By 1989 Disney's animation was in trouble. The eighties had been rough on them. Their last decent animated movie had been The Fox and the Hound in 1981, and since then they'd floundered around with movies like Oliver and Company and The Black Cauldron. Walt was gone, the division was in disarray. Actually, things were pretty much like they are now. Disney needed a new beginning, and needed it bad. They got it, in The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid launched a new golden age in animation, not just for Disney but for the art form. It changed the way Hollywood thought about movies by crossing the boundary between parents and kids. Everyone loved The Little Mermaid, it tested nearly as well with adults as it did with kids. The first time I watched it, it blew my little 12-year-old mind. I was at that age where I was starting to think myself too old for cartoons. The Little Mermaid sucked me right back to Disney's breast.
Based loosely on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, the film tells the story of a teenage mermaid who longs for something different. She obsesses over artifacts from the surface world, dodges her duties at the royal palace, and annoys to no end her father King Triton, ruler of the sea. She falls in love with a human prince, convinces a sea witch to give her legs in exchange for her voice, sparks an inter-ocean war and lives almost perfectly happily ever after.
Oh except she'll never see any of her friends and family again.
There's a real darkness to Mermaid that lifts it beyond the realm of fantasy into a place where audiences can really identify it. There are consequences to Ariel's actions, people she hurts, burdens that must be born. At the heart of the story is a desperate father daughter relationship, one so strong that it brings Dad's to tears.
It's also a musical, but not the kind of musical where characters belt out a jazz number just because they need something snappy at minute twelve. The Little Mermaid is the best kind of musical, the kind where characters break into song not because it might be fun, but because they almost have to. When Ariel begins the movie's main theme, "Part of Your World", she does so because it's the only thing she can do. The movie has moved her to the point where she must sing that song to get out all the emotions building up inside her.
I still wonder how they got away with all the vaguely erotic Ariel semi-nudity. The movie's full of it, and the scene where Ursula rips out her throat and gives her extremely naked parts below the waist is almost titillating, though I'm sure to little kids it seems entirely innocent. For those nearing puberty, it's something else entirely. Come on, let's face it, Ariel is kind of hot.
If you haven't figured it out by now, The Little Mermaid is a masterpiece. It's not just a great film, itâ€™s a great film that made other great films possible. Without Mermaid there would be no Beauty and the Beast, no Aladdin, no Lion King, and maybe even no Disney. It's the movie that saved a genre and changed the way we think about animation for decades to come. Classic? That's not putting it strongly enough.
The great thing about The Little Mermaid on DVD as opposed to some of Disney's other animated classics, is that it's still recent enough that most of the people involved in making it are still alive and kicking. Not only alive and kicking, but in most cases still working in the industry. As a result, there's no shortage of people to interview in the extras included with Little Mermaid's new 2-Disc Platinum Edition. For Bambi Disney really had to get creative to deliver enough extra content, for Little Mermaid it's kind of a no-brainer.
So you'd think there'd be more on here than they've given us. Not that what's there isn't adequate. The centerpiece of Disc 2's extras is a series of interviews which tell the story of Mermaid's creation. It's well done, and includes a wide variety of interviews with all sorts of different people involved in making it happen. That's all wrapped up in "Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid". If you've ever wondered why they made Ariel's hair red, this is the place to get the answer.
There's also a rather nice commentary track by co-writers and co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements. It's worth watching just to find out where Mickey, Goofy, and Donald's cameo is in the film. They do a nice job of taking you through each part of the movie, balancing the more boring details with personal anecdotes.
But the rest of the disc is mostly games and a handful of deleted scenes. It won't take you more than an hour or so to get through the meatier stuff. Granted, this is a kids movie so games and goofy garbage like that are to be expected. I'm not going to begrudge Disney that. It's a decent release, but with so many of the people involved in making it still alive I would have liked to see them really go out of their way to fully document everything there is to know about The Little Mermaid. What's there is good, I guess I'm just greedy.
Of course the real reason to buy it is the movie. They've remastered it and cleaned it up, though since the movie's not that old it didn't need it nearly as much as some of Disney's older films. The difference isn't so noticeable. The movie looks good, and it's almost always looked good.