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The Little MermaidThe Little Mermaid on DVD

By Jim Bray

Finally, the movie that restored credibility to Walt Disney’s moviemaking arm has received a decent DVD treatment.

Not the ideal treatment, but it’s pretty good.

I saw The Little Mermaid when it played in theaters originally, dragged kicking and screaming by the kids to some other animated flick then eschewing that toon in favor of one I thought may have been less painful to watch. Then, by the time Ariel was in her secret treasure trove singing longingly of living above the waves, I realized I was hooked.

It had everything Disney had been lacking for years. There was an entertaining story, excellent animation – and that music! The late Howard Ashman and his partner Alan Menken, who would probably be looked upon as the modern day Rogers and Hammerstein if Ashman had lived, had put together such a marvelous score that I can’t watch the movie even today without having those darn songs going through my head long after.

The story is based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and is about a sixteen year old mermaid named Ariel who finds herself drowning in her life under the sea. She’s fascinated by those humans who live in the air above, and collects artifacts from sunken ships, keeping them in her private stash where she can sing a really great song about them.

Then she spies Prince Eric and, as is traditional in such stories, falls in love with him immediately. She saves his life when his ship blows up, leaving him with the memory of some mysterious, beautifully-voiced woman for whom he begins to search.

Enter the evil sea witch, Ursula, who’s looking for a way to wrestle the crown from King Triton (Ariel’s father). She’s aided by Triton himself, who has a fit when he discovers Ariel’s fascination with things two legged and air breathing, and offers the unhappy Ariel a devil of a deal: become human and, within three days, cause Eric to fall in love with her and “Kiss the Girl” (my favorite song from the movie).

It’s classic Disney at its best, in the league of the studio’s most famous works such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, and the like. And of course everyone lives happily ever after, with the possible exception of the sea witch and a lonely father.

The original DVD was okay, but it came out early in the life of the disc format, before many people had figured out widescreen TV, and while the audio was good the picture wasn’t in true widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 TV’s. This meant that you had to zoom and/or stretch the picture to fit the screen, causing distortion, pixelization or both.

I bought that original version because I couldn’t live without the movie in my library  and, not having a widescreen TV at the time, the non-anamorphic aspect not only didn’t matter, I didn’t even notice it.  But when that widescreen big screen arrived in my home theater, the oversight became obvious and I waited with baited breath for Disney to do Ariel proud.

Now they have, though I’m not as happy as I thought I’d be.

The new, Platinum Edition DVD is, indeed, in anamorphic widescreen that fills the 16x9 TV screen beautifully. This is enough reason to buy the disc.

But it looks almost as if it hasn’t been remastered and/or restored the way some of the Disney titles have. Granted, it’s stuck right at the confluence of analog and digital animation, but it looks a tad washed out and even a little grainy in places. It isn’t enough to leave the disc in the store, but it’s there.

If you want to see what I mean, compare it with The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, which followed it to theaters but preceded it onto DVD. Those films look lush compared with The Little Mermaid, and that’s the look for which I was hoping.

The audio, too, doesn’t match the quality of those other DVD’s, though there’s really nothing wrong with it: it’s just that it could be better. The 5.1 surround mix is Disney’s Enhanced Home Theater Mix, which in the case of the Lion King meant a marvelous listening experience.  Here, there’s little low frequency effects channel (though when they do use it it’s quite good) and not a lot of surround.

But the orchestra sounds great and fills the front of the room well, and the voices also come through clearly if not loudly.

And that’s another problem. I had to crank up the volume on The Little Mermaid farther than I usually do with a DVD. What gives?

 Naturally, the two disc set is also packed with extras, whether you care or not.  Here’s a quick list of what you can expect:

  • Commentary by co-writers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements and composer Alan Menken
  • Song selection, with lyrics (four of the most popular songs, replayed with subtitles)
  • Little Mermaid III musical sneak peek (yet another trip to the well by Disney)
  • Deleted scenes and alternate ending with introduction
  • an awful "Kiss The Girl" music video performed by Ashley Tisdale, whoever she is. This destroys a wonderful mood song by turning it into a pop number. And what’s with the weird shots of Tisdale? At times she looks normal and at others she looks like an eighth dwarf.
  • Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid
  • Storm Warning: The Special Effects
  • The Story Behind the Story: featurette on author Hans Christian Anderson
  • short presentation: The Little Match Girl
  • Art galleries
  • Early presentation reel
  • "Silent is Golden" song demo
  • Under The Sea Adventure: A Virtual Ride (based on a Disney concept)
  • DisneyPedia: Life Under the Sea

It’s probably worthwhile, especially the commentaries, but it’s the movie that makes this DVD worth buying and owning, and other than my quibbles with its presentation, it’s still well worth having.

The Little Mermaid, from Walt Disney Home Entertainment

83 min. anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround

Starring the voices of Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Rene Auberjonois, Kenneth Mars, Buddy Hackett, Edie McClurg, Samuel E. Wright

Produced by Howard Ashman and John Musker

Written by Ron Clements John Musker, music by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, directed by Ron Clements John Musker

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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