Credit 1989's "The Little Mermaid" with putting the Disney studios back into the business of full-length, traditional animation. It became the first in a string of successful Disney cartoons that didn't run out of steam until a decade later, after the advent of 3-D computer graphics. I have to admit that I have not always been one of "The Little Mermaid's" biggest fans, finding its story line and characters a little too coincidentally reminiscent of their affiliate studio's live-action "Splash" from a few years earlier; but I cannot deny there is still great charm in the old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, much beauty in the animation, and plenty of good music and songs. I have to welcome the movie's reappearance on DVD, this time in a Platinum Edition two-disc set, with not only a host of new extras but with improved picture and sound, too.
The setting for the tale, never specified, is probably close to storyteller Andersen's day, the early 1800s, partly under the sea, partly above it. The principal character, Ariel (Jodi Benson), is the mischievous, sixteen-year-old mermaid daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), a demigod of the sea. Triton forbids her to go near the surface of the water or mingle with humans, whom he calls "spineless, savage, harpooning fish eaters." Naturally, Ariel can't help herself, being the curious type, and wants to know what's up there. In the course of her explorations, she finds and rescues a young, handsome, drowning prince, Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), and falls in love with him. But what's she do, she's a mermaid after all. That's where the evil sea witch Ursula (Pat Carroll) enters the picture. She's half human, half octopus, and all bad. She's looking for revenge after being exiled from Triton's court, and she makes a deal with Ariel: She'll turn Ariel into a human being in exchange for her voice (and, unknown to Ariel, the Prince).
Among the film's other colorful characters are Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), Triton's court composer crab, whom the King assigns to watch over Ariel; Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), Ariel's goofy seagull friend, the funniest personality in the story thanks to Hackett's funny, goofy voice; Flounder (Jason Marin), Ariel's shy, fishy little friend; Louis (Rene Auberjonois), the Prince's chef, who has a penchant for cooking fish; Flotsam and Jetsam (Paddi Edwards), Ursula's two slinky eel flunkies; and Grimsby (Ben Wright), the Prince's valet.
Co-writers and co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who were also responsible for "The Great Mouse Detective," "Aladdin," "Hercules," and "Treasure Planet," keep the action and the romance moving at a healthy enough clip not to bore children or adults. It's a sweet story, if a tad juvenile. Yet, like all good fairly tales, a grown-up can easily enjoy it. Speaking of which, one cannot help noticing that Ariel is perhaps the sexiest-looking animated character the Disney artists have ever drawn. But how does a mermaid wash her hair without getting soap in her eyes?
For me, the best parts of the movie were the art work and the songs. The picture's appearance is quite lovely, a welcome return to the beautifully detailed animation style that Disney seemed to abandon for many years in the sixties and seventies. The Disney artists boldly portray each of the characters, and they vividly imbue the backgrounds with an abundance of light and shadow to individualize each scene.
The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are also a return to form for Disney. Things begin with "Fathoms Below," describing the undersea domain of the mer people. Next is "Part of Your World," in which Ariel longs to share in the human world. Then comes the highlight of the show, the song for which "The Little Mermaid" is probably best known, "Under the Sea," with Sebastian trying to convince Ariel of the virtues of remaining below water. This one may be worth the price of the whole set, especially in its newly remastered audio home-theater mix. Ursula has the next number, "Poor Unfortunate Souls," which shows her treachery; chef Louis sings the darkly humorous "La Poisson," about the joys of cooking fish, much to the horror of onlooker Sebastian; and, lastly, Sebastian encourages the romance between Ariel and Prince Eric in "Kiss the Girl."
"The Little Mermaid" is sprightly, starry-eyed, lush, and luxuriant. Yes, Disney may have been inspired to seek out the Hans Christian Andersen tale in response to the success of their Touchstone live-action mermaid story "Splash," but the two stories nicely complement each other, and both of them have their special appeals.
The Disney video engineers restored the picture to its original pristine beauty, presenting its picture on disc in a 1.78:1 ratio, high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. The opening scenes take place at sea in a storm and then underwater, so, appropriately, the colors are not too bright or glossy. Out in the open, under a clear sky, the picture is stunning, with hues deep and brilliant. There is, however, the merest touch of very fine grain throughout the film, which one might notice at the beginning, and there are a couple of brief scenes where the picture looks the tiniest bit blurry; nothing really.
The Disney audio people remastered the English Dolby Digital 5.1 sound in one of their home-theater mixes, which I usually find puts too much information into the rear channels. But what the heck; it's a children's cartoon, and it's meant to be fun. So, expect lots of rushing water, crashing waves, surging winds, and musical ambience enhancement in the surrounds. There is also a wide front-channel stereo spread, a strong bass, and good transient impact.
As this is one of Disney's Platinum Edition two-disc sets, it involves a ton of bonus items. Not all of them may interest you, but there is enough stuff here that by picking and choosing you are bound to find something of interest. Disc one contains the feature film, plus a generous twenty-seven scene selections; a chapter insert and navigational guide; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired. In addition, you'll find an audio commentary by co-writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker and composer Alan Menken; a music video, "Kiss the Girl," performed by Ashley Tisdale; a Disney Song Selection with lyrics printed at the bottom of the screen (an option for the movie, too); a sneak preview of "The Little Mermaid III"; and Sneak Peeks at ten other Disney titles. For convenience, the disc also includes an index of bonus items and a look at what's on the second DVD.
Disc two starts out with the forty-five-minute documentary "Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid," divided into six chapters that you can play separately or all at once. Needless to say, it is fairly comprehensive. Next is an eight-minute featurette, "Storm Warning: The Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit," followed by the eleven-minute featurette "The Story Behind the Story," explaining the origins of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. After that is my favorite of all the extras, a seven-minute animated short film, "The Little Match Girl," also based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story and set to the music of Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D major. The tale is quite touching. After that are six "Little Mermaid" art galleries, an early presentation reel, and an original theatrical trailer.
Under "Deleted Scenes" you'll find twenty-six minutes of excised material with filmmaker introductions, the art work done in rough preliminary drawings, plus the audio-only song "Silence Is Golden." Then, there is a DisneyPedia segment, "Life Under the Sea"; and, finally, Disney's "Under the Sea Adventure," a virtual ride inspired by Walt Disney Imagineering, complete with an audio commentary for the ride and a "Behind the Ride That Almost Was" featurette, with different views, storyboards, scale models, etc.
"The Little Mermaid" is cute, romantic, well-animated, well paced, and filled with more good music than Disney had produced in quite some time. The Platinum Edition set does it justice with its all-new picture and sound restoration and its plethora of additional goodies.