The 1980s were tough for Walt Disney Animation. The Fox and the Hound was released in 1981 and was considered a financial success, despite Don Bluth and other animators leaving the company in the middle of production. Afterwards, Disney hit a rough patch with The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company. Bluth on the other hand was seeing success with An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Just when things were looking bleak for Disney everything was changed and the Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid.
The history of The Little Mermaid dates all the way back to the 1930s and 40s when Disney animators first started to work on the project. The project was shelved and Ron Clements revived the idea in 1985. The original pitch to Jeffery Katzenberg was denied on claims that another mermaid story was unnecessary due to the studio developing a sequel to Splash. Katzenberg changed his mind and that led to Clements expanding his script with his co-director on The Great Mouse Detective, John Musker. Howard Ashman was brought on to write lyrics for The Little Mermaid and also made contributions to the script. The final piece of the puzzle was Alan Menken, who worked with Ashman on Little Shop of Horrors, to write the music and score.
I can’t remember the first time I saw The Little Mermaid, but I’m sure it was one of the countless times my sister was re-watching it on VHS. Growing up amidst the Disney Renaissance, we had the privilege of being exposed to great Disney movies in theaters almost every year. Back then I was more amused with The Lion King and Aladdin, but after watching the Blu-ray edition of The Little Mermaid I finally see the appeal. The animation is beautiful and on par with Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan. A lot of this is thanks to Disney bringing back the technique of live-action reference. The characters show a ton of inspiration; for example, Ariel came from the hands of Glen Keane and takes characteristics from Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel), Sherri Lynn Stoner (the live-action reference for Ariel), and Keane’s wife. However, I also notice that in some scenes that Ariel looks like she could be from a Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli work, which isn’t surprising as Keane was stated that he admires Miyazaki. As good as the animation is, the Broadway style songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken complete the film. The music flows with the film effortlessly and songs like “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, and “Kiss the Girl” will never cease to be Disney classics. Although it can’t dethrone The Lion King as my favorite Disney Renaissance film, this Blu-ray release gives me a new appreciation for the film.
The digital restoration of the film is outstanding – it’s possibly the best Disney has done to any of their animated classics. The image is much crisper and the colors are more vibrant and vivid, however still fitting in with the original style and feel of the original release. Sometimes when older movies, especially animated ones, are restored and brought up to today’s standards it can cause the film to lose some of its original charm. This is definitely not the case for The Little Mermaid.
There is however one bizarre change to the film that fans online have discovered in the Blu-ray release. It appears that two shots toward the end of the “Part Of Your World” sequence have been switched and put in the opposite order than in the original release. There is a video online showing the shots and comparing them side-by-side and it’s unclear if this was an intentional change or if it was just a mistake from the restoration. Some people are saying that it causes some lip-sync issues with Ariel’s singing but I honestly wouldn’t have noticed it if it weren’t mentioned online.
I was pleasantly surprised by the special features included in this release. With their DVD releases in the past, Disney was getting a reputation for including very basic extras that were hardly worth watching, if they even included any at all. This has been changing with the more recent special editions, and The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition has some really great special features.
One of the best features is a short documentary-type video about current animators at Walt Disney Feature Animation called “@DisneyAnimation.” It goes into the Animation building in Glendale and shows a bit of what it’s like to work at Walt Disney Feature Animation. The video also shows interviews with some of the younger animators that grew up with The Little Mermaid and talks to them about what it’s like to now be a part of that history.
Another great extra is “Under The Scene: The Art of Live-Action Reference,” which shows live actors depicting scenes from the movie that would later become animated. It’s really fascinating to see the Sherri Lynn Stoner, who was used as the model for Ariel, acting out some of the well-known scenes from the film.
There are a handful of other special features included, some of which are just as good as the two mentioned above: “Howard’s Lecture” gives you a look at the late Howard Ashman who produced and wrote the lyrics for The Little Mermaid. Other extras are just awful – why Carly Rae Jepson had to record a cover of “Part Of Your World”, let alone film a music video for it, is beyond me.
New Blu-ray special features include:
@DisneyAnimation, Under the Scene, Howard’s Lecture, Deleted Character: Harold the Merman, Part of Her World, Crab-E-Oke Sing-A-Long, “Part of Your World” Music Video by Carly Rae Jepson
Classic DVD special features include:
Audio Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Backstage Disney, Music & More, Disneypedia: Life Under the Sea, Behind the Ride that Almost Was, Under the Sea Adventure: A Virtual Ride Inspired by Disney Imagineers
Second Screen Live
Originally the plan for The Little Mermaid was to re-release it in theaters in 3-D. However, Disney decided that 3-D screenings of previous Disney classics weren’t strong enough to warrant The Little Mermaid doing the same. However, it was released to some theaters to unveil its new version of the iPad app “Second Screen” – “Second Screen Live”. The premise is that families download the app before they leave their houses and take their iPad to the theater with them. You start the app once the movie is about to begin and it uses the voice recognition software to sync the app with the movie. Throughout the film, you will be able to play games, read the lyrics to the songs so you can sing along, and get cues for when you should cheer.
The only reason this is being mentioned is because you can still download the app and use it at home the same way that you could in the theaters. I tested The Little Mermaid Second Screen Live at home and all I can say is that I have no idea how anyone sat through the movie in theaters and didn’t go insane. It is a great idea, especially for parents bringing younger ones with very short attention spans, but it is essentially 83-minutes of playing games instead of paying attention to the movie. I used it, but that was the first and last time for me. If Disney makes upgrades to the system then I might give it another shot, but at its current state it is a distraction and a dud.
Now available in a Blu-ray 3-D/Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy/Music Download Combo Pack (MSRP $49.99), Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy Combo Pack (MSRP $44.99), and Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack (MSRP $39.99).
Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Blu-ray Release: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Little Mermaid may not be my favorite Disney film, but there is no doubt that it is a masterpiece. It launched a new era for Walt Disney Animation and it deserved all of the accolades it received. It has never looked or sounded better than it does on the Diamond Edition Blu-ray. I have not watched the Blu-ray 3-D release, but that is because I don’t see a reason to. Disney did go through a lot of effort to convert the film, but I enjoy watching it as it was originally intended to be seen. The new special features for the Diamond Edition release are all very well done, except for the Carly Rae Jepson “Part of Your World” music video, but I guess nothing can be perfect.
Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Blu-ray Release: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Little Mermaid will always be one of my favorites of Disney’s animated classics, and this Blu-ray Diamond Edition really delivers for fans of the film. Between the high quality restoration for HD screens and the updated special features available on the release, I’d say that this is a not miss for anyone who has an appreciation for any of the Walt Disney Feature Animation films. I hope that Disney continues to deliver this level of detail and quality in all of their upcoming Blu-ray releases.