Disney Blu-ray Round-up: ‘The Little Mermaid’

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little mermaidAs it arrives on Blu-ray for the first time, the same theme kept cropping up for me while watching The Little Mermaid: bad timing. Now, before you light your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: this is still an enormously satisfying film. The quartet of big musical numbers in The Little Mermaid are among the best Disney’s ever done, thanks in no small part to Howard Ashman’s endlessly inventive lyricism. I could (and will, in an upcoming podcast) go on about exactly how charming and winning this movie is. And on Blu-ray, it’s no different. The transfer is colorful and crisp without feeling as if the imperfections have been removed. The Little Mermaid still looks very much like a hand-drawn animated film, as opposed to an overly polished product absent of any personality.

So, why did I keep thinking of bad timing while watching this Blu-ray? (Well you should ask.) As anyone with more than a passing awareness of Disney’s recent movie-related foibles knows, The Little Mermaid was once intended to be re-released in theaters nationwide this fall, replete with an unnecessary 3D upconversion. This, after The Lion King 3D made nearly $100 million domestically a couple of years ago. However, after Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo flopped last year, Disney scrapped a wide release for The Little Mermaid. I’ve spent plenty of time on Twitter, on the podcast, and on the street accosting strangers, explaining why this might be the most boneheaded decision Disney could’ve made. Yes, the other 3D re-releases were not as hugely successful as The Lion King, but if a person wants to watch Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., or show them to their sons or daughters for the first time, they could have done so via Blu-ray. The Little Mermaid, conversely, hadn’t been made available on Blu-ray yet–this scheduled re-release would’ve functioned as an additional PR campaign–and hadn’t been released in theaters since 1997.

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The nixed theatrical re-release aside, The Little Mermaid was always going to come out on Blu-ray, in both 2D and 3D formats. (My review copy was a 2D copy; since I don’t have a 3D TV and this movie wasn’t created with 3D in mind, that’s fine with me.) The Blu-ray, though, does have a few too many references to that would-be 3D re-release, including a section in the end credits dedicated to the upconversion. (Yes, I am aware that the Blu-ray itself, should you get the 3D version, has been fiddled with, but I don’t remember past upconverted films getting credits like these if they didn’t also get a theatrical re-release. I could be wrong.) In essence, those credits seem to be specific to a theatrical re-release that only a few people are experiencing; I refer here to the now much-maligned–rightly so–re-release in just 16 theaters around the country, where people could see The Little Mermaid and interact with the film via a second screen app on the iPad. Because what movie experience isn’t complete without everyone looking at their tablets instead of the screen on which a movie is playing?

So it’s honestly a bit bittersweet to watch this adaptation of the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and be wistful for the missed possibility of seeing it in theaters again. I remember watching The Little Mermaid in 1989, a 5-year old cowering in his seat at the climax, as the vile Ursula expanded to the size of a giant to terrorize Ariel and Prince Eric, our romantic heroes. Oh, how dearly I’d have loved to go back to that feeling again. (Not kidding.) But instead, we only have the Blu-ray, which is marked with bad timing elsewhere. The special features are, by and large, interesting if too slight. What troubled me watching them was how some of the talking-head interviews were with people who no longer work at the Walt Disney Company. Take, for example, John Kahrs, one of a few animators interviewed for a 10-minute supplement on Disney’s animation studio. You may not know Kahrs’ name, but you likely recognize his most recent work: the Oscar-winning short Paperman, which was attached to Wreck-It Ralph last November. Paperman richly deserved its golden statuette; watching the technically proficient animated short was like a preview of greatness. John Kahrs might have been the future of Disney Animation, in the best possible way.

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Of course, the operative phrase there is “might have been.” See, John Kahrs left Disney at the end of August. Though Kahrs only has a minute or so of screen time in the “@DisneyAnimation” featurette, he spends some of that time referring to his Oscar win, and a potentially awkward moment in his speech that he avoided. Now, I don’t know how Disney could’ve avoided this frustration outside of trashing the supplement entirely. Kahrs leaving the company is unfortunate, and whoever snatches him up will be very lucky indeed. Listening to him extol the virtues of Disney Animation, though, is vexing, because he’s not there anymore. The same goes for Ruben Aquino, the supervising animator behind Ursula, among other beloved characters. In early April of 2013, he, along with a group of other stalwarts, was laid off from Disney Animation. And here he is on this Blu-ray, in a couple of special features, talking about how great it is to work for Disney.

I know what you’re thinking. (I always know. Don’t ask how.) “Josh, who cares? How many people outside of a few animation junkies even know Ruben Aquino’s name? Or what he’s done in the past?” I agree, in theory. But again, here we have a feature that has less to do with The Little Mermaid–even though the newer animators acknowledge the influence the film had on their childhoods–and more to do with being a cheerleading segment for Disney Animation, which is now an arm of the studio that dangles lifelessly in spite of its massive importance to the company’s overall history. We don’t have theme parks without Disney Animation. We don’t have countless characters without Disney Animation. And while I admire the impetus behind this featurette, it’s slim pickings. I’ve ranted and raved on Twitter and on the show this year about how dire things are at Disney Animation. We’ve had guests like Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican on the show to confirm that my woe-is-us tone maybe isn’t too far from the truth. John Lasseter is in charge, and is treating Disney Animation like the vagrant you come across on your daily walk to work, asking politely for some change that you refuse to pass along even if your pockets are drowning in quarters.

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The “@DisneyAnimation” special feature has its heart in the right place, and I’d be lying if I said the office buildings don’t look like a hell of a lot of fun to work in. But what are these people even working on? We see a couple of animators completing finishing touches on the female character in Paperman, but that’s it. Nothing about Frozen–and don’t forget, that opens in less than 2 months–or the upcoming Disney/Marvel animated film Big Hero 6. A lot of people, though not me, have taken Pixar to task lately for having postponed The Good Dinosaur by over a year, pushing Finding Dory to the summer of 2016, but here’s the thing: at least we know what Pixar is doing in 3 or 4 years’ time. After Big Hero 6, your guess is as good as mine with regards to what Disney Animation has up its sleeve aside from dead air. I watch this 10-minute feature, and I grow simultaneously wistful and angry at what might have been, if only Disney used some of its vast wealth to continue funding the studio that should matter most to them.

And, again, I think “Bad timing.” It’s bad, unlucky timing to have Aquino and Kahrs talking about the magic of Disney animation when they no longer can take part in it. Now, there are other supplements on this disc–and yes, Aquino makes a few more appearances, only frustrating me more. Most of the features are intriguing, but should be longer. The longest one, just over 16 minutes, should be the crown jewel of the piece to any Disney/theater aficionado: a lecture the late Howard Ashman gave to Disney employees during the production of The Little Mermaid, in which he discusses the importance of music to storytelling, and how songs can function in different ways. Here’s the problem: maybe half of this feature is Ashman talking. The lecture was recorded on a camcorder, so the image quality’s not excellent, but the content is fascinating, and Ashman’s a charismatic speaker. All I wanted was more of him, not more of writers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements, or Jodi Benson, or anyone else talking about Ashman’s influence. (A notable absence, unless I blinked and missed him, in this feature is Ashman’s collaborator, Alan Menken.) I understand that context is required for this lecture, but why not show all of it? Or more of it?

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There’s also a compelling look at the art of live-action reference when animating characters. Disney fanatics know live-action reference was very common for Disney animators, all the way back to Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s easiest to copy the movements of live performers and translate them into animation, as opposed to just drawing human characters from scratch. This supplement shows you some footage of the live-action reference for The Little Mermaid; Sherri Stoner, comedienne, writer, and voice of Slappy Squirrel (don’t pretend you don’t remember her from Animaniacs), talks about “playing” Ariel, and how some of her quirks and tics, such as blowing her hair away from her face in moments of annoyance, were brought into the animation itself. Again, I wish this was longer, but I’ m thrilled that Disney included it on the Blu-ray. The same goes for the sing-along feature–dubbed here as…”Crab-E-Oke”–which is as artfully designed as the similar feature on The Muppet Movie Blu-ray. Sing-alongs are inherently kind of dull, but whoever’s in charge of them at Disney now is putting a ton of personality and attitude into the affair. Kudos.

Not so many kudos for the 5-minute advertisement–I mean, supplement–in which Benson travels to Walt Disney World to sign a storyboard from the film to be displayed in the Art of Animation Resort. This thing would be less eye-rollingly annoying if Benson and her kids didn’t magically stumble upon an Imagineer who happens to explain to them the magic that awaits us all in New Fantasyland. And wouldn’t you know, one of the new attractions is themed after The Little Mermaid? Wow! (This, by the way, is not a critique of the attraction itself, which is already open at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland, and is quite charming.) This Blu-ray mostly avoids feeling like an ad for something else, save for this cheap marketing ploy.

I’ve spent far too much of this column grousing, as is my wont. The bottom line: if you love The Little Mermaid, if your kids love it, if everyone in your family loves it, you will be happy with this Blu-ray. I’m happy with it. I’m glad the movie is finally on Blu-ray, finally restored in ways that emphasize the movie’s beauty and artistry. I love hand-drawn animation, and though this is not the most perfectly crafted film of the Disney Renaissance, it’s lovely to behold. But because I love hand-drawn animation, some of this Blu-ray bothers me immensely. It feels like I am watching a relic, something that may never return to the House of Mouse in spite of being the most important thing that ever happened in the Burbank studios. I want to be wrong. But it’s on Disney and John Lasseter to prove me wrong.






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