Anniversary Edition of “The Little Mermaid” offers Disney classic at its best
Updated: Mar 30
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Ariel (Jodi Benson) and Flounder (Jason Marin) search for human articles while excavating a ship graveyard.
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“THE LITTLE MERMAID: ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, & Digital copy, 1989, G for everyone; Streaming via Amazon Video/Prime (4K), Apple TV (iTunes) (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K) Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “Howard’s Lecture – Music in Movies” featurette
COMPOSER ALAN MENKEN is seated at the grand piano in Manhattan’s Essex House ballroom, surrounded by some of Disney’s most iconic leading ladies. Closest is singer/actress Jodi Benson, voice of the free-spirited mermaid princess Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, as part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital.
Joining Menken and Bensons are Paige O’Hara, who played Belle in “Beauty and the Beast”; Judy Kuhn,“ Pocahontas”; Lillias White, one of the muses from “Hercules”; and Donna Murphy, Mother Gothel in “Tangled.” Menken has won eight Academy Awards with his Disney musical scores and songs for “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Pocahontas.” He received nominations for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Hercules,” “Enchanted” and “Tangled.”
Benson credits Menken and his lyricist partner Howard Ashman (“Little Shop of Horrors”), who adapted the classic Hans Christian Andersen fable into a Broadway-like movie musical, with launching the second golden age of animation — and changing the face of Disney.
During the recently recorded featurette, Benson and Menken reminisce over Ariel’s breakout song, “Part of Your World.” Benson learned the song from a cassette tape mailed from Menken and Ashman, which the two created with their own vocals. “Howard kept telling me over and over again, don’t oversing it. It’s a monologue that happens to be put to pitch. Just tell the story,” she says.
Menken starts to play the tune. “I can see Howard right here,” she says. For seven days he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the 20-something Benson, coaching her during the late 1980s recording sessions.
Benson joins in. “Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t ya think my collection’s complete? Wouldn’t ya think I’m the girl. The girl who has everything. Look at this trove. Treasures untold. How many wonders can one cavern hold? Looking around here you’d think. Sure, she’s got everything.”
“The Little Mermaid,” became Disney’s first magical fairytale in 30 years, and its triumph launched a merchandise bonanza of toys, clothes and bed linens – a Disney trademark – as its popularity swept across suburbia.
The enclosed Blu-ray and streaming versions feature several new featurettes, but most of the hours of bonus extras were carried over from previous editions. It gives you a glimpse into how “Mermaid” gave Disney’s Animation Department the desperate shot-in-the-arm it needed after a decade of unimaginative films. The crew, primarily composed of a new generation of artists, had been kicked off the Disney studio lot and sent down-the-road to an empty parking lot in Glendale, Calif., where portable trailers were installed as their new home. To keep everyone in the loop co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements launched a lecture series during lunchtime.
One of their first speakers was the incomparable Ashman, who revealed the “Mermaid” project to an audience that was clueless about the musical direction. First, he gave the gang a history lesson on theatrical musicals, then he played early demos for “Mermaid” – with Ashman handling all of the singing. “Howard came alive that day,” Musker recalls. “Howard saw animation as a way to keep musicals alive because there’s an inherent stylization in animation.” Ashman’s theory was simple. “Music has more license in the animated film, in the same way, that it does on the stage. You want it to develop the story or character and the song must carry its own weight and justify its existence.”
“The Little Mermaid” inspired a whole generation of artists – especially women like Kira Lehtomaki, now a Disney animator, who tells how she ran home after seeing the movie and tried drawing Ariel and Flounder. Four young animators tell their stories, including Chad Sellers who admits he had a crush on Ariel: “It was the first film in my generation we could relate to.”
It also includes a commentary with Clements, Muster, and Menken; the opening moments feature a salute to Ashman, who Menken considers his partner: “The greatest theatrical dramatic talent of our generation.” Ashman died from AIDS in 1991, just before the release of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Here's some good news and some bad news. First, the good. “The Little Mermaid” maybe the first Disney animated film in over a decade to preserve the original film grain structure (1.78:1 aspect ratio) to the 4K and Blu-ray versions. Actually, the grain is more evident on the Blu-ray, which should be the opposite. On the 4K, it’s a very lite dusting of grain, more apparent as you get closer to the screen, while on the Blu-ray, you see it dancing on the characters and background drawings.
For over a decade, Disney used some sort of digital scrubbing to completely remove the film grain, to a point that it’s barely visible on the majority of the studios' animation collection. It first raised its ugly head in 2008 with the Blu-ray of “Sleeping Beauty,” continued with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” then “Bambi” and down the line with the restoration projects. A new 2018 copyright tag during the "Mermaid" end credits indicates it received some sort of new restoration.
The bad news, which can’t be confirmed, the visuals seem to be from a 2K master. There’s only the slightest increase of sharpness with the 4K over the Blu-ray. The fine lines of the animated artwork have a sharper edge, but it should have a much greater bump in clarity – especially with its numerous wide shots. But, that’s not the case.
The real difference is with the HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning, that’s painted with a darker palette in the shadows of the deep blue sea, and the colors are more controlled – less garish once you compare it to the HD version. Ariel’s face is less orangey, as if she has a suntan, and her reddish hair is a deeper shade, while the overall artistry ranges from the cool grays, during the opening sequence, to richer colors in Ariel’s world.
The 4K disc and streaming include a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack that's extremely aggressive for the height speakers, pushing effects and Menken’s music clues for a more enveloping environment. While the Blu-ray includes 8-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, the Atmos track gives Ashman’s and Menken’s delightful tunes the right amount of bass and full mid-tones for those glorious vocals for “Part of the Your World,” Oscar-winner “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and “Kiss the Girl.”
Don’t disappoint the kids; this American classic should be on every family’s shelf or digital library – especially in this new 4K incarnation.
― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer