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Ron Clements, John Musker
Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Jason Marin, Samuel E. Wright, Kennety Mars
Roger Allers, based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen

Somewhere under the sea and beyond your imagination is an adventure in fantasy.
Rated G.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Score-Alan Menken; Best Song-"Under the Sea." Nominated for Best Song-"Kissing the Girl."

Widescreen 1.66:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround
Spanish Dolby Surround

Runtime: 83 min.
Price: $34.99
Release Date: 12/7/1999

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The Little Mermaid (1989)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Would it be a stretch to call 1989’s The Little Mermaid the film that saved Disney animation? Perhaps, as 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit gave that division a much-needed shot in the arm. However, there’s no question that Mermaid allowed the feature animation department to strut its stuff in a way not seen in decades.

Mermaid doesn’t stand as the best of the studio’s work – from the old days or the more recent era – but its historical importance remains. Without Mermaid, it seems doubtful that Disney would have experienced their neo-renaissance that gave us flicks like Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, without the boost provided by Mermaid, I doubt we’d have seen works like the Toy Story movies. Though those were produced by Pixar and only distributed by Disney, had Mermaid not awoken the sleeping giant, they might have been unwilling to spread the cash for such a then-risky venture.

Beyond its historical significance, Mermaid functions as a good but unexceptional movie. It showed strong improvements from the bland Disney fare that preceded it, though. While Mermaid had its shortcomings, it definitely displayed greater character and charm than flicks like 1988’s Oliver & Company, 1985’s The Black Cauldron, and 1981’s The Fox and the Hound.

Interestingly, many pigeonhole Mermaid as the prototypical Disney animated movie. It came from a fairy tale, and it featured an innocent young heroine. While that kind of flick does represent some of the studio’s most prominent offerings – with siblings such as 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1950’s Cinderella, and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty - this trend was never as prominent as many believe. Indeed, Mermaid was the first Disney flick taken from a fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty, and of all the studio’s 27 prior animated features, only Mermaid and the three mentioned above starred young, female human protagonists. Most of the others focused on animals (1941’s Dumbo, 1942’s Bambi, 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, 1961’s 101 Dalmatians) or male children (1940’s Pinocchio, 1953’s , 1967’s The Jungle Book).

During the Nineties, female protagonists would develop more strongly in Disney movies. The older heroines tended to be rather passive, but Beast’s Belle and the title character from 1995’s Pocahontas were much more intelligent and forceful. Indeed, even when the females weren’t the top-billed participants, they still showed strength and personality that would have been alien to older Disney works. Look at Esmerelda from 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yeah, she still needed to be rescued in the end, but she offered a powerful and distinct personality that would have seemed unimaginable in the old days. Submissive Disney females have become the exception rather than the rule.

Mermaid’s Ariel doesn’t really belong to the new class of Disney heroine, but she doesn’t fit in neatly with the older gals either. Essentially Mermaid offers a fairly traditional “someday my prince will come tale”, though with a moderately spunky twist. At the start, we meet Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), a moderately willful daughter of mer-king Triton (Kenneth Mars). She swims to the beat of her own drummer to a degree. Though she’s supposed to perform in a big underwater ceremony, she begins the film off with her fishy friend Flounder (Jason Marin) as they ransack sunken ships for treasure, or her own interpretation of such; Ariel is fascinated by human detritus like bent forks and broken pipes.

Early in the flick, Ariel sees a burning human ship and rescues Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). This encounter with the hunky young man accelerates her fascination with all things human, and her teenage rebelliousness leads her to act against her father’s wishes. To gain Eric’s love, Ariel enters a pact with nasty sea-witch Ursula (Pat Carroll); Ariel will be human for a few days, but if she doesn’t get the “first kiss of true love” by a certain point, she loses her soul to Ursula. Many complications ensue, of course, but anyone who doesn’t think this sucker’ll have a happy ending isn’t very aware of Disney’s track record.

On the positive side, Mermaid offers a well-structured and paced experience. The story may be fairly trite, but the telling of it seems solid. The animation appears smooth and vibrant; it may not equal the best of Disney, but it seems positive across the board. Little about the tale will surprise the viewer, but it provides a mix of fairly interesting and well-acted characters.

Carroll fills out Ursula nicely and makes her into a classic Disney villain. Benson feels a little thin as Ariel, but that fits the character fairly well, since Ariel’s little more than a headstrong teen; we don’t expect her to be a very strong or forceful role. Ariel lacks depth but she remains reasonably attractive and endearing for the most part.

Probably the weakest role is that of Eric. Other than his pretty face, it’s hard to tell why Ariel’s so nuts about the guy; he seems like a drab cipher. Future Disney fare improved upon this weakness; while there’s still too much “love at first sight”, at least we saw some sparks between the romantic leads and their affections were more affected by personality. Mermaid went more for the standard fairy tale and didn’t bother to deal with much exposition or elaboration in this regard.

Still, most of The Little Mermaid provided an entertaining and satisfying experience. The movie doesn’t reach the levels of Disney’s best work, but it helped bring the studio back to prominence, and the film was generally charming and entertaining.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio B+ / Bonus F

The Little Mermaid appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Across the board, the picture provided a flawed experience.

Sharpness generally appeared acceptable though erratic. Much of the film displayed reasonably crisp and distinct images, but at times the picture became somewhat soft and fuzzy. These tendencies weren’t extreme, but they caused some distractions, and the overall level of sharpness seemed to be weaker than I expected. I saw no concerns related to moiré effects and jagged edges, and most print flaws remained minor. A few speckles cropped up, but no examples of most significant concerns appeared. However, Mermaid did suffer from a rather grainy presentation much of the time. That issue definitely caused the most problems throughout the film, as the grain could become rather heavy at times.

Colors occasionally looked nicely bright and vivid. As with most Disney offerings, the palette utilized seemed varied and vibrant, and the DVD sometimes replicated the tones with solid accuracy and intensity. However, all that grain made things murky at times, and this could mean that the colors lacked the zip I expected. Black levels appeared deep and rich, but shadow detail was a bit off. Low-light shots tended to appear somewhat messy and less than dynamic. The mix of good and bad left the film with a “C” for its visuals.

More consistently strong was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Little Mermaid. The soundfield offered a surprisingly varied and active experience. The forward channels showed fine spread, as music demonstrated good stereo separation and presence, while effects blended neatly and moved clearly across the speakers. Localization of these elements seemed strong, and they meshed together nicely. The surrounds added a positive layer of reinforcement to both effects and music, especially during some of the film’s showier scenes; for example, fireworks and thunder echoed convincingly from the rear. Overall, the soundfield created a reasonably vivid and involving piece.

Audio quality also seemed very good. Dialogue remained distinct and natural throughout the movie, as the speech integrated well with the animated action. I heard no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects demonstrated good presence and depth, and they showed accurate and vibrant tones. Music appeared warm and dynamic as well. Both the score and songs showed fine clarity, and low-end response was fairly deep and tight. Ultimately, The Little Mermaid provided a solid auditory experience.

Unfortunately, the DVD fell flat in regard to its extras. It included none. This seemed more disappointing due to the presence of a minor mix of supplements on the 1998 CAV laserdisc release; that piece didn’t toss in many pieces, but something’s better than nothing. Eventually Mermaid is supposed to be re-released as part of Disney’s “Platinum Collection”, but that edition may not appear for quite some time; according to currently-announced plans, Mermaid isn’t on the slate for re-issue until 2008! Considering the Disney tendency to change plans, I have no idea if that intention will remain, but unfortunately, it’s what we know right now.

As such, this bare-bones release of The Little Mermaid will have to do for fans until the better version ultimately appears. The movie itself isn’t as good as some later Disney works, but it seems generally entertaining and compelling, and it deserves a warm spot in the hearts of Disney fans because it helped return the studio’s animated department to prominence. The DVD’s picture suffers from some flaws but seems generally decent, while audio quality seems quite good across the board. Unfortunately, the DVD lacks any supplements. I can’t strongly recommend The Little Mermaid simply because the DVD’s weak, but fans of the film should still consider it for their collections.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9603 Stars Number of Votes: 101
4 3:
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