Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stubs - The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid (1989) Starring the voices of: Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, Buddy Hackett, Ben Wright. Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Screenplay by John Musker, Ron Clements. Based on the novel by The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Produced by John Musker, Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S. Color, Animated, Musical, Fantasy

From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) through The Fox and the Hound (1981), no studio dominated animated features the way the Walt Disney Studios had. The first 44 years and 24 animated features is an envious streak. So much of what it means to be a child dates back to these films. What would it be like never to have seen Snow White or Bambi or Alice or Peter Pan? It wouldn’t have been the childhood many of us remember.

Disney was also synonymous with high quality hand-drawn animation that both set the standard and pushed the envelope. The studio even seemed to survive the death of its founder and guiding light Walt Disney in 1966. However, the wheels seemed to come off with the release of The Black Cauldron (1985). The word flop was not something associated with Disney up to then, but The Black Cauldron cost twice as much ($44 million) as it made ($22 million).

The next film, The Great Mouse Detective (1986) was a moderate success, but the bloom seemed to be off the rose. The next theatrical release, Oliver and Company (1988) was a box office success, but did not get a great critical response, especially when measured against the legacy it was a part of.

A new rebirth of Disney animation would wait until the release of The Little Mermaid (1989). Disney’s interest in the story dates back to the man himself. The concept of vignettes from Hans Christian Andersen stories was worked on soon after the release of Snow White, but for whatever reason never made it off the storyboard. In 1985, Ron Clements, then working on The Great Mouse Detective, rediscovered the story and suggested it to then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Initially rejected in favor of a sequel to Splash (1984), Katzenberg corrected himself and greenlit the film the next day, along with Oliver and Company.

Interestingly, while Clements and John Musker were working on the film, the staff came across the original story and visual development Kay Nielsen had done for Disney’s original concept and found that many of the changes they were making to Andersen’s story planned in the 1930’s were the same ones writers in the 1980’s were also proposing.

The Little Mermaid may mark a new beginning for Disney animation, but it also marks the end of traditional hand-painted cel animation at the studio. Even then, computer animation was creeping into the production. A digital method of coloring and combining scanned drawings, known as CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), developed by some upstart called Pixar for Disney, was used experimentally in the film.

The story of the Little Mermaid starts with a concert being thrown in honor of the King Triton (Kenneth Mars) which features Triton’s daughters with the showcase reserved for his youngest daughter, the 16-year-old Ariel (Jodi Benson), only Ariel is missing.

Rather than sing at the concert, Ariel and her fish friend, Flounder (Jason Marin), are off exploring shipwrecks, something Ariel has done many times before. She has a treasure trove of salvage, including cork screws, utensils, books and assorted thingamabobs. She oftentimes doesn’t know what it is she’s found and takes them to Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), a seagull who is sort of know-it-all-know-nothing. But Ariel’s treasures make her yearn for more and above all to get out of the ocean.

Ariel and Flounder take items they find to Scuttle to explain.
King Triton is not a happy merman. He doesn’t want his daughter to be associating with humans, who are, after all, barbaric. He assigns his advisor, Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) to keep an eye on Ariel and keep her out of trouble. But Sebastian gets drawn into Ariel’s world and ends up going with her and Flounder on their next trip to the surface. There they see the birthday celebration of Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) complete with fireworks. What Eric is prince of is never explained, but he is handsome and Ariel falls in love with him on the spot.

A storm comes, quickly turning the celebration into near tragedy. Eric is thrown overboard and plucky Ariel comes to his rescue, dragging the unconscious prince to safety on shore. Naturally, Ariel sings to him, but must retreat when he comes to as to avoid detection.

Watching all of this is Ursula (Pat Carroll), an octopus/sea witch. She wants to control the undersea kingdom and sees Ariel as her best chance to take power from King Triton. She dispatches two eels, Flotsam and Jetsam (both voiced by Paddi Edwards) to keep tabs on her.

Ursula with her evil eels Flotsam and Jetsam.
Meanwhile, Eric tells his manservant Grimsby (Ben Wright) and his sheepdog Max (Frank Welker) about how fascinated he is by the voice of the woman who saved him and vows to find and marry her.

Prince Eric can't stop thinking about the voice of the woman who saved him.
Triton quizzes Sebastian about Ariel and he tells his king about her love for the human, Eric. Frustrated, Triton does the one thing that will certainly drive his daughter away; he goes to her treasure cave and, using his trident, destroys all the human artifacts she has collected.

Alone and hurt, Ariel is approached by Flotsam and Jetsam, who tell her that Ursula can help her. The deal Ursula proposes is that she’ll give Ariel legs in exchange for Ariel’s lovely voice, which she captures in a nautilus. She gives Ariel three days to get Eric to give her the “kiss of true love”.  If he kisses her before the sunset on the third day, Ariel can remain human. If she fails, Ariel becomes a mermaid again and belongs to Ursula (think prisoner/slave/polyp).

Ariel trades her voice for a pair of human legs.
With human legs, Ariel goes to the surface, accompanied by Flounder and Sebastian. Eric finds Ariel on the beach and takes her back to his castle. Eric is still thinking about the voice and since Ariel can’t talk, she has an uphill fight to win his love. And just when it looks like on day two she’ll succeed, Ursula shape shifts into the beautiful Vanessa (Jodi Benson) and, armed with Ariel’s voice, appears onshore singing. The voice captures Eric and he tells Grimsby that he wants to marry Vanessa the next afternoon.

Ariel goes to the surface, transformed into a human.
Ariel wakes up to the news that Eric is marrying someone else. Scuttle discovers that Vanessa is really Ursula and tells Ariel, who immediately goes to the wedding barge. Sebastian goes to tell Triton, while Scuttle does his best to break up the wedding with the help of other animals. The nautilus shell around Vanessa’s neck gets broken, giving Ariel back her voice and relieving Eric from his enchantment with Vanessa. Eric now realizes it was Ariel who saved him, but before they can kiss the “kiss of true love”, the sun sets.

Vanessa uses Ariel's voice to win Prince Eric's heart.
Ariel transforms back into a mermaid and Ursula reveals her true self and takes Ariel back into the sea as her prisoner. Triton confronts Ursula, but a deal is a deal, that is until Triton offers to take Ariel’s place. Ariel is released as Triton is transformed into a harmless polyp in Ursula’s garden. Ursula declares herself to be ruler over Atlantica. There is a struggle in which Ursula accidentally kills Flotsam and Jetsam.  Enraged, Ursula grows into enormous size.

Triton becomes one of the polyps in Ursula's garden to save Ariel.
 Ursula takes control of the ocean and creates a storm that causes shipwrecks. Just as Ursula tries to kill Ariel, Eric rams her with his ship, driving his bowsprit through her abdomen, killing her. With Ursula dead, her powers are broken. Triton, like all the other polyps, is turned back into their original forms.

Ursula is a formidable foe and takes control of the ocean.
Now seeing how much Ariel loved Eric, Triton turns her back into a human and lets them marry on the ship and they depart.

Ariel leaves everything behind for a happy ending with Eric.
The Little Mermaid was just what the doctor ordered for Disney, becoming the first animated film to earn more than $100 million. The film was Disney’s first animated fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty (1959) and heralded a return to musicals, something that had been de-emphasized during the 1970’s and 80’s. The Little Mermaid ushered in a new golden age of animation for the studio, with subsequent productions being even more successful. The animation division grew from 300 employees in 1988 to 2200 by 1999. The era from The Little Mermaid until Tarzan (1999) is often referred to as the Disney Renaissance, a return for the studio of making successful animated films.

The Little Mermaid has a lot in common with Sleeping Beauty, in that perhaps the most interesting character is the villain. Ursula is in many ways a waterlogged Maleficent. Like her predecessor, Ursula is a shape-shifter (though the expression didn’t exist in 1959) and like Maleficent she can grow into enormous size. And ultimately, she is killed when she is pierced through her torso. Pat Carroll’s portrayal of Ursula is definitely one of the highlights of the movie.

Ursula is reminiscent of an earlier Disney villain, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty).
Until The Little Mermaid, Carroll was best known for her work on television starting with The Red Buttons Show (1952-1953). She won an Emmy for her work on (Sid) Caesar’s Hour in 1956, was a regular on Danny Thomas’ Make Room For Daddy and appeared as Prunella in the CBS production of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1965. While she played some small bits in a few live action films, most of her recent parts have been working with Disney and mostly doing Ursula’s voice. As such she’s appeared in several Direct to Video features including The Little Mermaid II Return to the Sea (2000), Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse (2001), Mickey’s House of Villains (2002) and in the Kingdom Hearts video game series: Kingdom Hearts (2000), Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004), Kingdom Hearts II (2005) and Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (2012).

The other acting is good, but doesn’t rise to the level of Carroll’s performance. Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel, also has continued to voice the character in many of the same productions as Carroll and has also voiced the Barbie character in Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010). A versatile voice actress, Benson continues to voice Ariel in the Disney TV series Sofia the First, a 3-D animated spin-off of the Disney Princess franchise.

For a musical, the songs are all right, not great. The film did win for Best Score and “Under the Sea” did win the Academy Award for Best Song, beating out “Kiss the Girl”, also from the movie, for that honor. The other competition was “After All” from Chances Are, “I Love to See You Smile” from Parenthood and “The Girl Who Used to Be Me” from Shirley Valentine. (A virtual dollar if you can hum any other of the nominees not from The Little Mermaid.) “Under the Sea,” like “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King (1994), was unavoidable when the movie was first released as it seemed to play everywhere.

Considering the movie mostly takes place under water, the animation is really very good. With a few physics exceptions aside, like pages of books turning underwater, I kept waiting for a clown fish to swim by asking if anyone had seen his son, Nemo. In order to get that look right, Disney had to use such processes as airbrushing, backlighting, superimposition and some computer animation.

Not all of the work was done at Disney or went according to plan. The drawing of the million or so underwater bubbles was farmed out to a Chinese animation house in Beijing. And an attempt to use the famed Disney multiplane camera for depth of field focus failed because the device had been allowed to fall into disrepair and that work, too, was farmed out to an outside facility.

Overall, The Little Mermaid is a film worth seeing, if for no other reason than to figure out why so many girls were named Ariel. While the film fits under the banner of “family entertainment” this is really more a movie for little girls than for little boys, though enjoyment is not restricted to gender.

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