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Austin Taylor
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Subtitle The Little Mermaid

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subtitle The Little Mermaid

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Feature-length Disney animation began with a musical fairy tale -- 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. After a world war-induced change of pace, it was revived with a musical fairy tale -- Cinderella (1950). Following the format's least fruitful period of twenty years, the much-loved tradition returned to widespread public admiration with -- you guessed it -- a musical fairy tale. The last film in question is The Little Mermaid, one few hesitate to label as the start of a Renaissance in the studio's animated filmmaking.In Disney's loose, contemporary-minded adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, teenaged redhead Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) is the youngest of seven daughters of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), the stern ruler of the sea. Singing in concerts and enjoying the aquatic life is a satisfying enough existence for Ariel's briefly-seen sisters, but she longs for something more. Her passion is in learning about those above the surface, which she often does alongside faithful young friend Flounder (Jason Marin), a blue and yellow fish. Ariel maintains a diverse collection of artifacts from the human world, though her knowledge of them is spotty at best, thanks to her source, Scuttle, a well-meaning but scatterbrained seagull (comedian Buddy Hackett).Unfortunately for Ariel, Triton is not very open-minded about human things; he forbids her to visit the surface out of a mix of overprotectiveness and prejudice. He appoints a tiny red crab named Sebastian (a Caribbean-accented Samuel Wright) to keep watch over the girl. The crab, however, is no competition for youthful curiosity; Ariel returns to the surface and takes special interest in a handsome, confident prince named Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes, of the '90s Brady Bunch films) who is seaborne on a large vessel she secretly discovers. A fierce storm demands Ariel's heroics to rescue Eric, which she does. As Eric is knocked unconscious during the save mission, the only thanks for this close call that Ariel gets is a firm punishment handed down by Triton. Triton's ensuing edict -- forbidding Ariel to visit the surface -- only makes his daughter more eager to see Eric, a response not uncommon for teenage girls. While Sebastian is skillfully singing the praises of underwater living, she is sneaking off to check out an enticing offer made by Ursula (Pat Carroll), a bulky Sea Witch whose lower torso resembles that of a squid. Seizing an opportunity to hurt Triton, Ursula offers Ariel a chance to be fully human. There are two stipulations. The first is that the mermaid's voice will now belong to Ursula (or rather, her seashell amulet). The second: if Ariel cannot receive true love's kiss by sunset on her third day of having legs, she will join the unsightly ranks of others who have done business with the witch and failed to come through on their part of the bargain.Voiceless, unsteady on her legs and half-fish out of water, Ariel pursues Eric, with some help from Sebastian and Scuttle. A few seeds of romance blossom as Ariel finds herself a guest in Eric's castle. When it looks like love is in the air, Ursula and her pair of odd-eyed eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam take matters into their own. To say anything more might ruin surprises. But, more likely, it would just tell you what you already know. After all, it seems a long shot that you would go seventeen years without seeing The Little Mermaid and yet find this review on a Disney-themed website.As such, you probably are already well aware that The Little Mermaid is a fantastic film. If not, be it now known that this movie is one of the strongest that Disney or anyone else has ever made, animated or not. Of course, not everyone would agree with that assessment. There are a number of criticisms to be taken. One of the more common ones is that Disney's film has its way with Andersen's source text. In the original story, first published in 1836, the young mermaid of the title yearns to be human so she can possess an eternal soul. In the movie, she merely thinks that "dinglehoppers" (forks) and "snarfblats" (pipes) are interesting and that Eric seems like one swell guy...based on appearance. Eternal soul? More like nice black hair. Arguments like the ones I just made tend to miss the movie's vast appeal and I often dismiss them when I hear them. Perhaps it is because I experienced the movie before ever knowing of the story. More likely, it's because I think a Disney animated feature and a 19th century Danish fairy tale are not cut from the same cloth. They're clearly serving different purposes. The objection that Disney's version of the tale will supplant its inspiration neglects the fact that Andersen's tale would not have reached as many people and would not have struck as many chords if not for the much-praised filming existing and delighting 20th century moviegoers (and, already, their offspring). Innovation strikes from all sorts of places, even one in which a protagonist turns into sea foam in the end. It is to Disney's credit that the studio's adaptation of Andersen's tale stands out from Tailleferre's opera, a pair of earlier Russian films, and others.Rather than outline a plot you are already familiar with or highlight the rare negative reaction to the film any further, I might as well explain and praise some of the elements which come together and make Disney's Little Mermaid such a success. Mermaid marks a first union of Broadway and Disney animation. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who had collaborated on the off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors (and its 1986 big screen adaptation starring Rick Moranis), brought a distinctly theatrical sound to Mermaid. Music was the area where the film was repeatedly recognized during the award season, with both Menken's score and the pair's song "Under the Sea" (Sebastian's crowd-pleasing calypso number) winning Oscars and Golden Globes, the latter edging out the doubly-nominated "Kiss the Girl" (a doo-wop lagoon love anthem also led by Sebastian). A third song, "Part of Your World", memorably and melodically establishes Ariel's wants; it came in at #5 (even above the two that earned the nods) in our Top 100 Disney Songs Countdown two years ago. It set a precedent for a Disney protagonist to vocalize (in song) their desires early in the film, something which was carried over to things like Beauty and the Beast ("Belle"), Aladdin ("One Jump Ahead"), and Pocahontas ("Just Around the Riverbend"). In fact, Mermaid's stage-inspired structure quickly became a hallmark of the Disney animated feature, which was suddenly returned to a pedestal as something beyond a mere movie. The Golden Age Mermaid is attributed with ringing in would be marked by record highs in box office returns and public acclaim which was corroborated by yearly recognition from critics and award shows.

Though the movie turns 17 this fall, that still puts it in the younger half of titles in the collection, and plenty of '80s films have come to DVD looking brand new. Being familiar with the film from its initial release, I can vouch that the vibrancy of the visuals may be a step too far; I can't recall the picture ever being so bright and unadulterated in color. Still, I can't qualify this as a shortcoming, since even if it may be "restored beyond its original brilliance", the results are not unsatisfying or unfaithful. Furthermore, with the directors and animators participating in this DVD, I expect and hope they would have objected if they felt the drastic digital overhaul being touted was not true to their intentions.In the sound department, no "untweaked" Dolby 5.1 English track is offered. Instead, English speakers get merely a Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix in Dolby 5.1. Purists may object to this, for clearly DEHT does not represent the movie's original audio presentation. Most won't care or mind, but let's hope that the directors also approved this decision. In all fairness, the DEHT moniker does not indicate the type of pumped-up mix that graced Aladdin and The Lion King. In fact, I had difficulty discerning between it and the Limited Issue's 5.1 track. That is not to say it disappoints, but merely it lacks the gusto and oomph of its later-to-theaters, sooner-to-Platinum-Edition-DVD brethren. That's fine if true to Mermaid's original soundtrack and I think it is.Don't get me wrong, the track is plenty of life to it and the songs are a treat in 5.1 channel sound. There just isn't the bass or presence of jaw-dropping showcase scenes to make this your house-rockin' demo selection. There are also French and Spanish 5.1 tracks, which are not designated as "Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix" and may be more faithful to the original soundtrack. Overall, the picture and sound on display here will dazzle all but the pickiest. DISC 1 BONUS FEATURESAs is normal for Platinum Editions, the bulk of bonus features reside on Disc 2, but a few treats are still found on Disc 1. Most significant is a feature-length audio commentary by the two writer/directors Ron Clements and John Musker alongside composer Alan Menken. The first traditional Platinum audio commentary in two years, this fairly enjoyable one is very screen-specific and full of inside information and anecdotes. The three speakers single out efforts of all of the major crew and voice cast members, though it's thankfully not a name-dropping session. They explain how certain shots and effects were achieved, though also avoiding the dry, technical "this is what we did" approach. Among more interesting topics touched upon are production obstacles, Sebastian's development, the influence of drag queen Divine, management's requests for "more Die Hard"-type action, and how Menken's Oscar success dictated a change to the Academy's music award process. The trio also points out neat little tidbits, like Flounder's three-frame morph to Scuttle, the fact that Ben Wright (Grimsby) voiced Roger in 101 Dalmatians, minute continuity errors, things that they would do differently given another chance, and the challenges experienced in the first shot achieved with Disney's CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). Scattered throughout the track, there are some excerpts of a release-time interview with Menken and his late musical collaborator Howard Ashman. The set's lone music video (3:25) serves the Disney Channel demographic, as "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody"/High School Musical co-star Ashley Tisdale puts a teen pop/rock twist on the film's romantic doo-wop ditty "Kiss the Girl." Standard girl-rocking-while-hair-blowing footage is mixed with fullscreen movie clips and a dialogue-free narrative set in a high school's "Under the Sea" dance. While it's no tremendous addition, it's quite a bit better than the "round-up-the-network" Disney Channel Circle of Stars affairs on two earlier Platinum sets."Disney Song Selection" also shows up here, granting instant access to four musical performances from the film ("Part of Your World", "Under the Sea", "Les Poissons", and "Kiss the Girl"). Usually, all the songs of a movie are listed, so the exclusion of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (among a few others) is strange. Nevertheless, you have the choice to watch any or all of the four numbers, with or without bubbly lavender bars of lyrics appearing on-screen. "Play All" gives you a 10-minute, 20-second version of the film, and though the ends are sometimes abruptly lopped off, this glorified scene/subtitle access feature is sort of like a "Sing Along Songs" Lite without the linking transitions, storyline, or variety.Rounding out the first platter are two previews. A none-too-promising, 80-second musical sneak peek of The Little Mermaid III has Flounder and a surprisingly airheaded Ariel stumbling upon a concert given by Sebastian and his calypso companions. The brief excerpt of a song about a presumable love interest named Sonora is given 16x9/5.1 sound treatment like the movie itself will be when released straight-to-DVD in 2008. The second spot is a montage (0:43) merely glimpsing at the many bonuses to be found on Disc 2.If promos are your thing, then you're in luck. Programmed to play automatically at the start of Disc 1 are ads for The Little Mermaid III (this differs from the aforementioned excerpt), Meet the Robinsons, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, Cars, and The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition. Still more previews tout next March's Peter Pan: Platinum Edition, Robin Hood: Special Edition (which is actually being called "Most Wanted Edition"), the repeatedly-delayed series-launcher Disney Princess Enchanted Tales: A Kingdom of Kindness, the computer-animated Tinker Bell (not given its "and the Ring of Belief" possible subtitle here), and the Disney Cruise Line. This second batch adorns page 1 of the dedicated Sneak Peeks menu and also plays automatically following the feature, via Disney's patented FastPlay system. FastPlay only recently spilled over to the world of widely-appealing animated titles, but its presence ensures the idiot-proof, hands-free playback method is here to stay.Buy The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition from 041b061a72


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