Friday, October 1, 2010

Unsurprisingly Fun, The Little Mermaid Ages Well!

The Good: Decent music, Good animation, Generally good story, Interesting characters, Incredible DVD bonus features
The Bad: Disney conceits make it more a kid's movie.
The Basics: One of the most family-friendly Disney films, The Little Mermaid looks great in its 2-disc DVD format!

A few days ago, my wife fell ill and I did my best to tend to her. I'm not terribly good at that, but I tend to know what I like when I'm feeling ill. I tend to regress. My wife had a pretty strong love of Disney movies growing up, so it was no surprise to me that when she fell ill, she was thrilled when I brought home The Little Mermaid from the local library. As soon as she was able to sit up, she had me put the DVD in and I watched it with her.

What impressed me the most about The Little Mermaid, which – if I ever saw it – I had not seen since it was released in the late 1980s, was that in addition to having a truly timeless story, the film was actually surprisingly adult. Outside moments that are typically Disney, where characters exaggerate movements or look purposely ridiculous to garner a young laugh, The Little Mermaid tells a strong morality story and does it well. The dialogue is much more direct and less silly – the encounter between Ariel and Scuttle wherein the seagull informs the mermaid that items she found under the sea (a fork and pipe) are for entirely different things than what they are for (he says the fork is a hair styling device and the pipe is a musical instrument) notwithstanding – and the sense of menace is actually pretty impressive. I actually have a soft spot for The Little Mermaid: back after college, I played a game of Battle Of The Sexes on the radio and won tickets to my first concert by knowing that the mermaid's name was Ariel.

Ariel is the daughter of noble King Triton, living under the sea. When the conductor crab Sebastian attempts to have the greatest concert of his career, he is humiliated when Ariel's solo comes up and she is nowhere to be found. Ariel is, as is her want, exploring undersea wrecks and finding artifacts from humans with her friend Flounder. Realizing she has missed her concert, she is punished by Triton, who assigns Sebastian to keep her from getting into trouble. When a storm hits, the ship Prince Eric is on is destroyed and Ariel rescues him. Returning to land, Eric awakens and desires nothing more than to find Ariel and marry her, but she has returned to the undersea kingdom.

At that point, Ariel is approached by the sea witch Ursula, who offers Ariel a simple trade. In exchange for her voice, Ursula will grant Ariel a pair of legs and the ability to stay human if she can only get Eric to kiss her within three days. But if Ariel fails, Ursula will entrap Ariel in her garden of souls where she will wither. Ariel takes the deal and heads for land, leaving Triton to look frantically for her, and she struggles to get Eric to kiss her. But as the three days near their passing, Ursula becomes concerned that Ariel might actually pull it off and she takes human form to seduce Eric herself.

The Little Mermaid is a musical and it has memorable and catchy songs, many of which have translated into mass pop culture, like "Under The Sea." Fortunately, this Disney movie is not so laden with songs that they distract from the story or the flow of the film.

Ariel is a likable protagonist, though she is a very simple girl who wants nothing more than to challenge the authority of her father and live her own life. Her desire to learn and grow on her own is very real and makes her more than just a usual Disney princess walking around with a sense of entitlement. In fact, more than any other Disney princess that comes to mind, Ariel has a desire to learn, grow and develop beyond what she was born into. She does not perform for her father, instead she explores, asks questions and tries to learn.

Even so, like most Disney princesses, Ariel bats her lashes and flirts with Eric, in a very obvious way. The development of the relationship between Ariel and Eric is predictable and embodies the fairy tale more than an actual practical relationship. Even so, The Little Mermaid is fun and cleverly scripted to adapt the Hans Christian Andersen fable.

The Little Mermaid is performed with the vocal talents of Jodi Benson (Ariel), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Rene Auberjonois (for a song as Louis), Buddy Hackett (Scuttle) and Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian). Disney knows what it is doing and with The Little Mermaid all of the vocal talents are professional and emote wonderfully, making the animation work. The actors are all expressive and they sell each of their parts.

On DVD, The Little Mermaid comes with an impressive bevy of features. First, the movie is remastered so it looks better than it did in 1989. There is a second disc which includes deleted scenes (in the form of animatics), additional songs and a new music video. Featurettes explore the historical context of the film in Disney’s library and there are previews for the newer Little Mermaid spin-offs.

For other animated films, please check out my reviews of:
Despicable Me
The Nightmare Before Christmas


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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