All good things must come to an end, and so it was at Walt Disney Studios. The Golden Age of feature film animation had started with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. By the end of the 1970’s, it was all but gone. As the studio entered the 1980’s the things had gone from bad to worse. Walt was gone, and so it seemed was the magic. Most of The Nine Old Men had either retired or passed away. The studio leadership was considering closing the animated studio and moving on to live-action films only. It was a dark time for the artists and creative folks at the Mouse House. A shadow had fallen. Sounds pretty much like the beginning of a Tolkien tale, doesn’t it?
Enter a new regime. Michael Eisner became the new head of the company, and Jeffrey Katzenberg teamed up with Walt’s brother Roy Disney to head the new studio. The first thing they did was banish the animation studios from the Disney lot and set them up in warehouse-like trailers in the middle of industry nowhere. It looked like the axe had finally fallen. But the exile turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to this new generation of Disney talent. Under the new leadership the creative forces banded together and began to do something they hadn’t in a long time. They began to dream once again.
The Second Golden Age of feature film animation began with a simple Hans Christian Andersen fable. The Little Mermaid didn’t really appear to be the kind of tale Disney told, at least at first. It was a magical tale of a mermaid who dreamed of being human and fell in love with a human prince. What’s so wrong with that? Beyond the fact that Disney hadn’t told a princess story in over thirty years, there was the little thing of the mermaid dying in the end instead of the happily-ever-after tale audiences were going to expect. But with a little tweaking and a newly inspired creative team, The Little Mermaid would go on to shepherd in that new Golden Age that would lead into the 1990’s and peak with The Lion King. Instead of dying, this little mermaid resurrected a studio.
It’s the story of 16-year-old Ariel (Benson), a mermaid and daughter to Triton (Mars), king of the sea. She has been collecting artifacts from the human world. She’s fascinated by the things even if she doesn’t really know what they are. Her friend the seagull, Scuttle (Hackett) is the closest thing she knows to a human expert, but he thinks a fork is a comb and a pipe a musical instrument. Unable to control his daughter, Triton has assigned Sebastian (Wright) to look over her, much to the crab’s own dismay.
Ariel is drawn to the surface by a boat and fireworks. There she spies Prince Eric (Barnes) and immediately falls in love. Of course, a sudden storm wrecks the ship, and Eric is unable to get to the lifeboat. It’s Ariel to the rescue, breaking her father’s strict command. Eric also falls in love with Ariel, but she disappears too quickly for him to get a good look. All he remembers is her enchanting voice.
Frustrated, Ariel turns to the evil sea witch Ursula (Carroll) for help. Ursula is happy to offer a deal. She’ll provide a potion that will make Ariel human for three days. If in that time Eric falls in love with her and they kiss, she’ll be allowed to remain human. If not, she returns to the sea and becomes another of Ursula’s collection of tormented souls. There’s just one catch. OK, there are really several, but most important is the cost…her voice. She’ll have to win over Eric without speaking. And, oops… it’s what he loves about her.
Still, with the help of Sebastian, Scuttle, and her fish friend Flounder, she almost gets the kiss. That is until Ursula cheats and wins Eric away with Ariel’s stolen voice. Then there’s the whole good vs. evil business mixed in with that true-love fairy dust, and it’s the inevitable happily ever after.
With The Little Mermaid, several elements returned to Disney. One of those is music. The Sherman Brothers hadn’t done a film in several years, and so Disney turned to the team of Howard Ashman for lyrics and many of the polished story ideas and composer Alan Menken. The duo produced the most singable and entertaining songs for Disney since the Sherman Brothers classics of a generation before. Ashman brought a bit of the stage musical to the production, and the result was Oscars for both the score and the song Under the Sea. Interestingly enough, Katzenberg attempted to remove one of the songs after a test screening and the reaction of a single kid. The team fought to keep the song, and it became quite a classic. Katzenberg would do the same thing to Elton John in the Lion King when he tried to cut Circle of Life, which also was fought for and won the Oscar. Ashman and Menken’s stage style would continue on with The Beauty and the Beast and more awards. Unfortunately, Ashman passed away before that film was actually released. There’s no question that the return of these kinds of songs went a long way toward both films’ success.
It was also Ashman’s idea to make Sebastian Jamaican to bring the Reggae and Calypso sounds that brought a lively upbeat to the film’s music.
The film was also a return to the kind of animation techniques that the studio had drifted away from. For the first time in years, live-action scenes were filmed with actors to provide the animators with reference material. It’s the same kind of thing Walt had done for the earlier classics. These animators had learned from the Nine Old Men, and there was suddenly a pride in the work that wasn’t quite there for a while. The Little Mermaid is beautifully animated, very much in the classic style of earlier films. For most of the 1970’s Disney animators had experimented with overly stylish techniques that distracted from the movie’s focus.
This is not to say the film did not take some uncharacteristic chances. You might be shocked to know that Ursula was patterned after a transvestite performer of the time. That’s likely not something Walt would have done. The result is an interesting gender-bender character that isn’t quite feminine. Pat Carroll’s voice is obviously female, but she has a low enough range and the character has a husky element to both voice and physique so that one is left to wonder just a bit.
Jodi Benson provides an entirely different character with her voice work on Ariel. Casting makes all the difference in the world here. It’s her voice that is supposed to be her most charming aspect. We have to believe that long before we even meet Prince Eric. Benson does a pretty tremendous job. Her Part of Your World rendition is the best piece of the film. Sorry, Jeffrey. The supporting voice cast is also perfectly cast, but it’s Benson who has to carry the emotion of the film.
There were certainly problems along the way. The Disney brass had just enjoyed pretty good success with Splash. This made them at first resistant to a mermaid animated feature and then interested in making Ariel too much like Daryl Hannah. For a long time Ariel was blonde. The change to red was a fortunate one. Not that I’m partial to redheads; I married a blonde. It’s a matter of the way the colors interact, and Ariel’s hair is a bit of a character unto itself. The red stands out vividly with the general palette of the film.
With all of these potential disasters, the Disney brass managed to get out of the way, and the creative team returned the studio to the grandeur it once enjoyed. The success led to Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. But it all started with just a little mermaid.
The Little Mermaid is presented this time in a slightly modified 1.78:1 aspect ratio. It was originally presented in 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. Whatever you might think of any changes, you simply can’t deny that Disney makes these releases look spectacular. It’s no different for this high-definition image presentation. It’s the pinpoints of color that grab your attention first. It’s a murky underwater environment for much of the films, but splashes of this vibrant color bring it truly alive. This is particularly true of Ariel’s flowing red hair. On land there are far more colors to delight your senses. The print has been restored to near perfection. No artifacts or issues that I could find. The sharpness is razor. Black levels are better than average, but there is some shadow definition issue, particularly with Ursula. That’s certainly part of the murky personality the animators intended so shouldn’t necessarily be considered a flaw. The bright, clean lines are a welcome return to the classic standards Disney was always so good at.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is often alive with the sounds of the bouncy sea creatures. Of course it’s the music that stands out here, and it’s reproduced flawlessly. I’m not just talking about the songs. Menken’s score is quite dynamic and goes a long way in telling the story. It’s these emotional beats that come through so well here. Dialog is just fine. The surrounds do offer a bit more under the sea than on land. We get the subtle water movement sounds to help immerse us into these watery depths. The subs are best during the Ursula number and the climactic confrontation of the climax.
Alan Menkin And The Leading Ladies: (15:45) Composer Alan Menkin is joined by several female voices from his era of Disney animated features. Of course, there is Jodi Benson, who played Ariel in The Little Mermaid. They are joined by Paige O’Hara (Belle from Beauty and the Beast), Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas), Lillias White (Lead Muse from Hercules) and Donna Murphy (Mother Gothel in Tangled). They gather around the piano and recall their experiences singing in Disney features. Each of them does some singing from their parts as Menkin joins on the piano. They also pay tribute to lyricist Howard Ashman who passed away in 1991 at only 40 years old. He never saw the finished Beauty and the Beast that he was so instrumental in creating the feel for.
What I Want From You…Is Your Voice: (5:47) This is a nice vintage piece with footage of the actors recording their voices. There’s also a little interview footage with a couple of them. Unfortunately, the image quality is rather poor, but the content is priceless.
Stories From Walt’s Office – Gadgets & Gizmos: (6:01) These features are starting to appear on these anniversary collections. The Disney folks have reproduced Walt’s office as it was when he was alive, and we get tours of some of the knickknacks and miniatures he collected over his life. There’s a couple of mermaid statues, but Walt wasn’t alive when this film was made, so there’s no direct connection.
Music Video: (3:39) Part of Your World sung by Carly Rae Jepson. It’s mixed way too hot and distorts from time to time.
Deleted Character – Harold The Merman: (2:06) The co-directors share storyboards to introduce us to Harold, who suffered the consequences of a deal with Ursula.
Under The Sea – The Art Of Live-Action Reference: (13:13) Meet the couple who performed the film live so the animators could study there motions. There’s tons of that footage. They worked with minimal sets and props, and some of the footage is quite amusing. There’s also footage of the girl who modeled for Alice in Wonderland. All three discuss the process.
Howard’s Lecture: (16:27) In many ways this is a bit of a tribute piece to Howard Ashman. Animators talk about his visit where he gave them an hour talk on music in movies and runs down some of the music numbers for the film. There’s plenty of footage from the talk.
Part Of Her World – Jodi Benson’s Voyage To The New Fantasyland: (4:45) The actress and her kids talk about the new Mermaid ride as she and her two children enjoy the new section of the Magic Kingdom. I’ve been on the new ride, but the entire area had not yet been completed. Yeah, it’s basically a promo. It all opened Spring 2014.
There is some controversy about changes that were made in the Diamond release. You’ll find them unchanged here. A couple of credits have been switched, as have a couple of frames within the film. There was even some color correction. I wish I could say that I’m versed enough in the film to tell you what it all means. Research has been spotty and not entirely reliable. If you have problems with any of this, you still have your earlier releases. I didn’t find anything as distracting as the cut cloud scene in The Lion King. So I’m happy. One thing for certain. You won’t find a better looking version anywhere. You can be happy or not. “The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake.”