numbers include Sebastian’s spontaneous calypso riff “Under the Sea,” in which he explains to Aerial how much better life is in the water than on land (“Up on the shore they work all day, out in the sun they slave away, while we’re devoting good time to floating under the sea”). The flashy and diabolical Ursula, who reminds one of an overweight Cruella Deville crossed with an octopus, also has a memorable Broadway-style song called “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in which she convinces Aerial to seal the deal. “Les Poissons,” a darkly hilarious French number by a chef named Louis (René Auberjonois), is, from a fish’s point of view (and remember, the majority of characters in this film are fish in one way or another), about the most gory and sadistic thing imaginable (“First I cut off their heads, then I rip out their bones ...).
Arriving just before the emergence and subsequent dominance of CGI in animation, the imagery in The Little Mermaid still bears some of the rougher, hand-drawn characteristics of early Disney films (it was, in fact, the last Disney animated film to be painted entirely by hand), but it has elements of the slick, digital gloss that came to characterize animation in the 1990s. The animation is free and fluid, and co-directors Clements and Musker make great use of the camera, flying through the air with seagulls and diving to the greatest depths of the ocean, which gives the film a more engaging, cinematic feel.
Although it has come under the same kind of criticism as many Disney films for reinforcing conservative rhetoric about the relationships between men and women and their respective roles in society, The Little Mermaid should also be applauded for being a thinly disguised morality play about the oppressiveness of dividing groups according to physical characteristics. The end of the movie, which features not only a traditional wedding, but also a coming together of two groups (humans and merpeople) that had previously viewed each other with either skepticism or outright hostility, conveys a striking message about peace and harmony that is all too often sorely lacking in the real world.
|The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Walt Disney Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 1, 2013|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Disney’s high-definition presentation of The Little Mermaid on Blu-ray looks excellent, quite an improvement over the 2006 DVD, which, while good for the time, had some color timing issues that resulted in the image having more of a purplish hue than it should. Colors on the Blu-ray look much better, with the underwater sequences boasting stronger blue tones. The image is not quite as sharp as some might expect at times, but that is certainly due to the source material and the fact that an animated film from 1989 is not going to look like one from today (nor should it). There has clearly been some digital restoration done, as there are no signs of age or wear, but not so much that the image loses its filmlike quality, with slight touches of grain to remind us that the hand-painted cells were actually photographed. The newly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1-channel soundtrack will certainly please longtime fans of the movie, as it shows off the musical numbers with a particularly impressive sense of immersion. However, as much as I enjoyed the film’s presentation on Blu-ray, I was recently made aware of some changes that were made to the film, some of which are fairly minor, and others of which viewers familiar with it will certainly notice. Among these are significant changes to the timing of the opening credits (and the removal of the credit “Produced in Association With Silver Screen Partners IV”), at least one change in a transition between shots, and an inexplicable (I have to assume accidental) swapping of two shots in the last few seconds of “Part of Your World.” For a side-by-side comparison of these moments on the Blu-ray and the 2006 DVD, go here.|
|The 2006 two-disc DVD set of The Little Mermaid was fairly packed in terms of supplements—an audio commentary, a thorough making-of doc, art galleries, etc., all of which are included here—so there isn’t a whole lot to add, although most of what Disney has come up with is worth visiting. Among those are “@ Disney Animation,” a 10-minute featurette about the modern Disney animation division that features interviews with a number of young animators who were inspired by The Little Mermaid as kids, and a featurette about Harold, a nerdy merman whose small subplot was deleted prior to animation (we get to see the animated storyboards and the recorded voice-over). Two other new featurettes are worth checking out: “The Real Little Mermaid: Live Action Reference Model,” which shows us a great deal of video footage of actors playing out scenes from the film to be used as live-action reference for the animators, and “Howard’s Lecture,” which gives us excerpts from a lunch-time lecture Howard Ashman gave to the Disney animators during the film’s production about the history of musical theater and how he was working to incorporate that aesthetic into the film. Worth skipping are an Ashley Tisdale music video for “Kiss the Girl” and a featurette about actress Jodi Benson’s trip to Disneyland’s new Fantasyland with her family, which plays more like an infomercial for Disneyland than anything else.|
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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