First released on November 14, 1989, 'The Little Mermaid' was Walt Disney Studio's 28th animated feature film. Loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (the original is MUCH darker), the film tells the story of a mermaid princess named Ariel who is so fascinated with the world above, she secretly collects human treasures from shipwrecks. Her father, King Triton, knows humans are barbarous fish-eaters who would like nothing more than to snare his daughter in one of their nets. Like all teenage daughters, Ariel immediately rebels and goes looking for trouble.
With the help of her friend Flounder, and despite the constant complaints of her father's crab steward, Sebastian, Ariel finds a ship setting off fireworks in the night. There she sees the handsome Prince Eric for the first time and immediately falls in love. When a hurricane pushes Eric's ship into the rocks and sets it ablaze, Ariel breaks a huge rule and saves Prince Eric's life.
Waking up from nearly drowning, Eric doesn't see Ariel clearly, but he hears her beautiful and enchanting voice. Eric, the lifelong bachelor, has finally found the woman of his dreams, but the rest of his human friends aren't sure if she's even real.
Meanwhile, King Triton hears rumors of Ariel falling in love. He is, at first, excited for her... until he finds out she loves a human. Enraged, Triton destroys Ariel's cave filled with human trinkets and leaves his daughter crying. That's when the evil sea witch, Ursula, ensnares Ariel into a contract that will give her legs and a chance to be with Prince Eric.
Ariel travels to the world above, now with a pair of human legs, where she must make Prince Eric fall in love with her. But, if Eric doesn't fall in love by sunset on the third day, Ariel will become Ursula's possession, one of the hopeless worm-like creatures that blanket the entrance to her lair. Making matters even more challenging, Ursula takes Ariel's voice too -- the one thing by which Eric would instantly remember her. Flounder and Sebastian and Scuttle the seagull work hard to set the right mood for falling in love. And it seems to be working -- true love will prevail -- but the devilish Ursula will do anything to win, even cheat.
Will Ariel find true love's kiss or will Evil triumph...?
Probably not -- it's a Disney movie after all -- but I'll leave the rest of the review free of plot points.
For anyone who grew up in the 80s (and early 90s), 'The Little Mermaid' is such a pop culture touchstone, you probably still know all of these songs. This is the first film of Walt Disney Animation's second Golden Age, which continued through films like 'Beauty and Beast', 'Aladdin', and 'The Lion King'.
Revisiting this movie for the first time in a decade (or two), it's not hard to see why the film works so well. Before there was CGI animation, this was one of the most expensive Disney movies ever made -- a state of the art production that crossed classical animation techniques that had gone out of use (multi-plane camera, and live action reference footage) with new computer effects. Though somewhat primitive today, 'The little Mermaid' is dazzling and delightful. The broad comedy still makes you chuckle, the simple story entertains children of all ages, the many songs are unforgettable, and the world itself is gorgeous.
Yet, taking the animation fan and nostalgia hat off for a few minutes... I think we need to talk about Ariel as a protagonist for a quick moment. Basically, 'The Little Mermaid' seems to have two Ariels. First Half Ariel is inquisitive, generous, heroic, and bold. Yes, she's a typical teenager in love who makes huge choices without realizing repercussions, and she's quick to rebel when she shouldn't. But honestly, boy or girl, how many of us didn't make the thematically similar mistakes? Despite her flaws and somewhat naive view, First Half Ariel is awesome and so, so active. A great protagonist, who in a weak moment, makes a terrible mistake.
Then there's Second Half Ariel. She's mute now, which is fine and an understandable challenge, but she doesn't actually do anything to help Eric fall in love. Seriously, look at the film's short second and third acts. Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle, and Prince Eric get all the action. Ariel either sits there hoping something will happen (ie, a kiss), or cowers in various places, frightened of the danger, and letting the male characters get to work.
I still love the movie, and obviously 2013 is a much different era than even the recent years of the late 80s, but it's kinda lame to have Ariel turns from an universal, human, interesting, and active protagonist... into a prop. Ariel deserves better than that, not because of any glass ceiling politics, but because we've already seen what she can do.
Character arc issues aside, I really enjoyed revisiting 'The Little Mermaid'. It's still a ton of good fun. And though it may not be the best, or my personal favorite, Disney film, but its ambition, artistry, and success set the stage for some amazing work that wouldn't have been possible if this musical had not come first.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-Ray
'The Little Mermaid' makes its Blu-ray debut as a 2-disc Diamond Edition. Disc one is a standard Blu-ray, and Disc two is a DVD. The Blu-ray is Regions A, B, and C compatible. 2D trailers include 'The Jungle Book' Diamond Edition, 'Frozen', 'Mary Poppins' 50th Anniversary Edition, and an anti-smoking ad.
The 3-Disc Diamond Edition, not reviewed here, also includes a Blu-ray 3D version of the film, as well as a Magic Code to activate an iTunes Digital Copy and to download 10 Music Tracks from the film's soundtrack.
'The Little Mermaid' swims onto Blu-ray with an excellent AVC MPEG-4 transfer framed at the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
It's been years since I've seen 'The Little Mermaid', having skipped the mid-2000s Platinum DVD. However, given the source material's age, the movie looks fantastic. There are no signs of damage or dirt or any encoding flaws, from what I can see. The film is a combination of hand drawn animation with some computer effects (bubbles, water distortion, and shimmering lights, ship's movement) that looks as good as it did upon the original theatrical release. Colors are bold at times, subdued at others. Take a look at backgrounds -- Triton's castle, Ursula's lair, Prince Eric's kingdom, the "Kiss the Girl" sequence -- and you can really enjoy the full details of the animators' craftsmanship.
The only minor disappointment comes after seeing the film in three dimensions. 'The Little Mermaid' can seem primitive at times compared to modern animation (and other films that came out only a few years later). And it can sometimes feel somewhat flat when looking at it next to the likes of older films like 'Snow White' or 'Bambi'. Though not a perfect conversion by any means, the 3D world felt a little more energetic and alive. But let me be clear -- this "flatness" isn't something that could or should be fixed because it represents the original source material.
Overall, I think Disney Animation fans are going to love 'The Little Mermaid' on Blu-ray. The 2D version is restored, but hasn't been ruined by excessive processing. Purists who saw and remember the film theatrically should be thrilled..
While the video restorations are excellent and this soundtrack is quite good for its age, 'The Little Mermaid' definitely doesn't come close to competing with either modern animation soundtracks (something no one expects) or other Diamond Edition releases like 'The Lion King' and 'Beauty and the Beast' (much more possible). Call it a very good, yet slightly underwhelming, remastered 7.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
In terms of highlights, the bigger set pieces -- various ship sequences, bigger musical numbers, and the epic climax -- show a fair amount punch. The music itself receives a wide soundstage with wonderful immersion. Ariel's lost voice, in particular, remains haunting and romantic. Voice levels are also quite even -- you never lose dialog or a song.
The disconnect, for me, comes when dialogue and sound effects are mixed into the music. There are definitely some panning effects to bring sounds from front to rear channels, BUT voices and sound effects often seem locked to the center channel. It's almost like the music was mixed multi-channel, but the rest of the sound is in mono. It doesn't feel natural. The oddest part is how some sound effects zoom offscreen to side and rear channels, but they rarely seem alive in the front left or front right speakers. LFE does admirable work at times, but is kinda quiet.
'The Little Mermaid' sounds pretty good for its age, but some of it seems compressed or lacking dynamic range. Perhaps there's no way for a film produced in the late 1980s to line up next to films produced even a few years later. But that's okay. The highlight of this musical remains the songs and the score, which are wide and immersive.
Though I don't have a Platinum Edition on hand, Walt Disney Studios appears to have ported over all the Classic Bonus Features from that 2006 DVD release. These include:
While 'The Little Mermaid' may make a few mistakes from a character / protagonist standpoint (an issue many of you won't notice or care about), it remains a certifiable Disney classic, having kicked off one of the greatest eras of modern animation. Seeing this film today, get ready to fall in love with the world, characters, and songs all over again.
The Blu-ray contains a meticulous and faithful restoration purists will adore. Also, the 7.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is pretty good -- especially from a music standpoint -- but is somewhat disappointing compared to other similar-era remixes. Special Features include everything from the 2006 DVD as well as an hour of new material. Overall, this is a pretty great package. If you're not a big fan of 3D conversions, this is the version for you.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.