The Little Mermaid (1989)

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Released 1-May-2000

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Animation None
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1989
Running Time 79:12
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (48:34) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Ron Clements
John Musker
Studio
Distributor

Warner Home Video
Starring Jodi Benson
Christopher Daniel Barnes
Pat Carroll
Jason Marin
Samuel E. Wright
Kenneth Mars
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $39.95 Music Alan Menken


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
Dutch Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Polish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
Hebrew Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Greek Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Czech Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.66:1
16x9 Enhancement
Not 16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.66:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Greek
Icelandic
Dutch
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Throughout the 70s and early 80s, Disney were sitting on their laurels, taking things easy and releasing cheap, slightly shoddy animation that bore little resemblance to the amazing legacy of their work from the 40s and 50s. In 1986, Don Bluth and Amblin Entertainment forced Disney to take their art seriously again, when the hugely-successful An American Tale was released through Universal. Somewhere high up in the Disney echelons of command words were exchanged, orders were given, and suddenly the money was available to allow the art departments to fully unleash their imaginations again.

    Which is why we have The Little Mermaid, a truly delightful film that to my mind is amongst the best of Disney's recent output. Why? Well, because it has the heart and soul of the early classics; great animation, memorable songs that don't grate on my nerves, comic-relief characters that actually make me laugh, and a strong female lead in Ariel (Jodi Benson), the 'little mermaid' of the title. As was very common for Disney until recently, the film adapts a classic tale, in this instance the Hans Christian Andersen story about a mermaid who falls in love with a man and yearns to be human. Of course, the darker moments have been replaced with dancing crabs, but I can deal with that.

    In Disney's version, Ariel, the headstrong, independent daughter of Triton (Kenneth Mars), King of the Sea, yearns to explore the land of humans. She has a cavern full of strange trinkets that she and her fish friend Flounder (Jason Marin) have collected from wrecked ships. Fortunately, her helpful if humourously-misguided seagull friend, Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), is eager to explain to her that the fork she has found is called a 'dingleblatt', and is used for combing hair.

    Disobeying her father's orders to stay away from the surface of the sea, Ariel saves a man from drowning when his ship is wrecked during a storm, and of course, she falls in love with him. It turns out that he is a prince, naturally enough, and he is quite eager to find the girl who saved his life and marry her. Triton is worried about Ariel's behaviour and assigns Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), the court composer crab, to look after her.

    Things turn sticky when Ariel signs a pact with Ursula, the evil sea witch, who mixes a potion to make Ariel human. The problem is, Ariel needs the prince to kiss her within three days, or she belongs to the witch. And worse, the witch takes her voice to make things just that little bit harder!

    I can see why Disney collectors were desperate enough to pay $500 for second-hand pan-and-scan laserdisc editions of this film in the early 90s, but fortunately we don't have to go to such extremes these days. Let's check the disc out and see what Disney have given us.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    As the film was produced in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 ratio, it was impossible for Disney to use 16x9 enhancement without windowboxing the image. It is unfortunate that this is so, because a little more clarity would have done the image a world of good. I would assume that the disc was encoded from the D1 master used for the previously-released THX-approved laserdisc.

    Apparently, The Little Mermaid was the last Disney animated feature to be painted by hand, without the benefit of their CAPS (Computer-Aided Production System) background composition tool. The more primitive compositing, I suppose, makes the film inherently grainy, and the grain is noticeable from the first frame. Fortunately, it becomes less intrusive as the film continues, and while sometimes distracting, is bearable. The sharpness is acceptable, but is far from reference quality. The picture often appears slightly hazy, as if there is a veil over the image. This is a subtle effect, however, and I suspect that the hand-drawn cels and the age of the film are the limiting factors here.

    The colour is reasonable, although not as vibrant as I would have expected. Obviously the CAPS system must bring an improvement to colour saturation as well. The Little Mermaid just doesn't compete with later films such as Aladdin and The Lion King when it comes to richness and vibrancy of colour.

    At first, I was surprised to see that Disney had gone for a dual-layer disc. The length of the movie wouldn't appear to warrant the space used, but examining the data tells a different story. The bitrate doesn't drop below 8Mb/sec until the credits roll, indicating that this was an extremely difficult film to encode. Nevertheless, close examination of the picture does reveal some minor MPEG artefacting. I noticed no film-to-video artefacts, and no problematic film artefacts.

    The English subtitling appeared very professional and accurate, not deviating from the spoken dialogue at all during the few minutes I had it engaged.

    This disc is an RSDL disc, with the layer change occurring at the start of Chapter 18, at 48:34 on the counter. The change was virtually unnoticeable on my player.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The Little Mermaid was originally released in 1989, before discrete digital soundtracks were commonplace, so the original soundtrack is in Dolby Stereo. The soundtrack was remastered for the 1997 theatrical re-release, but obviously the same sound elements were used, and occasionally the mono effects stand out like a sore thumb. In particular, a segment from a scene where a ship explodes into flame is accompanied by sound effects that emanate entirely from the centre channel.

    There are three soundtracks in remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French and Italian), with the remaining tracks in Dolby Surround 2.0 (Dutch, Polish, Czech, Hebrew and Greek). I listened to the English soundtrack, although I listened briefly to each of the other languages, and Disney have definitely put some work into making the foreign languages 'gel' with the picture - understandably so, as they make an immense amount of money from non-English-speaking markets!

    As you'd expect, the dialogue was clear and easy to understand at all times. The only problem I had was with occasional distortion when the dialogue got very loud. As my system will blow the windows out before it distorts, I have to assume the problem lies with the original dialogue stems or bad encoding. Audio sync was not an issue, but obviously won't be as perfect as a live film - how do you make a seagull lipsync perfectly anyhow? It has no lips!

    The multiple award-winning Alan Menken score is delightful. Two songs from the film were nominated for Academy awards, essentially competing with each other! The winner was 'Under the Sea', which I remember fondly from the Simpsons' parody. The music is wonderfully recorded and fills the room nicely. There is one significant problem with the soundtrack that will likely strike this disc from serious collector's lists, however: Disney have seen fit to replace the original end credit music with pop versions of 'Under the Sea' and 'Kiss the Girl' (with Peter Andre, shudder). This isn't the only disc they've tampered with in this way, and it is a fairly disturbing trend.

    Although the film originally had a mono surround channel, the sound designers have taken advantage of the opportunity to remix into 5.1 and have had some fun with the discrete channels. In fact, the surround presence on this film is now better than 1994's The Lion King, which although in 5.1, was still quite a conservative mix.

    I wasn't expecting much from the subwoofer channel, but at times during the film there are some very effective low rumbles, and at one point my entire listening room was shaking!

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    As expected from Disney, there are virtually no extras. This is a shame, as The Little Mermaid was one of their best animated features for many years, and as such certainly deserves an audio commentary at least. More annoying is fact that the laserdisc had character designs and other extras.

Menu

    Static, themed, dull.

Film Recommendations

    Gee, Disney suggest you buy a lot of other Disney discs. Knock me down with a feather.

Censorship

    There is censorship information available for this title. Click here to read it (a new window will open). WARNING: Often these entries contain MAJOR plot spoilers.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Both regions appear to be taken from the same print master, and both versions have similar video and audio. The R4 version has superior vertical resolution and more natural colour, but the R1 edition has the original end credit music and comes on a picture disc. I don't like buying altered versions of films, but the superior picture quality means that I'm going for the R4 disc.

Summary


    The Little Mermaid is one of the best Disney hand-animated films (and therefore one of the best animated films, full stop) of the last two decades.

    The video quality is passable, and realistically the best we'll see before high-definition media becomes available.

    The audio quality is very good, with some minor faults.

    The extras are a joke.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Paul Dossett (read my bio here or check out my music at MP3.com.)
Sunday, June 04, 2000
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer 103S DVD-ROM with Hollywood Plus decoder card, using S-Video output
DisplayMitsubishi DiVA (78cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationYamaha DSP-A1
SpeakersFront L/R: Richter Excalibur SE, Centre: Richter Unicorn Mk 2, Surrounds: Richter Hydras

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
Ditto for the Bluray copy -