As their Signature Collection continues to grow in the U.S. market, Disney have started to move into the 4K format for releasing their top-tier animated classics. So far, they’ve stuck to the renaissance films of the late 80s and 90s, first with ‘The Lion King’ and now with their revered classic ‘The Little Mermaid’. Apart from some early releases through JB Hi-Fi, consumers in Australia haven’t benefited from the Signature Collection, so these 4K releases go some way to making up for that… almost (I’ll get to that later).
As this November marks the 30th anniversary of the release of ‘The Little Mermaid’, I’ll go into more detail about history and legacy of the film at a later date, but I will say now that it never ceases to amaze me, whenever I revisit it, how beautifully ‘The Little Mermaid’ still holds up. As a work of animation, its technical ambitions are comfortably daring but mostly very modest, very much a bridge between the stumbling of Disney in the 80s and the staggering artistic perfection of ‘Beauty And The Beast’ a few years later, but what really hits you about the film even now is just how much heart and humour it has. Compared to all of the fairytale princesses Disney Animation had created in the past, Ariel (voiced beautifully by Jodie Benson) is much more emotionally complex. She not only feels but feels deeply, and is able to understand with a sense of maturity how to act upon those feelings. Sure, she makes a pretty crappy deal with Ursula (voiced magnificently by Pat Carroll) in order to follow her heart and her prince, but you don’t get the feeling she makes this decision rashly. She knows what she wants, she knows the complications and consequences that come with wanting it, and yet she wants it anyway, and that want is more than to have the man of her dreams. It’s a want born out of needing to see what’s beyond the horizon, to consume and celebrate as much of the world as possible, certain that her place isn’t cooped up in an underwater castle with her father and sisters, but seeing the world for everything that it is.
Many people of my generation cite ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a watershed film for them because of Ariel’s determination to be who she knows she needs to be, and looking at the film again now, it still gives me goosebumps seeing her look longingly at the surface, singing one of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s most perfect ballads.
It also helps that ‘The Little Mermaid’ is just such a charming, funny, rollicking piece of entertainment, bolstered by a terrific set of characters, artistry from a group of young animators frantically trying to prove their worth, and a score and songs that have become legendary (I still knew all the words to ‘Kiss the Girl’ and belted out with enthusiasm every syllable of ‘Les Poissons’). This is one of those eternal films, one that will always have an audience, and justifiably so. From the moment it begins, you know it can’t be anything other than a classic.
PICTURE & SOUND
The original 1080p release of ‘The Little Mermaid’ was gorgeous, but could never quite cope with inherent issues in the age of its source. This 2160p 1.78:1 transfer though is a different case entirely. In fact, this film has probably both never looked better or looked more like itself. Apart from its ending, ‘The Little Mermaid’ was the last film Disney made that didn’t extensively use the digital ink and paint system CAPS, meaning that unlike ‘The Lion King’, this transfer would have been taken from a 4K scan of the film negative rather than a direct digital source. As such, the first thing that struck me about this transfer was how much it looked like a film. There’s a very fine layer of film grain over the image, and while this was present in the 1080p transfer, it’s far more pronounced and richer in 4K. This alone makes the image feel more dynamic and alive. In terms of detail, many of the human errors in the animation are easier to see now, but again this works in the film’s favour. It looks more immediate, more like a piece of carefully crafted hand-drawn animation. In terms of colour, HDR10 gives the colours a richer and more subtle look. They don’t pop as much as you would expect, but they’re a lot more careful and more subtle, and the balance between light and dark colours is much stronger. Seeing ‘The Little Mermaid’ in this format was like seeing it through fresh eyes, and I do hope future 4K releases of hand-drawn classics are as rewarding an experience as this.
Many people of my generation cite ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a watershed film for them.
In terms of sound, "rich" and "subtle" are also good descriptors for the Dolby Atmos TrueHD 7.1 track. It doesn’t try and make something out of this 30 year old sound design that it isn’t, but beautifully supports what’s there with excellent balance and clarity. As with the image, I was hearing details in the sound design and orchestrations I hadn’t noticed before, and while this isn’t a track you’d use to show off your system, it does what a great audio track should do - present the original film as accurately and respectfully as possible.
Unfortunately, there are no special features included with this set at all, on account of Disney not including an accompanying Blu-ray with the set. With no extras on the 4K disc, this denies consumers of either the new material created for the U.S. release, or at the very least, the material on the original 2013 Diamond Edition release. This may be an anomaly, but hopefully Disney classic releases in Australia don’t follow in the footsteps of Fox by not including the Blu-ray disc with special features included, especially with the 'Captain America' films on 4K only a month away. So if you’re upgrading your copy of ‘The Little Mermaid’ to 4K then make sure, as seems to be so much the case now days, to hang onto your old Blu-ray copy.