With the exception of Snow White, no film changed the fortunes of the Walt Disney Company as dramatically as The Little Mermaid. It arrived at the end of over two decades in the wilderness following the death of Walt Disney: a period marked by financial doldrums, mediocre movies and the very real possibility that they would get out of the cinematic game altogether and become a theme park company. The arrival of CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg helped change all that, greenlighting an update of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that reestablished the company’s status as king of the animation cage. The film’s arrival on Blu-ray gives us another chance to evaluate its strengths, its weaknesses, and the legacy that continues to reverberate almost 25 years later. Hit the jump for the full review.
The Andersen fairy tale is actually a bit of an odd fit for Disney: a sad and melancholy meditation on the pain of love that had more in common with Madame Butterfly than the House of Mouse. Disney’s reputation meant that it needed a new happily-ever-after ending, which robs the love story of its poignancy and left the creators scrambling for proper closure. That may explain its rather arbitrary vanquishing of chief villainess Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll), after scoring a hard-earned victory for Team Evil that needed more than some convenient hand-waving to properly undo.
Similar bits of storytelling wonkiness crop up throughout The Little Mermaid, contrasting with the polish of later Disney films and reminding us that the studio didn’t yet have its (ahem) sea legs beneath it. Airel the mermaid (voiced by Jodi Benson) is rather spoiled, for example, and her perceived feminine helplessness led to a sharp course correction with Disney’s next feature, Beauty and the Beast. Several of the supporting characters are superfluous at best, and a few rather unpleasant stereotypes crop up in a production that really should have known better.
That comes at least in part because they were trying something very different here. Other Disney films had musical numbers, but they mostly worked as an aside to the action: a little rest stop in between the bulk of the story. Under the guidance of songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, The Little Mermaid fully integrated its songs into the plot, adhering to the Broadway model in a pattern that quickly defined the entire animated medium.
And what songs they were! Ashman (who died of complications from AIDS a few years after this movie was released) was an irreplaceable talent, whose lyrics combined wit, heartfelt emotion and just a smidge of puckishness for unforgettable results. The tunes just felt right for the medium, allowing the film to power past its narrative shortcomings into the realm of an instant classic.
The animation matched that spirit, with images whose simplicity belied their surprising beauty and brought the characters to life in ways we hadn’t seen since Sleeping Beauty three decades earlier. Disney spared no expense when it came to the animation, pulling footage of weightless astronauts to nail the undersea look. (Among its other notable qualities, it was the last Disney feature to rely so heavily on traditional cel animation.) It proved an irresistible visual treat, further diminishing its plot troubles, and reminding us precisely how this studio earned its spurs.
And the love story still works, despite its bland prince and the villain’s propensity to steal the show. Ariel falls for the handsome young Eric (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes) and cuts a deal with Ursula to gain human legs at the cost of her voice. She has three days to get the boy to kiss her, or else her soul belongs to the sea witch: part of a larger plot to bring Ariel’s father King Triton (voiced by Kenneth Mars) to his knees (or fins, as the case ma be). The basics stick reasonably closely to Andersen, helping it move briskly along and keeping the wodginess in check.
Its assets arrived like a thunderclap, and thanks to the formula it established, subsequent Disney animated films were able to deftly escape the minor flaws that dogged it. Besides being a huge hit for the company (and scoring the first of many, many, many Best Original Song Oscars for them), it introduced a whole new generation of little girls to Disney’s zeitgeist and – for better or worse – relaunched the notion of the Disney Princess onto the world. In retrospect, it’s easy to set its groundbreaking nature aside, especially with the likes of Beauty and the Beast surpassing its magic. But those later films would never have happened without the trail it blazed, and like a lot of Disney animated features, it hasn’t aged a day since its release.
The new Blu-ray set does full justice to it, starting with the pristine image that brings the eye-popping colors to gorgeous life. We’ve come to expect that from this company, which treats its classics with the reverence and respect that deserve. A huge fistful of extra goodies sweetens the pot even further, with about an hour of all-new featurettes that largely speak to grown-up fans more than kids. They include an examination of the live-action references used by the animators, a look at one of the film’s deleted characters, a self-serving piece involving Benson riding the new Little Mermaid attraction at Walt Disney World, a set of music videos, a discussion with numerous Disney animators about their work and inspiration, and the highlight of the set: 16 minutes of Ashman talking about his approach to the material. This comes on top of all of the original DVD features – two-plus hours of music, behind-the-scenes goodies and promotional content. (The DVD stuff is a bit more kid-friendly than the new Blu-ray material.)
Add the ubiquitous 3D, DVD and digital copies, and you have the kind of Blu-ray you’d expect for a movie like this. Time has not diminished its charms, and its shortcomings, while still present, pale beside the legacy it left behind. There aren’t many films that genuinely changed the way movies were made. The Little Mermaid is one of them, and while its ideas eventually became a cliché-ridden institution, you wouldn’t know it to look at the magic onscreen here.