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The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition

Walt Disney's movie production division endured a remarkable two-decade slump through the 1970s and '80s, with an aimlessly prodigious output of silly, third-rate live-action comedies. While coasting on re-releases of its classics, the studio's original animated releases during that time (Peter Pan, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound), although pleasing to many fans, were sparse and minor efforts at best. That all changed with 1989's The Little Mermaid, which pulled off the trifecta of rejuvenating Disney's fortunes, revitalizing the wide popularity of animated features in general, and even (if only briefly) resuscitating the forsaken Hollywood musical. Based on Hans Christian Anderson's classic story, The Little Mermaid tells the familiar tale of a teenage girl rebelling against her strict father to pursue true love outside of her social circle. The twist, of course, is that this teenage girl is a mermaid princess from an undersea kingdom, and the object of her affection is a human prince living in the forbidden and fascinating world above sea level. Viciously rebuked by her powerful father for venturing into human territory to save Prince Eric from a shipwreck, mermaid Ariel impetuously turns to the vile sea witch Ursula. The witch offers Ariel three days as a mute human to win Eric's love; if she succeeds, she will regain her beautiful voice and live forever as a human, but if she fails she will become Ursula's property — and the witch's key to ruling the waters.

From Ariel's first song — the conventional Broadway-like ballad "Part of Your World" (performed by Jodi Benson) — The Little Mermaid is utterly charming, directors Ron Clements and John Musker using its slight narrative as a vehicle for a series of virtuoso set pieces and endearingly innocent girl-next-door romance. The showstopping number "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (sung by Pat Carroll) is the first of two marvelously inspired sequences highlighting the sea witch's hunger for power, while a grim comic battle between Ariel's crab minder Sebastian and a seafood-crazy French chef recalls the dark slapstick of classic era Warner Bros. cartoons. However, the most beloved scenes of The Little Mermaid are the worthy, calypso-themed musical numbers "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," both sung by Samuel E. Wright. The versatile team of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (whose previous collaborations included the rollicking off-Broadway and movie hit Little Shop of Horrors) emerged as potential progenitors of a new golden age of Hollywood musicals — but Ashman's death following 1992's brilliant Beauty and the Beast ended that notion, with the studio subsequently turning to less transcendent pop music scores before Pixar dropped the musical genre elements altogether. Although some of the supporting characters are unmemorable, and the climactic storm is too easily weathered, the fairy tale setting effectively evoked Disney's heyday and Ashman & Menken's music was a knockout. Likewise, the undeniable quality and creativity behind the artwork invigorated audiences, making the film a surprise box office hit and an Oscar-winner for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for "Under the Sea." Also with voices by Rene Auberjonois, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Paddi Edwards, Buddy Hackett, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, Edie McClurg, Will Ryan, and Ben Wright.

*          *          *

Disney's two-disc "Limited Special Edition" DVD release of The Little Mermaid presents the feature in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.78:1), whereas the previous 1999 limited DVD edition was non-anamorphic 1.66:1 (the film was projected theatrically between its native 1.66:1 and 1.85:1). Disney also made slight changes to the animation for this edition in an effort to quell controversies about some frames previously interpreted as featuring intentionally vulgar gags (which, given the animators' quite obvious bosom fetishes throughout the rest of the film — the first from Disney to accentuate cleavage in any form, and does it — seems somewhat unnecessary). Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The movie is accompanied by a commentary featuring co-writers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements and composer Menken. The first disc also includes a song-selection menu, a look at the upcoming video release Little Mermaid III, and a nauseating new pop version of "Kiss the Girl" by Ashley Tisdale. Disc Two continues Disney's recent trend of fine supplemental materials, with 25 minutes of deleted (and un-animated) scenes and an alternate ending, the 45-minute featurette "Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid," additional featurettes "Storm Warning: The Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit" and "The Story Behind the Story" about Hans Christian Anderson," the animated short "The Little Match Girl," art galleries, an early presentation reel, a demo for the unused song "Silent is Golden," a neat multi-faceted look a discarded theme-park ride concept based on the film, and a fun comparison of the movie's undersea animals to the their real-life counterparts. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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