Chief Justice Michael Stailey is forever grateful to be part of this world.
"Somebody's got to nail that girl's fins to the floor."
By the time The Little Mermaid arrived in theaters in November 1989, Disney movies had lost their cool; and that's coming from a kid who had seen nearly every Disney animated feature from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Rescuers on the big screen. Then again, my attention had long since been diverted to the likes of James Bond, Smokey and the Bandit, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It's little wonder I paid no attention to a singing cartoon mermaid…until it reached home video, that is. In the Summer of 1990, I was home from school, working a well-paid internship, and using that disposable income to build an impressive library of classic Disney films on VHS. Imagine my surprise, as I sat there alone watching Ariel's world unfold like no Disney film I'd seen before. This experience was not only cinematic in scope, but pure musical theatre right out of the Broadway / MGM Dream Factory handbook.
Facts of the Case
Ariel (Jodi Benson, Toy Story 3), a headstrong young mermaid, longs for a life beyond the protective borders of her father's (Kenny Mars, The Producers) undersea kingdom. With the help of her unsuspecting friends Scuttle (Buddy Hackett, The Love Bug) and Flounder (Jason Marin, Rock-a-Doodle), not to mention her caretaker and royal court conductor Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright, Jericho), this fiery redhead travels to the surface world, saves the life of a handsome prince (Christopher Daniel Barnes, The Brady Bunch Movie), makes an unwise deal with Ursula the sea witch (Pat Carroll, Too Close for Comfort), and must overcome multiple obstacles to obtain true love's kiss before time runs out and all is lost.
Whether it was dumb luck or incredible foresight, one of the smartest things the Disney company ever did was bring Howard Ashman in to write lyrics for a song on Oliver and Company. Even though that project didn't quite turn out as they hoped, the ensuing conversations Howard had with writer/directors John Musker and Ron Clements about a fairy tale they were struggling with (the first such endeavor since 1959's Sleeping Beauty) became a film that not only saved the company's flailing feature animation division but single-handedly rebirthed the Disney Princesses and ensured the profitability of both for generations to come.
With four nieces, three of whom are redheads, I've seen The Little Mermaid more times than any male ever should, and yet it somehow never loses any of its magic. Ashman infused Disney with theatricality and all its inherent storytelling devices. The female protagonist who wants/needs something so badly they would sacrifice anything to achieve it, the insurmountable obstacles she is faced with, the duplicitous antagonist who steps in just when all hope is lost to offer a solution too good to be true, the love interest who's almost within reach when everything falls apart, and the heroes' journey that must be taken in order to become the person she was destined to be. None of this is re-inventing the wheel. It's a tried and true formula that can be found in everything from The Wizard of Oz to The Phantom of the Opera. And yet even Disney's Nine Old Men never fully understood or leveraged the power the musical motif could offer in bringing those characters to life.
Though Walt had eyes on this Hans Christian Andersen tale as early as 1939, it wasn't until Musker and Clements were looking for a follow-up to The Great Mouse Detective that the project was dug up and presented during one of Jeffrey Katzenberg's annual pitch meetings (aka "The Gong Show") that it gained any traction. And only then did it get greenlit because the studio was riding high off Ron Howard's live-action mermaid comedy Splash.
Thanks to the vocal performance of Jodi Benson, the live-action reference work of Sherri Stoner, and the clear vision of supervising animator Glenn Keane, Ariel instantaneously claimed the Disney princess throne, inspiring young girls everywhere to follow their hearts and dreams. This was not some wilting flower waiting for a prince to come and free her from an unbearable situation. Ariel went against the wishes of everyone in her life to do what she felt was right, even when it meant giving up a part of her she thought she could never live without. Doing so only made Ursula's role as the vengeful, exiled advisor to King Triton all the more insidious. It's one thing for an evil queen, a wicked stepmother, or hellbent sorceress to get their competition out of the way by putting the heroine to sleep or locking them away forever. Ursula was bound and determined to steal the very life from her adversary's daughter in order to usurp control of the world's oceans and all their power; and boy does the team of animator Ruben Aquino and voice actor Pat Carroll convince us that's exactly what she's going to do.
Yes, we still have the semi-emasculated, easily duped, handsome prince and the requisite comic relief—the best of which is Rene Auberjonois' (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) manic chef and his showstopping number "Les Poissons"—but the palpable tension that builds to a crescendo as we move from one act to the next is what makes The Little Mermaid a touchstone Disney film. Ashman uses "Part of Your World" to introduce our heroine, "Poor Unfortunate Souls" to lay the trap, and "Kiss the Girl" to tease us with a denouement that blows up at the last second. No music here is gratuitous or incidental. Each number plays its specific role to perfection, with credit to composer Alan Menken for being the ideal complement to Ashman's master plan.
Though I'm singling out Howard's influence, I mean no disservice to the work Musker and Clements did in bringing Ariel's world to life. This was not the Disney animation team we know today. In fact, The Little Mermaid was the last of the hand-painted cel animation films, before transitioning to the PIXAR developed computer animation system (CAPS), and a tremendous amount of creativity and resources went into achieving the believable human form animation we see in the film. Walt despised the concept of rotoscoping (tracing over live film footage) and subsequently pioneered the concept of actors playing out his characters on stage for the animators who would sit and sketch key moments in action. Musker and Clements re-introduced this concept on a lower-budget, but it was necessary to evolve the Disney style beyond the classic talking animals and creatures that had become so identifiable to audiences. There are even key moments of computer-generated imagery blended into the final cut that give the film a look and feel heretofore unseen, and do so beautifully.
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen, Disney spared no expense in bringing us the finest of restorations. There's no heavy-handed color processing or line-enhancement. The foibles of the original animation style are still evident in every frame (e.g. background characters appear more rubbery than the principals), and the soft veil of cinematic grain can still be detected by the naked eye. There's no need to bring The Little Mermaid up to 2013 standards, because this a film of its time and works well. Now, as I've stated in previous reviews, I will never be a fan of the stereoscopic 3D process. I understand that the studios strive to give audiences what they want, but in this case I don't believe anyone is out there begging for 3D versions of every Disney animated film. All we get from this "upgrade" is an increase in depth of field. Nothing flies out of the screen and floats above your head in the living room. "Under the Sea" is given a deeper stage on which to perform its calypso lunacy. The climax with giant Ursula has a more ominous feel and those CG elements are quite evident. Will the enhancement change anyone's appreciation of the film? No. The 2D transfer is beautiful enough just the way it is, but for an extra $5 it's worth having the 3D copy should you ever invest in the technology to enjoy it.
As for the audio, Disney delivers yet another rich DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio experience. It's worth upgrading your DVDs for the audio alone, as the re-balancing of dialogue, music, and directional effects presents a seriously robust auditory experience. True, The Little Mermaid is one of the more front-heavy mixes of Disney's second age of animation, but the sound design team of the late '80s did the best they could with the technology at their disposal.
In terms of Bonus Features, the NEW material isn't earth-shattering, but there are a couple of real treats.
* Disney Intermission—This feature needs to be retired, as it's just downright annoying. Press "pause" on your remote and the disc spins up the "Crab-E-Oke" feature, which is little more than Sam Wright's Sebastian (yes, Sam is the original voice actor, even though he can't recapture the character) narrated a four track video jukebox of the film's key musical numbers. These are stylized greeting card versions, merging clips, new animation, and creative use of lyrics to bug the crap out of anyone foolish enough to pause the action.
* Deleted Scene (2 min)—John and Ron introduce a merman character who was designed to illustrate what happens to someone unable to pay Ursula's fee. "Harold" was cut from the script and only exists in storyboard form, which is animated and given voice opposite the great Pat Carroll.
* Music Video (4 min)—I had thought this concept long since retired, but pop princess Carly Rae Jepson gets her chance to sing "Part of Your World" against the backdrop of an ambitious albeit naive young artist fresh off the bus and forced to make her way in the big bad city. Ugh…
* Part of Her World (5 min)—Join Jodi Benson and her children as they explore Walt Disney World's new Fantasyland and are asked to autograph Ariel's piece of the chandelier in the lobby of the new Art of Animation resort.
* @DisneyAnimation (11 min)—A peek inside the Hat Building in Burbank, better know as the Feature Animation division. Here we meet stalwart Disney veterans and several members of the next-gen animators sharing their experiences and passion for the company. As someone who never pursued their passion for animation, these things always strike a bittersweet chord, but the sheer joy these people have for their work is inspiring.
* Crab-E-Oke (15 min)—See my description for "Disney Intermission."
* Howard's Lecture (16 min)—Hands down my favorite of the new bonus content, this should be called "John and Ron comment on Howard's Lecture," as there are more incidental anecdotes and cutaways than actual video of Howard speaking to a group of Disney animators and sharing his process for bringing musical theatre into the world of feature animation. John Musker broke down, Jodi Benson cried, I teared up, and anyone who appreciates the genius of Howard Ashman being lost to this world at such a young age cannot help but be affected by what you'll see here.
* MP3 Download—Ten tracks (7 numbers from the film, 2 ridiculous "inspired by" songs, and Carly Rae Jepson's "Part of Your World") are available to you as a one-time download.
* 2D Blu-ray, DVD Copy, and iTunes Digital Copy
The rest of the content is ported over from the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD release.
* Commentary—John, Ron, and Alan Menken share a wealth of production information and development stories to color an already terrific film.
* Deleted Scenes—Alternate takes, an alternate ending, unused storyboard sequences, and discarded musical numbers are introduced by (who else?) John and Ron.
* Making of The Little Mermaid (45 min)—A glorious six-part behind-the-scenes look at the film with John and Ron. These docs used to be the cornerstone of Disney DVD releases, and for some reason the studio no longer produces them. Sad, really.
* Story Behind the Story (10 min)—The origins of Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid fairy tale.
* Storm Warning (9 min)—A look at the development of the visual effects used in destroying Eric's ship.
* Little Match Girl (2006) (8 min)—A magificent animated short from director Roger Allers (The Lion King) which was nominated for an Oscar.
* Life Under the Sea (8 min)—DisneyPedia's brief undersea wildlife adventure. A precursor to the grander DisneyNature films to follow.
* The Ride That Almost Was (6 min)—A look at the abandoned Ariel Disney Parks attraction. Superfluous now since one does exist in both US parks.
* Under the Sea Adventure (4 min)—Pre-vis animatic for the aforementioned attraction.
* Under the Sea (3 min)—The original pitch presentation for the film.
* Animators Comment (2 min)—Supervising animators provide brief insight into the characters they brought to life. Very EPK.
* Caricatures (2 min)—John is a master caricature artist, so he and Ron square off in a competition to draw each other.
* Secret Handshake (1 min)—John and Ron demonstrate their secret Mermaid handshake. Enough already.
* Music Video—This time, it's Disney princess Ashley Tisdale's (High School Musical) turn to sing "Part of Your World." Shoot me now.
* Sing-Along—A more primitive form of "Crab-E-Oke." Make it stop!
* Theatrical Trailer
The Little Mermaid is a landmark achievement for Disney Feature Animation, not only rescuing an art form many risk-averse Hollywood executives felt was too costly, but catapulting the industry forward and setting a new standard for animated storytelling. Without the involvement of Howard Ashman, this would not have been the film people know and love today. He and Alan went on to shape Beauty and the Beast and lay the groundwork for Aladdin before succumbing to the ravages of HIV and AIDS, in a time when they were death sentences rather than the manageable afflictions people live with today. This film stands as a testament to his gifts and passion, inspiring not only his colleagues but generations of audiences who have and will continue to experience being part of Ariel's world.
Not guilty! The 3D enhancement is a trivial component of this otherwise
terrific Blu-ray release.
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