Return to the Sea
Viewed upon its release as just the latest in Disney's tradition of cartoon fairy tales, The Little Mermaid would soon kick-start one of the most powerful freight trains ever to barrel through children's entertainment. People my age can recall when Disney musicals absolutely dominated their youth, with the blending of awe-inspiring animation and songs that we can belt out on command to this day, acting as a potent cinematic drug unlike any other. We couldn't get enough of these movies, and while you can argue that Oliver & Company truly got the ball rolling the year before, The Little Mermaid perfected the formula that defined family films well into the '90s. Having revisited the flick for its Blu-ray debut, I can say that while certain aspects may be a little dry around the gills, the movie overall has shed very little of the charm that had five-year-old me glued to the screen.
Unbeknownst to surface-dwellers like us, a whole other world thrives on the ocean floor. The mermaids and mermen of myth are quite real, living peacefully in their colorful, undersea wonderland. But young Ariel (voice of Jodi Benson), the restless daughter of King Triton (voice of Kenneth Mars), isn't as content, having become enamored of human culture and yearning to walk among us some day. Sensing the chance to add to her menagerie of captive souls, the sea witch Ursula (voice of Pat Carroll) strikes a deal with the mer-teen, granting her two legs and three days with which to woo the object of her affection, Prince Eric (voice of Christopher Daniel Barnes). But having been stripped of her voice, Ariel finds herself calling upon her underwater pals to help profess her feelings to Eric before she becomes Ursula's eternal prisoner.
Looking back through the eyes of someone trained to approach all things with a raised brow, The Little Mermaid's story seems a tad on the weak side. It's simple to a fault, and criticisms over its heroine putting her very soul on the line for a man she barely knows aren't entirely unfounded. It's true that as a 16-year-old girl who's led a sheltered life, someone like Ariel would be emotionally vulnerable enough to rush into a deal with the devil without thinking of the consequences just for a taste of a forbidden new world. But while Ariel's impulsiveness is understandable, what isn't as well-established involves what makes her want to stick around on terra firma when she eventually learns her lesson. Eric is at the end what he was in the beginning, simply the first hunk Ariel happened to see. In all fairness, The Little Mermaid came about early on in the Disney Renaissance, when the animation department was just escaping the slump it had suffered since the early '80s and introducing more mature elements into its output. Long story short, this film was a safe bet, a hipper and visually-smoothened update of the basic, "dreams come true" fairy tales that were Uncle Walt's bread and butter back in the day but a fairy tale nonetheless.
Now I can complain about flimsy narratives and shallow heroines until my diploma bursts into flame, but I cannot deny that The Little Mermaid still hits an emotional sweet spot. The animation, the characters, the songs (oh man, the songs) -- everything about the film has a way of shielding your inner child from any umbrage your grown-up self might take with it. Seeing it again now, flaws and all, puts me right back in the position of a little kid just enjoying this cool universe unfold in front of me. Ursula's over-the-top vamping, the seagull Scuttle's misunderstanding of man's ways, and faithful crab Sebastian using nature itself to coax Eric into giving Ariel a smooch still induce the same feelings as they did in my childhood years. Ariel's passion and feistiness makes it difficult not to root for her, and as she sings "Part of Your World" (which -- as fun as "Under the Sea" was -- is the real heart of the film), you can't help being lulled into a wide-eyed trance.
There may not be much to The Little Mermaid, but it sure sells the heck out of what it's got. The movie means everything it says, with Alan Menken's sweeping score and the incredibly beautiful animation ensuring your immersion in the goings-on even when the thin plotting threatens to take you out of the experience. I may not have the unconditional admiration for The Little Mermaid now as when I was a wee one, but the smile it continues to leave on my face remains the only thing that matters.
Disney's The Little Mermaid - Diamond Edition Blu-ray contains the following special features:
-A standard DVD and digital copy.
-Crab-E-OKE -- When activated, Sebastian pops up whenever you pause the movie to lead you on a sing-along tour of the soundtrack. But note this kicks in automatically, so if you're not in a musical mood, go directly to the audio set-up menu to deactivate it before starting the film.
-A music video featuring Carly Rae Jepsen performing "Part of Your World."
-@DisneyAnimation, a ten-minute featurette focused on some of the original Little Mermaid creators and modern-day animators whom the film actually inspired to enter the field.
-Deleted Character - Harold the Merman, an excised scene featuring a nerdy mer-dude who experiences Ursula's wrath.
-Under the Scene: The Art of Live-Action Reference, a featurette in which the filmmakers discuss using flesh-and-blood actors as a basis for the movement of their animated characters.
-Harold's Lecture, a recorded video in which Mermaid producer/songwriter Howard Ashman addresses the staff about his intentions and vision for the film.
-All of the previous DVD release's special features, including deleted scenes, audio commentary, and loads of featurettes and goodies.