"The Little Mermaid" Platinum Edition: Grand Release of an Almost Magical Film
Confession time: I have never been a huge fan of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and was never really able to articulate why. It could be that I’m just not in the target demographic for the film, or because I missed it in theatres and first saw it on pan-and-scan VHS on a tiny screen surrounded by screaming cousins during a chaotic family Thanksgiving. Perhaps it’s only because I saw it well after Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin—stiff competition for any film. Maybe the fairy-tale purist in me objected to the radical ending change from Hans Christian Andersen’s original story. It may even be as petty as the bad associations that remained from my bright college years when a date to see the movie with a woman I had a crush on ended with me going alone to see RoboCop 2 instead.
No matter what issues I may have had with the movie, it is undeniable that it is a much beloved film in the pantheon of Disney animation. After 17 years, it has definitely proven its longevity, so the recent release of the 2-disc Platinum Edition of The Little Mermaid was a perfect occasion to revisit the movie with an open mind to see whether I had missed something before. While I’m still not a huge fan of the movie, I cannot deny that it has its charms. In the end, its value may be less as a movie in itself and more for its historical import, as it proved to be a triumphant return to form for the Disney animation studios and resurrected Disney feature animation for the more successful movies that would follow.
The Little Mermaid of the title is Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton, lord of the seas. Unlike her mer-folk brethren and against the wishes of her father, Ariel has a great curiosity with the surface world which culminates in a love-at-first-sight moment with the human Prince Eric. A Faustian bargain with Ursula, the Witch of the Sea, results in Ariel trading her beautiful voice and her fishtail for a pair of legs and three days on land to try and win the Prince’s heart. She ends up assisted by Sebastian, a crab who begins as her Jiminy Cricket conscience and ends as her confidant and invisible assistant, and thwarted by Ursula’s own double-cross.
This may be heresy to many Disney animation fans, but even after the most open-minded re-watch I could muster, I’m still not deeply impressed by The Little Mermaid. It is definitely a beautiful film on a technical level, both above and below the waves. The beauty of the film is extremely well-served by its excellent digital restoration. The hard work that was put into this film is visible in every frame, and its technical achievements have not been diminished in the slightest by the advances in animation technology since the movie’s 1989 release. It took courage to make the lead character mute for a good chunk of the film, but if anything, Ariel’s character comes through even more clearly during these sequences—a real testament to the masterful skill of Ariel’s supervising animator, Glen Keane. Musical numbers have become staples of Disney animated fare, and the music by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman yields some of the finest animated musical numbers ever produced by the studio. The Caribbean-inflected “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” musical numbers are both real showstoppers, winning us over through sheer energy and boisterous enthusiasm. The comedic “Les Poissons” musical number, featuring a demonic French chef pursuing Sebastian through the palace kitchen, may be entirely superfluous, but is also entirely hilarious.
Unfortunately, the movie’s charms don’t quite manage to overshadow its flaws. As a character, Prince Eric never amounts to much more than a plot device, making the love story feel far too superficial. There are no scenes that are enhanced by the presence of wacky animal sidekicks Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seagull (a perfectly wasted Buddy Hackett). Despite a fairly trim 83-minute running time, some of the earlier sections of the movie seem to drag, and while the songs are extremely entertaining, most of them don’t feel as organically integrated as they should. Ariel’s “Part of Your World” and Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” may be a beautiful ballad and a vampy, theatrical treat, respectively, but neither one manages to feel like much more than an obligatory musical number. Finally, the movie never quite manages to pull the emotional heartstrings on either romantic or tragic levels, settling instead for a marginally bittersweet ending that packs in more happily-ever-after than Hans Christian Andersen ever intended. There are moments when all the parts work together to create real movie magic, but it ultimately fails to pull together as a cohesive whole. All of these issues would be far better dealt with in the animated films that followed from Disney (and later from Pixar), so even if The Little Mermaid never quite reaches the sublime heights of its successors, it is clear to see how it formed a solid foundation to reach those heights.
Still, pointing out The Little Mermaid‘s flaws feels rather like kicking a puppy, especially considering the work that went into it and its place in Disney animation history. At the time of its production, Disney was proving nearly bankrupt both as a business and as a creative force and faced even more troubled times than it does today. Much of the historical context behind the movie is provided by the special features that are on the second disc of this release. A 45-minute feature, “Treasures Untold,” interviews many of the major players at the time, including a surprising number of people who left the Disney fold under less than cordial circumstances, such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and former board member Roy E. Disney (but, interestingly, not Michael Eisner). In addition to many of the cast and crew, the feature also includes archive footage of the late Howard Ashman and a number of unusual guests like director John Waters (who reveals a surprising influence behind Ursula) and writer/director Nora Ephron. Unfortunately, the feature feels lightweight, largely because the tremendous creative friction that produced the film is dulled and smoothed out, either worn down through the passage of time or deliberately papered over, perhaps by those who would rather let sleeping dogs lie.
The “Storm Warning” feature, which speaks to several special effects animators, is appealing largely due to the enthusiasm of the artists and its look behind the curtain for some of the movie’s most jaw-dropping moments. The third featurette on the disc is probably the most interesting: the 11-minute “The Story Behind the Story” digs into Hans Christian Andersen, the original story that inspired the movie, the creative changes that were made, the motivations behind them, and Disney’s efforts to bring The Little Mermaid to screens in the 1940’s. This last tidbit shows off the gloriously beautiful pre-production artwork by Kay Nielsen, all of which is reproduced in the still art gallery on the DVD. With no slight intended to the artists who work on these movies, the still art galleries on a DVD can often be the least interesting special feature, but Nielsen’s artwork is nearly worth the price of admission alone.
In keeping with the Hans Christian Andersen theme, the second disc also includes “The Little Matchgirl” short film, which is both beautiful to watch and retains the heartbreaking ending to the original story. Despite being shamelessly manipulative, it still possesses tremendous emotionally cathartic power and is a welcome added feature to this edition, even if it has the unfortunate effect of exposing the lack of deep emotional connection in the feature film it is released with. Like the Kay Nielsen art gallery, the short film alone nearly justifies this release.
The remainder of the features include an entertaining and enlightening commentary track by co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements and songwriter Alan Menken (who all get major points for re-introducing themselves repeatedly throughout the early sections of the commentary track), a collection of deleted scenes done in rough pencil test or animatic form, a collection of educational materials about ocean life and the Disney amusement parks, and the obligatory music video by the teeny-bopper musical star of the moment. As mentioned, the movie has been gloriously digitally restored by Disney, and is presented in anamorphic widescreen with a rafter-shaking 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in English, French, and Spanish.
For fans of the movie or for Disney animation in general, the quality of the movie alone is reason enough to own The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition, but the excellent extra features are the icing on the cake. Even though I am probably more of a fan of the DVD release than I am of the movie itself, this Platinum Edition definitely sets a high water mark that will be difficult to top.