Monday, February 8, 2010

#28: The Little Mermaid (1989)

So here it is, the start of the famed Disney Renaissance, with this first outing's epic fantasy adventure musical format setting the standard in tone and scope for the coming decade for Disney. Coincidentally, we also have arrived to the first film released in my lifetime, so it should be most interesting to have a look at these movies again, although some I haven't seen. Disney's return to the musical fairy tale was a critical and commercial success and along with the equal triumph of the brilliant medium-blending "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Disney was on its way back to the top. A triumph for the studio both technically and conceptually, "Mermaid" is one of their more beloved films, especially with those who grew up with it (ie: my generation). But let's take a hard look at this, shall we?
The story is set in the underwater society of merpeople, led by the benevolent King Triton, who just doesn't know what to do with his youngest daughter Ariel, a curious girl who's completely fascinated by the human world. But alas, her father forbids any interaction with those horrid land dwellers, but she keeps observing them anyway, one in particular, the quite handsome Prince Eric, who's just waiting for the right girl to come along. Despite the urges of the King's adviser Sebastian the crab, Ariel ends up wrapped in a scheme from the devilish sea witch Ursula, who agrees to turn her into a human in exchange for her voice, but she has three days to make the prince fall in love with her, or she's hers forever.
First let's look at this new musical format, which Disney will follow throughout its new rebirth. It has a similar feel to musical films of the past like "Snow White" and "Cinderella," but with songs more benefiting a Broadway show in purpose and placement, and most of them are pretty effective. There's no denying that "Part of Your World" and "Under the Sea" are classic songs, and befitting their contexts in the film. "Kiss the Girl" is good as well, although I'm bummed that Ursula's villain song "Poor Unfortunate Souls" sounds more meandering than menacing. Back to the format, this is also Disney's 'EPIC!' period, where their movies became a lot more filmatic and larger in scope. The direction is a lot more dynamic, and again works in more CG, which they are improving on having it seamlessly integrate. However as fine as that may be, there seems to be something missing in the overall design. The characters look fine for their roles, but it's almost like they took the easy and simple way out in their design: Ariel is wide-eyed and adorable, as is the equally typically bland Prince Eric. Disney has gotten away with simple designs before by having expressive and subtle acting, but for some reason that wasn't coming across much in this one either. A lot of times, particularly in the more camera-heavy music numbers, the characters are sort of static in their expression. It may look technically great, but the characters are the core of the emotion, and they always come first.
Speaking of, the characters themselves are of varying interest. While your sidekicks are split (Sebastian is entertaining, Flounder does nothing), your lead is questionable. Her rebellious attitude and curiosity is slightly engaging, but there's not much else to her. Ursula is wonderful to see on screen, as are most all Disney villains, but for some reason I wasn't too wrapped up in her either. Now Ariel wants to be a human more than anything, and finally finds reason why: because she spotted a handsome man of course! Now she's a pretty naive character, so I can somewhat accept that, but this is basically the catalyst for the whole plot, and it's hard to be rooting for a girl so misguided. The Prince isn't much better either, essentially after the girl who saved him from drowning with the angelic voice, who ends up actually being Ariel. These two are in a daze. Now this love-after-thirty-second stuff has been with Disney since "Snow White," but it works in those films as it's really not that integral to the story, and dealt with in a more wistful manner. Here, it's the entire second half of the movie. Things immediately start to tumble for me once Ariel comes on land, and the unfortunate implications settle in. At least they had the sense to spell it out through Ursula, just keep your mouth shut and you'll get your man! While it's not quite as insensitive as it sounds, there is an undercurrent of oddness that Eric manages to keep on a relationship with this mute Ariel.
This also begins Disney's trend of using dominant primary color schemes in their movies; here we get a lot of bright greens, pinks and purples. This is especially evident in the "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" numbers: good songs, but full of aquatic creatures who are both incredibly basic in design AND garishly colored. Disney classics were bright and colorful but seemed to utilize a more diverse palette. It just kind of bugged me going through the whole movie seeing the same shades dominate the entire picture.

Verdict? Looks like I sort of tore this one down, but it wasn't exactly my intention. "Mermaid" is responsible for regaining Disney's focus, and that's a good thing regardless of its individual merit. It has great timeless songs, some charming moments, and is at times technically and artistically wonderful to watch. But Ariel's plight didn't quite grasp my attention as greatly as past characters have, and the film as a whole didn't feel as captivating. "Mermaid" is confident in what it is, the first for a Disney film since Walt's departure, but for me at least, it's kind of washed up. Oh my, what a comic genius I am...

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