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Under the Sea With Disney

Sean Sweany | Friday, October 6, 2006

Before there was “Finding Nemo,” before there was “Shark Tale,” there was a little movie under the sea about a mermaid named Ariel. In 1989, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” began the so-called “second golden age” of Disney animation, which then led to blockbuster hits that included “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”

“The Little Mermaid” has recently been released in a two-disc special edition DVD in Disney’s Platinum collection, which includes first-generation Disney classics such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “Bambi” along with second generation hits in the vein of “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”

This release, as Disney has now done for many of its most beloved films, gives “The Little Mermaid” the deluxe treatment in terms of film restoration and a wide assortment of special features that cater to casual and ardent fans alike.

Loosely based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, the movie follows the mermaid Ariel (Jodi Benson), daughter of King Triton, who is unhappy with her life in the sea, preferring to live in the human world above. After falling in love with a human prince, Ariel makes a Faustian bargain with the sea-witch Ursula to become human in return for her beautiful singing voice.

While Ariel’s sea friends Sebastian the crab, Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seagull try to help her win over the prince, Ursula tries to take control over the sea and King Triton’s power. In true Disney fashion, this can only resolve itself in an epic battle that results happily-ever-after for Ariel and her prince.

Perhaps the most interesting character is the Sea Witch, Ursula. Voiced superbly by Pat Corrall, Ursula is far more developed than her foil and Ariel’s father, King Triton. Her cephalopod-like body is beautifully and evilly animated along with her eel lackeys.

Evil, vain and tragic all at the same time, she is a centerpiece of the film, showcased in spectacular fashion by her song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” The swirling colors and well-written lyrics provided the benchmark for another well-remembered Disney villain’s song – Scar’s nefarious “Be Prepared.”

Several other memorable musical numbers – including “Kiss the Girl” and Academy Award-winning “Under the Sea” – transform this from a mediocre film into a Disney classic, as they are instantly recognizable songs to millions of people. Such music – composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman – quickly reemerged as a staple of Disney films as the pair also contributed the music for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”

After the success of “The Little Mermaid,” Disney produced a string of hits – culminating with “The Lion King” – using mostly the same formula where a headstrong teenager causes conflict with authority, allowing the villain to take power, forcing the teenager and a colorful cast of friends to set things right with a plentiful assortment of catchy, memorable songs along the way.

There is no question this formula practically gave Disney a printing press in their basement and “The Little Mermaid” is without a doubt the catalyst that jumpstarted the whole process – although the mediocre “Pocahontas” and “Mulan” used the same formula. As such, the treatment it receives on this DVD is well deserved, but the overall product falls just short of what it could be.

The film itself has been digitally restored, as has nearly every other Platinum Disney DVD release, a process that results in more vibrant colors and a sharper image than ever before seen on a home release. While on other DVD releases this has been a good thing, here the job seems haphazardly done. The central characters look stunning, but the smaller roles and backgrounds themselves seem neglected and the juxtaposition between the two is jarring and unsettling. The sound, also remastered, seems unnatural at times with loud sound effects often overshadowing dialogue or music. While the film presentation is disappointing, the special features on the second disc are impressive and show the time and effort that went into producing this DVD.

Seven deleted/alternate scenes give an indication of what the film might have been like and an hour-long “Making of” special gives an idea of the obstacles faced in creating the movie. Additionally, there is a section devoted to a sidelined “Little Mermaid” theme park ride that never surmounted the planning stages, including a virtual ride of the proposed attraction.

With such comprehensive special features and a treasured story and film, the “Little Mermaid” DVD, in spite of the presentation quality, is enjoyable and worthwhile. While not on the level of “Aladdin” or “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” makes it fun to relive childhood and enjoy a life that’s better, down where it’s wetter, under the sea.