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Walt Disney Home Video presents
"The seaweed is always greener
DVD ReviewThe Little Mermaid, at least as reimagined by the Disney group, is a something of a timeless story, one that has probably been played out in every household since the invention of teenagers. I'm talking about that bubbling longing to go elsewhere, to the place that maybe is a little forbidden, or perhaps a little dangerous.
When Disney broadly rejiggered Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Little Mermaid into this song-filled 1989 animated feature, it did much more than just signify a revival in the creation of new "classics" like The Lion King or Beauty and The Beast. It took a simple story of Ariel the mermaid (voiced by Jodi Benson), who longs to go the world above (aka land), despite the stern admonitions of father King Triton (Kenneth Mars) and her blustery lackey Sebastian The Crab (Samuel E. Wright). Along the way there's a grand sacrifice, a colorful villain, true love and all of that Academy Award winning music, particularly the clever Under The Sea and Kiss The Girl sequences.
The film worked on a much more direct, emotional level by showing that what was considered the lost art of family entertainment via an animated musical feature was still possible, and that the Disney juggernaut could still hit one out of the park. Yes, the merchandising did come in droves—we get it, it's Disney and that goes with the territory—but this was not a hollow marketing shell to sell crap with. The long term glory here comes in the form of the songs that pop up during the 83 minute runtime—from the team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman—which are deceptively catchy and simple, and able to convey the narrative nuances to advance the story without being too dull or overly expository for the kiddies. I can't really imagine that most people were not incessantly humming this stuff for days after the first viewing. Damn, I know I was.
It's funny how as a parent one can look at something like The Little Mermaid and immediately side with the gruff King Triton, who doesn't want his blossoming little girl to do anything stupid or dangerous, and really just wants to keep her under his wing. But we parents know how long that lasts. The fact that Triton is honestly well-meaning in his control—as opposed to being a domineering, unlikable ass—helps smooth that connective transition as we older viewers see ourselves in him as much as we recognize the natural need for our children to grow and make their own decisions. We old timers get Ariel's desire to go find her true love, even if it means giving up a big part of the past. It's kind of a meaty mixture if you think about it, one that seems very simple on the surface, but is filled with more than a few identifiable, relatable touch points.
Proving that they know their short attention span target audience well, Disney and co-writer/directors Ron Clements and John Musker parcel out the whole intro/conflict/resolution package in a brisk 83 minutes. The pacing is quick, the environments are colorful and filled with the obligatory talking animals when needed, and just when it is needed another Menken/Ashman song surfaces to lift it all up.
Visually, this one is perched on that fragile cusp between a variation of old school animation and more complex digital manipulation, and The Little Mermaid was made during the advent of Disney's CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which allowed for more fluid movement and sense of depth. Only a scene or two made use of the CAPS technology, with the bulk of the film being traditional painted cels. I've often wondered how this would have looked had it been made a few years later (witness the ballroom dance in Beauty and The Beast), though I think a large part of the charm is that the animation style is a sort of hybrid between the two. Perhaps not as eyepoppingly flashy as recent Pixar-style projects, there is still a hearty blend of magic here, the kind that Disney often makes look too easy.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: The new 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has undergone a restoration that, according liner notes, promises "crisper images, more vivid colors and new clarity" for our viewing pleasure. And it is true that the general vibrancy of colors has been boosted and enhanced, and it seems apparent that for a film just a few years shy of its 20th birthday (yikes!) the transfer here carries much more richness in its colors. That's all well and good, and for the majority of folks this one will look just fine. Hardcore videophiles pushing deeper under the hood might discover some minor setbacks via the overall softness, where edge details don't have that immediate sharpness we have come to expect from a landmark Disney animated release, and perhaps an issue with haloing.
Home theater system analysts may not be drooling all over themselves for the video portion of this release, and perhaps it doesn't represent the pinnacle of the process, but the core target market will probably be more than happy with the results.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The principle audio choice is a English language 5.1 track that carries the Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix moniker. It's a somewhat forced reworking, full of many moments of pleasant depth and overall richness, but sprinkled with more than a few oddly placed environmental sound elements that just don't seem quite natural. Movement is decent, but again, sometimes slightly unnatural. Perhaps it's too much analysis for a "kid's film", because I'm certain children will be properly wowed by the big sound, and this is by no means a low rent mix. The presentation does try to convey a new sense of wonder, but as viewers have become jaded to extremely high-caliber EX sound design, the offering here never quite hits that height.
Also included are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
9 Other Trailer(s) featuring Meet The Robinsons, Cinderella III: A Twist In Time, Cars, The Fox and The Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition, Robin Hood: Special Edition, Tinkerbell, Enchanted Tales: A Kingdom of Kindess, Peter Pan: Special Edition, The Little Mermaid III
6 Deleted Scenes
1 Alternate Endings
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ron Clements, John Musker, Alan Menken
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Extras Review: This two-disc comes in a lightly embossed slipcase over a hinged case. Inside is a DVD guide, a short booklet outlining what's on the two discs, and where. There's also a promo insert for a Little Mermaid sweepstakes, and a copy of Disney Insider (Fall 2006), which is basically another promo-type "magazine."
Disc 1 carries the feature (27 chapters), a gaggle of Disney trailers, and in one for the grownups, a rich commentary track from writer/directors Ron Clements and John Musker, along with composer Alan Menken. You kind of have to dig down a little to find it, as it isn't really mentioned on the backcover at all, but it's worth the hunt. With the obvious reverential nod to the lasting work of the late lyricist Howard Ashman, Clements, Musker and Menken expound on how they worked through budget and "other" restrictions, point out hidden flaws and gags (look in the background during the first appearance of King Triton) and reveal how test screenings full of squirmy kids had them questioning the placement and pacing of songs like Part of Your World. In fact it's here that the trio mention how Ashman did a rare lyrical change, adding in the line about whozits, whatzits and thingamabobs. There's some moderate tech talk as well, covering multi-plane cameras and the first use of Disney's proprietary CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which allowed for more extensive movement.
Also on the first disc is Kiss the Girl (03m:30s), performed here by the very cute Ashley Tisdale, who turns it into an Avril Lavigne-ish "rock" song. The Disney Song Selection option allows viewers to go directly to any of five songs featured in the movie, with optional onscreen lyrics. The songs/scenes are:
Part of Your World (02m:53s)
Under the Sea (03m:11s)
Les Poissons (01m:34s)
Kiss the Girl (02m:45s)
The disc concludes with a The Little Mermaid III Musical Sneak Peek (01m:21s)—aka commercial—and a wholly unnecessary Disc 2 preview (:44s), which shows what's on the other platter.
Disc 2 is split into three sections: Deleted Scenes, Games & Activities and Backstage Disney. The pencil sketch deleted scenes (26m:15s) block contains seven cut bits, including an audio-only demo of a song entitled Silence Is Golden (03m:00s) and an alternate ending involving the climactic battle between Eric and Ursula. There's an intro for each scene by John Musker, who points out what we should look for.
Games and Activities is almost a misnomer, because instead of goofy dumb stuff for the kid, it contains Under the Sea Adventure: A Virtual Ride Inspired By Disney Imagineers, which is further subdivided into Ride the Attraction (04m:16s), Ride With the Disney Imagineers (05m:15s) and Behind "The Ride That Almost Was" (05m:54s). This three part segment looks at the development of a theme park attraction (think the Peter Pan ride), hosted by assorted "imagineers." In DisneyPedia: Life Under the Sea (08m:25s), it's education time, as the life of Flounder helps us learn about real ocean life.
Backstage Disney also has Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid (45m:25s), again another bonus for the grownups. This is a finely comprehensive analysis of the whole project from start to finish, including a peek inside Disney's Flower Street studio. A little glossy in spots, but enjoyable insights from the production and management team. Storm Warning: The Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit (08m:40s) focuses on the complexity of the opening shipwreck scene, amidst comments from the animators. The Story Behind the Story (11m:30s) goes back to Hans Christian Andersen's hometown and gives some biographical info, in between how Disney modified the story for the film version.
Also under Backstage Disney is the beautifully weepy animated short The Little Match Girl (07m:10s), introduced by director Roger Allers, and he tells of how he loved to read the story to his children. The short itself is both lyrical and bleakly touching, a wonderfully rendered and rarely seen animated gem. The extensive Little Mermaid Art Galleries covers visual development, Kay Nielsen artwork, character design, storyboard art, background and production photos. Another neat tidbit is the Early Presentation Reel (02m:35s), presented with a preliminary version of Under the Sea played over a series of test drawings. The Disc 2 supplements conclude with the film's original theatrical trailer.
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsDisney's two-disc edition of the film that sort of reinvented the studio's animation department may not be remembered as absolutely flawless in terms of video and audio (depending on your level of intensity on the subject of edge detail or voice placement), yet the songs still rank as some of the best in their entire catalog. Sure, they trampled on Hans Christian Anderson a little, but the tweaks to the story of the girl who longs to go where she's not supposed to be probably hits home to parents as much as it does to children.
I may be a slobbering horror fan at heart, with a propensity for all things ugly, but the sweet exploratory saga of Ariel gets to me everytime, and I would stack re-re-re-watchability of The Little Mermaid up against ANY Disney animated feature from any era. And considering I watched this one a million times when my daughter was young (on something called VHS), I still never grow tired of it.
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