Few films in the Disney canon carry as much importance as ‘The Little Mermaid’. When it was released in 1989, the animation department was on the verge of destruction after a decade of critical and commercial failures. To everyone’s surprise, the studio’s first fairytale adaptation in nearly 30 years proved to be an overwhelming success with critics and audiences that, after all these years, still has the power to move and thrill more than anything produced today.
Adapting Hans Christian Anderson’s devastating story into a magical musical love story, directors John Musker and Ron Clements took the Disney Princess archetype and injected their heroine, Ariel, with a tremendous amount of spunk and fire. Ariel, the mermaid daughter of the Sea King Triton, fantasises about experiencing the world above the waves. Ignoring her father’s wishes, she makes a deal with Ursula, a wicked sea witch, that allows her to grow legs and seek out the man she has fallen in love with. Mixed within the love story are a full cast of tremendous characters that assist and hinder Ariel in her journey, and one of the truly great musical scores ever written for an animated film.
What makes ‘The Little Mermaid’ rise above the other Disney films of the 80s, however, is its heart, its focus on a tremendous central character following her dreams and keeping her faith in herself. Musker and Clements steer clear of the tiring gag-after-gag formula, instead allowing the film to stop and breathe, allowing us to take moments with the characters and see a deeper psychology and finer level of narrative detail. Building upon this are Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s remarkable songs, especially the exceptional ‘Part of Your World’, the Disney equivalent to ‘Over the Rainbow’ that stops the film entirely and gives Ariel a chance to build from a stereotypical princess into a complex and moving heroine. And yet, with this undercurrent of maturity and intelligence, ‘Mermaid’ is an incredibly funny and colourful film. There’s a crackling wit to it, one that spoke as much to adults as much as children. This might seem like the norm now, but back in 1989 that was revelatory, and has allowed ‘Mermaid’ to age with tremendous grace. There’s nothing about this film that feels dated or juvenile, and its emotional power and tremendous zippy humour is still as affecting to watch as an adult as it was as a child.
‘The Little Mermaid’ acts as a kind of primer to where Disney was about to go. Musker and Clements would next go on to direct ‘Aladdin’ (1992), probably the studio’s finest comedy and a clear companion piece to ‘Mermaid’. It also brought Menken and Ashman to the studio, a partnership that would reach its zenith in the early 90s. This film was a sign that things were changing at the studio, that animation was very far from dead. It’s clear from this distance that ‘The Little Mermaid’ has no idea that it was going to be a classic, and that just makes it even more deserving of the title. As Ariel sails away with her prince happily ever after, a new chapter in the history of Disney Animation had begun, with an even greater fairy tale, and possibly their greatest film, only a few short years away. Ariel had opened the door; Belle was about to step through.
PICTURE & SOUND
There has been a lot of anticipation for ‘The Little Mermaid’ in high definition, but while the film certainly looks beautiful on Blu-ray, it isn’t as breathtaking a transfer as you’d expect. The 1080p 1.85:1 transfer has excellent detail, and the colours pop beautifully, but there’s an inconsistent softness to the film, especially in the section set under the sea. This may be more a problem with the source material itself, and the effects imposed on it to give the underwater look needed for the film. ‘Mermaid’ doesn’t have the refined lines and visual clarity of later films like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, a result of the financial problems at the studio. This might be the best we’ll ever get, and it certainly isn’t anything to scoff at, but it comes as a slight disappointment. There’s nothing disappointing, however, with the DTS-HD MA 7.1 track, a robust and electric track that really brings the music to life. ‘Mermaid’ is an important marker in the evolution of music in animation, and this Blu-ray release does justice to the amazing work done on the sound in the film.
What makes ‘The Little Mermaid’ rise above the other Disney films of the 80s is its heart.
Almost everything has been ported over from the excellent Platinum DVD Edition, with a few new hi-def additions. Musker and Clements talk through deleted concepts and characters, as well as an exciting lecture delivered by Ashman during production (though it would have been far better to include this lecture in full). The most fascinating new extra looks at the live-action reference shot for the film, a process perfected during the early days of the studio but lost completely by the time ‘Mermaid’ went into production. Class features include an excellent making-of documentary, extra featurettes covering the original fairy tale, the special effects unit, further deleted material and an abandoned theme park attraction. There is also an excellent commentary from the filmmakers, and the remarkable animated short ‘The Little Match Girl’ finally presented in high definition.