Nobody got more mileage out of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Little Mermaid” than Disney. And I’m not just talking about three sequels and countless product tie-ins.
Though the studio’s acknowledged Golden Age of animation began in 1938 with Snow White, seven dwarfs, and Nine Old Men—the original team of animators—the studio’s 1989 production of “The Little Mermaid” launched what could only be called a second Golden Age.
Disney’s 28th animated feature broke new ground by infusing the narrative with Broadway-style songs from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, whose music theater work included Little Shop of Horrors. The two brought a new energy to Disney animation—it was Ashman’s idea to turn the crab in the screenplay from an English butler type to a Jamaican Rastafarian—and directors Ron Clements and John Musker had a budget to work with that was larger than it had been in decades. But it’s all in the details, and Disney really ramped up the animation and backgrounds to create an undersea world that was nothing short of spectacular. That successful formula would be used in “Beauty and the Beast” two years later, and in “The Lion King” (1994).
Broadway actress Jodi Benson was chosen to play Ariel, and she brings a wide-eyed innocence and passion to the role—and to Ariel’s signature song, “Part of Your World.” Each song moves the narrative and character development forward, with several big production numbers so rousing (and with characters assuming “Ta da!” poses at the end) that many theater audiences burst into applause.
Viewers could identify with Ariel, too. She was a flawed Disney “princess” who was all the more endearing because of her “humanness.” She disobeyed her father to follow her passion, she was talented but easily distracted and perhaps too trusting—and most importantly, she aspired to a life that was different from the one her father envisioned. She’s duped, too, because of her wish to have legs so she can pursue Prince Eric, whom she saved from drowning. The Sea Witch, Ursula—one of the stronger Disney villains in the past several decades—gets her to sign on the dotted line of a Mephistophelean bargain. She will have legs for three days, during which time if she gets Prince Eric to kiss her she will have him—and those legs—forever. But fail, and she becomes another shriveled “pet” kept by this dark, big-bosomed, octopus creature in her own underwater Hades.
While it may have ushered in a new Golden Age of Disney animation with that blend of Broadway and more meticulous detail, “The Little Mermaid” was also the last animated feature from the House of Mouse to incorporate hand-painted cells and analog camera and film work. More than a million drawings were done for the film, with final artwork sporting roughly 1000 different colors and just as many backgrounds. It also has more effects than most Disney features, with effects animation supervisor Mark Dinal estimating that over a million bubbles were drawn for the film.
The result? “The Little Mermaid” became the first Disney animated feature to win an Oscar (Best Score, Best Song) since “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” way back in 1971. It’s good to finally have this one on Blu-ray—and in 3D, no less.
Self-annointed videophiles have focused so much on DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) and grain that they sometimes can’t see the forest because they’re so locked in on the trees. But the average viewer will find “The Little Mermaid” uneven because of the condition of the original elements from which the restoration and transfer were made. The pre-title sequence is particularly rough, and other scenes—especially additional storm scenes—have more grain and a softer look than the rest of the film. The good news is that the rest of the film is a huge improvement over standard definition releases, whether you watch in 2D or 3D. Colors are richer, edges are more finely delineated (except for a few instances of ghosting), and the production has a sumptuous look.
If “The Little Mermaid” had been conceived and shot in 3D, I suspect the presentation would have been more dramatic than this conversion (MVC/MPEG-4). As is, don’t look for too many objects and characters to break the plane of the television set. Most of the 3-dimensionality comes from depth and definition within the television screen. The pop-up effect isn’t as pronounced as it was in “Sleeping Beauty,” but it’s still prominent. And while there’s no blurring of action (a common problem with 3D) the murky undersea shots appear even darker and more indistinct when you watch them with those funny glasses.
I found myself checking to see whether the default audio was set for the advertised English DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround, because I wasn’t hearing a lot from the back speakers. It turns out that there just isn’t much sound distribution across those additional speakers until the big effects scenes. There’s also surprisingly little movement across the sound field. Most of the sound emanates from the front and center speakers theater style, though at least the dialogue is clean and crisp and the musical numbers are impressive.
Additional audio options are French, Spanish, and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
The combo pack includes a 3D Blu-ray, 2D Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy, and features from previous DVDs are included, as well as a limited-time-only 10 music track download (“Fathoms Below,” “Daughters of Triton,” “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Les Poissons,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Hot, Hot, Hot,” “Limbo Rock,” and “Part of Your World” (Carly Rae Jepsen).
The best of the new features is “Under the Scene,” a live-action reference feature (13 min.) showing how humans were used to inspire the animators. But it’s also entertaining to take an 11-minute tour called “@DisneyAnimation,” in which we see Musker and Clements talking about how they’ve suddenly become the new grand old men. We also hear from a new generation of animators like Brittney Lee, Hyun-min Lee, and Kira Lehtomaki. It’s a nice inside view, though the message is pretty much the same: working for Disney is a wish come true.
Also new is a 16-minute “lecture” from Howard Ashman, who died in 1991, a five-minute trip to Walt Disney World with Jodi Benson and her children, a two-minute deleted scene/character: Harold the Merman (with glasses, under the sea?), a Carly Rae Jepsen music video (“Part of Your World”), and a Sing-along option.
Some of the features previously released on DVD include a commentary track with Clements, Musker, and Menken, 26 minutes of deleted scenes, a Backstage Disney section of nine extras including “The Story Behind the Story” (Andersen’s original tale) and a 46-minute “making of” feature, plus, for the kids, a Disneypedia Life Under the Sea short feature and two theme-park briefs: a clip about a Little Mermaid ride that never got off the ground, and a virtual theme-park ride.
For many viewers, “The Little Mermaid” was the first Disney feature to blow them out of the water. The Broadway-style music, the incredible detail, and effects-heavy animation launched a whole new era.