The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition Review
For their 28th full-length animated feature, the Disney Feature Animation team elected to adapt Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale, The Little Mermaid - a story whose potential Walt Disney had originally explored in the early 1940s with a view to developing it as a short subject. In the adaptation, which puts a decidedly 1980s slant on a 19th century tale, Ariel is a 16 year old mermaid and the daughter of King Triton, lord of the oceans. Headstrong and fascinated by the allure of life on land, Ariel disobeys her father's orders and heads to the surface, where she is instantly smitten by the handsome prince Eric. Forced to make a choice between obeying her father and following her heart's desire, she strikes a bargain with the wicked sea-witch Ursula, trading her voice in exchange for a pair of human legs. Given only three days to make the prince fall in love with her, Ariel embarks on her journey in her new world, but Ursula has an ulterior motive in helping her...
It's perhaps a little too easy to make fun of this film nowadays. It's filled with elements that are now seen as clichés of the typical Disney animated feature: the musical numbers, the cute talking animal sidekicks, the generic handsome prince; even the song "Part of Your World", easily the film's defining moment, is the sort of "I want" song (that phrase even being repeated several times in the lyrics) that has come to be associated with the most saccharine moments of these movies.
Looking back at it 17 years on, therefore, it's difficult to appreciate what a big deal it was back in 1989. Prior to its release, Disney feature animation had been stuck in something of a rut, with box office returns and overall quality mixed at best, disappointing at worst. Following big budget flops like The Black Cauldron and competent but unremarkable fare like The Great Mouse Detective, the studio's management was actually on the verge of shuttering the animation department entirely, and, as such, the success of The Little Mermaid was quite literally a job-saver. Its success can be attributed to a number of elements, but most crucially it seems to have been a return to the fairytale musical format of classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderalla, after a period of experimenting with everything from dark fantasy (The Black Cauldron) to a contemporary urban musical (Oliver & Company). It's therefore quintessential Disney, and, as such, the elements that have been most often mocked and parodied in recent years were actually the biggest factors in its success.
It also helps that the film is, at times, very funny. As I've grown older, I've become less and less entertained by the more general slapstick of these films. The sight of Scuttle the seagull accidentally flying into a wall doesn't make me so much as crack a smile, but the overal caustic bitchiness of Ursula, based on the famous drag queen Divine, and voiced with delicious glee by Pat Carroll, never fails to reduce me to gales of laughter. Musically, the movie is also very impressive. This was the first Disney feature to be composed by the Oscar-winning team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, whose combined talents resurrected an all but form of movie music. Although Ashman actually died of AIDS prior to the release of the pair's second project, Beauty and the Beast, and was only involved with a handful of songs on their third offering, Aladdin, these two composers literally came to define a generation of Disney musicals.
The film also marked a return to a more lush visual style than had been the case with Disney animated features for some years. The two highlights are the effects work, which is more ambitious than any Disney film released prior to it, and the animation of Ariel, jointly led by Mark Henn and Glen Keane. A considerable amount of live action referenced was used on this film, leading to at least one animator quitting, but this is one occasion in which these attempts to attain realism paid off. Ariel is an extremely believable character, moving and acting like a real teenage girl, while the underwater setting and the fact that she has a tail rather than legs allow for some otherworldy, but still utterly believable, movements.
Some early animation is a little weak - creating the effect of underwater weightlessness was always going to be difficult to achieve, but a number of secondary characters, such as Ariel's sisters, have a very generic look and tend to warp and distort when they move. I also noticed that a number of pieces of art and animation were lifted from previous Disney features, most of them in the "Kiss the Girl" sequences. These include backgrounds from The Rescuers, flowing reeds from the short The Old Mill, and a small amount of animation of Ariel that I'm sure was originally from Robin Hood. Reused animation, of course, is nothing new in a Disney film. Especially in the lean years following Walt's death, whole cycles and even character designs would be reproduced multiple times - some of the same dance animation, for example, can be seen in The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood, with some even reappropriated from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Still, this seems to be the last occasion on which wholesale cribbing of this sort went on, which is a good thing, as it tends to be incredibly distracting if you have any familiarity with these films.
This was the last animated feature to be made using the Xerography process developed by Ub Iwerks for One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961, and is therefore definitely the end of an era. All subsequent films were inked and painted digitally using the CAPS computer process (developed by Pixar), which, while ushering in a far more polished visual style, lacked the tactile and indeed human appearance of the rougher, hand-painted films. It's quite astounding to think that cel painting is now a lost art, given that the transition to digital paint has been more or less complete across the entire industry (The Simpsons was the last major animated series to give up the ghost a few years back).
The Little Mermaid is ultimately not one my favourite Disney films. While it made massive strides towards erasing the memory of the studios inconsistent output of the 1970s and 80s, and undeniably gave feature animation its second Golden Age, it still strikes me as being a little rough around the edges, lacking the consistent technical prowess and solid storytelling of later efforts like Aladdin. Still, I can certainly understand why so many people consider this their favourite, far more so than something like Bambi, a film whose appeal I have never really been able to get my head around. Still, the film is overall immensely enjoyable and better than anything else released by the studio in over two decades. It's not perfect, but with The Little Mermaid, the Walt Disney Studio was well on the road to recovery.
Disney have always had a rather spotty history with their Platinum Editions, especially those for films not shot in the digital realm. Previously, their "restorations" were handled by Lowry Digital Images, the same company responsible for remasters of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies, which were marred by overly aggressive digital noise reduction techniques. I first became aware of their destructive influence with Bambi, whose transfer was so mangled that parts of the image that had been subjected to "clean-up" literally warped and swam around before my very eyes, while incompetently handled DVNR eroded the pencil lines of the original animation in much the same manner as the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2 cartoons that we were all getting so worked up about last summer.
With Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp, Lowry continued their campaign of mass destruction, this time seeming to get the line mangling under control, but filtering and noise reducing the images so much that any hint of film grain was completely eradicated.
With The Little Mermaid, however, Disney have sunk to a new low. The restoration this time was carried out not by Lowry but by Technicolor Digital Services, who have subjected the film to a series of harmful and inconsistently applied algorithms. Heavy temporal noise reduction is visible on a number of occasions, causing the pencil outlines of the animation to ghost and leave trails, giving a look much like that of an LCD screen with a very low response time. On other occasions, the lines become eroded in the same manner as Bambi and the Looney Tunes cartoons. Perhaps most distracting, though, is that the level grain and detail erosion varies on a shot by shot basis. Some shots look fine, showing a reasonable level of grain and detail, but others will suddenly look oily and smudged, especially shots with a lot of pale hues (presumably because they would be more likely to be affected by grain).
The end result is very disappointing, and it's clear that these so-called restoration "experts" should be kept away from films such as these, because they obviously have no understanding of how to deal with animation. These transfers are certainly watchable, but are far from pleasant, and in my opinion constitute artistic vandalism, given that these are likely to serve as the masters for several subsequent generations of releases of these highly-regarded films.
It's also worth mentioning that this transfer is cropped. Compared with the 1.66:1 transfer of the Limited Issue release from 2000, sourced from a LaserDisc master, this 1.78:1 transfer is missing information at both the top and bottom of the frame. Obviously, the film would have been intended to be exhibited in a variety of ratios from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1, depending on the specific dimensions of the cinema screen on which it was being projected, but the use of 1.66:1 transfers for just about every other Disney film from The Rescuers onwards suggests, to me, that those responsible prefer to have the full image visible for their DVD releases. Either way, cropping or not, this is a disappointing transfer, especially given the film's historical value.
Luckily, the audio is a bit better. The "Disney Enhanced Home Theater" Dolby Digital 5.1 mix was presumably sourced from the 6-track mix that accompanied 70mm screenings of the film (35mm presentations featured a vanilla stereo soundtrack, prior to the Dolby Digital upgrade which the 1997 re-release received). It's far from the most impressive surround mix ever to accompany an animated feature, given that it is largely forward-focused and had a slightly constrained quality to it. In addition, both the dialogue and song vocals have been spread across all three front channels, which is a little unusual given that the dialogue in 5.1 mixes is generally restricted to the centre speaker. I suspect that this was a quality of the original mix, however. Indeed, as far as I am aware, this is a reasonably faithful presentation of the 6-track mix, although the "DEHT" label does make me wonder if Disney have decided to toy around with the overall audio levels in the way that they have done with the similar tracks on previous releases. The lack of a "standard" Dolby 5.1 mix is, however, surprising, given that Disney have, in the past, been very good at providing the original mix in addition to any remixes. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are also provided, as well as optional English subtitles, which cover the film itself but not, unfortunately, the extras.
On a side note, although there is no added animation in this edition of the film (unlike the Platinum Editions of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, both of which contained additional optional musical numbers via seamless branching), a shot of the priest during the wedding sequence has been slightly modified, since certain evangelical Christian pressure groups whose members suffered from over-active imaginations became convinced that his crooked knee was in fact an erection, and attempted to sue Disney. Given the amount of fuss generated by this fleeting moment, I'm not surprised Disney decided to take action, but instances of tampering such as this, however brief, serve only to further devalue these Platinum Editions as representations of a specific moment of history.
As with all of Disney's previous Platinum Editions, The Little Mermaid gets the full 2-disc treatment, with a variety of extras spread across both discs. There's little of value on Disc 1 apart from an audio commentary featuring writers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements and composer Alan Menken, which is a decent track covering a variety of issues from music to story adaptation to technical animation issues. Through the magic of pre-recorded interviews, we also get to hear comments at various stages from the late Howard Ashman, which are definitely a nice addition. My only real complaint here is that, presumably because the speakers all have similar voices, they quite often reintroduce themselves, which gets a little distracting. I suspect that an on-screen subtitle track identifying each speaker, similar to that of the commentaries for the Extended Editions of Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings, would have been preferable.
The other extras on Disc 1 are limited to a song selection feature, which provides on-screen lyrics for four of the film's musical numbers, as well as a newly-recorded music video for "Kiss the Girl", performed by Ashley Tisdale, who is presumably the latest in a long line of Disney Channel brats whose "talents" include both "acting" and "singing" (quotes intentional). Previews for various upcoming releases are also included, many of them direct to video cheapquels that look positively embarrassing even by the Disney cheapquel department's notoriously low standards. However, I must express considerable gratitude for the fact that they no longer play prior to taking you to the main menu, unless you happen to let the disc's "FastPlay" mode kick in, in which case a selection of them will run before the film starts. The menu screens are also considerably more tasteful than what we have come to expect from Disney, comprised as they are of mostly 2D artwork with minimal animation, rather than the badly-rendered 3D monstrosities that plagued the likes of Lady and the Tramp and The Lion King.
Disc 2 kicks off with Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid, a documentary which can be viewed either as a full-length 45-minute piece or in six separate segments (labelled here as a Prologue and five Acts). In comparison with most Disney documentaries, this one is refreshingly honest, as various mistakes are admitted and, especially in the first couple of segments, there is a lot of talk of the slim pickings of the post-Walt years and the management changes that eventually led to the second Golden Age. That said, there is an annoying tendency to whitewash the executive interference that went on behind the scenes and to paint the various managerial types in a more favourable light than they deserve. Michael Eisner, whose leadership of the company drove it almost to the point of ruin over the course of the last ten years, is referred to by one former executive as "the glue that held it all together", whose "fantastic artistic ideas drove the company", while the decision to turf the artists out of the legendary animation building into mobile homes in a backlot (so that the vast number of executives and managerial meddlers who were coming into the company could have the nicest premises) is characterised as a good thing from a creative standpoint. Personally, I find it hard to believe that working in cramped conditions can ever foster creativity, and indeed Glen Keane, at the time, elected to work from home instead.
The most jaw-dropping revelations, however, pertain to the "Part of your World" sequence, which former animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg actually demanded be removed from the film, all because one child at a preview screening dropped his popcorn during the song and became agitated. The sequence was, of course, eventually restored (and a good thing too, as it's arguably the segment that almost everyone, whether they've seen the whole film or not, is familiar with), but it does make you wonder how many other iconic moments never saw the light of day as a result of Katzenberg's whims (it might, at any rate, explain why everything pumped out of his DreamWorks Animation studio is so lacklustre).
As good as the documentary is, however, it tends to focus too much on the voices and music - for me, the least interesting aspects of any animated feature. Given that, as mentioned above, The Little Mermaid was the last film to use the Xerography process, a more in-depth discussion of the technical aspects of the making of the film would have been greatly appreciated. Still, it may be that they're saving this for the upcoming Platinum Edition of One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Also included is a 9-minute featurette on the film's special effects, which reunites four of the original effects team. The Story Behind the Story, meanwhile, is an effective potted overview of Hans Christian Andersen's original version of the story that inspired the film, and the various changes made to the narrative in order to conform to the standard Disney formula (translation: removing most of the darker elements). A healthy selection of image galleries, covering visual development, character design, storyboards and so forth, also show up, along with a brief presentation reel and the original theatrical trailer (the latter is sadly cropped to 1.33:1 and sourced from a noisy analogue master). A handful of games and activities have been provided for children as well.
The final extra is a 7-minute short film entitled The Little Match Girl. Directed by Roger Allers (co-director of The Lion King and a story artist on The Little Mermaid), it's a wonderfully atmospheric piece set to the Third Movement of Alexander Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, and otherwise completely silent. Somewhat reminiscent of the visual style of Mulan, it's a pleasure to see Disney doing 2D animation again, even if this only a short piece rather than a full-length feature film, and is perhaps an indication of what we can expect from the studio now that Pixar's John Lasseter has taken control of the helm.
One issue that bothered me with these extras is that, while the majority of them, including most of the documentary materials, are in a widescreen aspect ratio, they are all non-anamorphic, which limits resolution and is a pain in the neck for those of us who have widescreen displays (which I would imagine is most of those who are reading this review). I'm not sure why this was done, since the last time Disney presented their bonus materials in widescreen (all the way back to Atlantis: The Lost Empire, as it happens), they were anamorphic.
As one of Disney's most beloved animated features ever, fans of all ages are sure to be queuing up to pick up this 2-disc edition of The Little Mermaid before it is placed back in the notorious Disney Vault. Still, while the extras are plentiful and largely informative, the transfer is a real disappointment and one that betrays a lack of understanding or regard for the medium of film-sourced, hand-drawn animation. The sad thing is that, for the foreseeable future, these flaws are likely to be here to stay, so holding out for a later release (e.g. a high definition version) is unlikely to improve matters substantially. One thing's for sure: Disney should definitely never again commission Technicolor to undertake a restoration of one of their films.