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The Little Mermaid: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

The Little Mermaid (1989) movie poster The Little Mermaid

Theatrical Release: November 17, 1989 / Running Time: 83 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements / Writers: John Musker, Ron Clements (screenplay); Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tale)

Voice Cast: Renι Auberjonois (Chef Louis), Christopher Daniel Barnes (Prince Eric), Jodi Benson (Ariel, Vanessa), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Paddi Edwards (Flotsam & Jetsam), Buddy Hackett (Scuttle), Jason Marin (Flounder), Kenneth Mars (King Triton), Edie McClurg (Carlotta), Will Ryan (Seahorse), Ben Wright (Grimsby), Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian)

Songs: "Fathoms Below", "Daughters of Triton", "Part of Your World", "Under the Sea", "Part of Your World (Reprise)", "Poor Unfortunate Souls", "Les Poissons", "Kiss the Girl"

Buy The Little Mermaid from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + DC • Blu-ray 3D Combo • Blu-ray + DVD • DVD + DC • Instant Video
Past DVDs: 2-Disc Platinum Edition • 3-Movie Collection • Limited Issue

Rotten Tomatoes' 2010 countdown of the Disney Animated Classics ranked it thirteenth. By current IMDb user ratings, it holds eleventh place. But you'd be underestimating The Little Mermaid if you assumed its standing in the Disney canon was in the same neighborhood as far as the general public is concerned.
This 1989 musical that revived its medium and began a new Golden Age for Disney's accomplished department easily figures to be one of the studio's five most popular animated features of all time.

Part of that is timing. Children at the end of 1989 and the beginning of the 1990s hadn't had a terrific animated film to really latch on to in their lifetimes. Sure, the best efforts from Walt's era were regularly rereleased to theaters and some of them were now widely available on videocassette, boasting an undeniable timelessness. But they were no substitute for a brand new film created with contemporary audience tastes in mind. We may revere and revisit them, but who doesn't get a little restless during Fantasia or find Snow White's voice a tad shrill? At its release, The Little Mermaid had no such concerns. It was made in the late-'80s with a late-'80s sensibility and its mix of comedy, music, magic, and romance somehow just felt right. It essentially created the mold for the modern Disney animated feature, which most subsequent ones clearly filled through at least 1998's Mulan.

The film's source text, a fairy tale by 18th century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, is one that almost caught the full attention of Walt Disney, who adapted English language works considered to be influenced by Andersen, like The Wind in the Willows and the Winnie-the-Pooh books. One reason that Walt, ever in tune with the public's entertainment needs, might have shied from Andersen's "Mermaid" is that it's kind of a downer as far as fairy tales go. Never mind that. Writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker would change the ending and make sure everyone but sea witches went home happy.

Ariel and Flounder take in her grotto of human treasures in Disney's "The Little Mermaid."

Clements and Musker, who had made story contributions to The Black Cauldron and their directing debuts on The Great Mouse Detective, would rediscover the universal appeal in animation, following this 1989 hit with the even more successful Aladdin. Their contributions to this Disney Animation Renaissance are perhaps only rivaled by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. That duo, plucked from Broadway and showing it, gave these enchanting cartoons their musical identity with a number of award-winning and nominated songs that remain widely and frequently enjoyed to this day. While Ashman passed away before Beauty and the Beast was finished, he and Menken had already set the tone for the era with the indelible tunes they crafted through Aladdin.

While it's easy to single out the talented individuals filling these important creative roles, an animated film is the work of hundreds of people. Even if the basic story and songs are good, innumerable opportunities exist to make or break the movie. From character design to backgrounds to animation to the voice cast, it's tough to find a single wrong note in The Little Mermaid. It achieves a level of perfection that very few movies ever have and it did so in a way that you could almost instantly notice and appreciate.

While the Academy Awards weren't ready to recognize the film outside of their Original Score and Song categories (both of which it won), the Golden Globes made it the first ever animated film nominated for their Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy category. One of the first instances where the industry recognized animation as more than commercial family-oriented fare, this paved the way for Beauty and the Beast to snag a Best Picture Oscar nod and win the highest Golden Globe award available to it.

Sebastian and friends make a colorful, compelling case for Ariel to remain "Under the Sea." Sea witch Ursula is happy to help Ariel, for a price.

Though I'm sure you know all about the movie, a synopsis remains in order. Ariel, the youngest of seven daughters of merman King Triton, is fascinated by human culture and collects their found objects in a grotto. Concerned for her safety and unimpressed by humanity, her father disapproves of her curiosity and of her frequent journeys to the surface to have items identified by the seagull Scuttle.

The headstrong 16-year-old redhead saves the life of the handsome prince who has secretly caught her eye. To spend more time with him, Ariel has the sea witch Ursula give her legs.
There's a catch, though. Ariel needs to land one big, true love's kiss within three days, or else she becomes the property of Ursula. Oh, and she'll have to win it without her voice, as Ursula gets that in exchange for her fin transformation.

With best friend Flounder cheering her on from a distance and Triton's advisor Sebastian the crab looking out for her with mixed feelings, Ariel silently acquaints herself with Eric's world and tries to help him get over the mysterious savior she can't tell him was her.

The film is distinguished by its stylistically varied but uniformly excellent songs. They include the prototypical "I want" song "Part of Your World", the Oscar-winning "Under the Sea" (perhaps the most colorful and uplifting tune found in any film), the doo wop-fashioned, story-advancing "Kiss the Girl", and the random but memorable "Les Poissons." As wonderful as that is, the movie is so much more than just music, sporting taut storytelling, rich conflict, a still potent sense of humor, and an abundance of heart and genuine emotion. As a child, you don't appreciate how outstanding the film is in all these regards, you just know it offers all the excitement and fun you want in a cartoon. Repeat viewings reveal the layers and craft that make this so special and rare.

A now-human Ariel tries to capture Prince Eric's heart without a voice.

Replay value really won the film its following. Its $84.4 million gross in theaters (which inflation adjusts to $167.8 in 2013 money) was solid and a marked improvement over the likes of The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company.
You'd have to go back a long time to find any all-animated film as formidable. At the same time, that haul was only good enough for 13th place at the 1989 box office. It was only Disney's third biggest movie of the year, behind Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Touchstone's Dead Poets Society. Its ticket sales weren't in the same league as 1989's big sequels (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back to the Future Part II, and Ghostbusters II) or most lucrative original films (Batman, Look Who's Talking, Driving Miss Daisy).

Home video is where The Little Mermaid really built its audience, with few kids being denied the privilege of wearing out their own tape with regular viewings. Today, Mermaid is better-known and more highly regarded than many of those hit contemporaries. Wholeheartedly embraced by one generation, it has come to be widely accepted as a classic by all. Its omission from the American Film Institute's 2008 list of the top ten US animated films of all time was the most glaring oversight of a countdown that somehow ignored a forty-year stretch from the middle of the 20th century.

If The Little Mermaid hadn't come just when it did, who can say if or when Disney's department would have recovered or feature animation in general would have reascended to critical relevance and commercial dominance? Who knows if there'd even have been a market for Pixar to get the technology for computer animation in place and spark the current boom? While it seems unlikely that a single film could change the course of cinema to such a degree, back in 1989 there were only four animated features released to American theaters and two of them (Akira, Babar: The Movie) were financially insignificant. Maybe Beauty and the Beast would have been a blockbuster regardless, but its lineage clearly traces back more to Mermaid than the only other big animated triumph of the time, the mixed medium comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The Little Mermaid was all set to follow in the footsteps of The Lion King and receive a theatrical rerelease in Disney Digital 3D this fall. But after three consecutive such 3D reissues of beloved animated films -- Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc. -- failed to have the same kind of box office impact as Lion King, Disney nixed the plan and simply releases a Blu-ray 3D combo pack and three other editions (one of which we review here) to stores today, a year shy of the movie's 25th anniversary.

Watch a clip from The Little Mermaid:

The Little Mermaid: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese; BD-only: English
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: October 1, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $44.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy + Music ($49.99 SRP), Blu-ray + DVD / DVD + Blu-ray ($39.99 SRP), and on Amazon Instant Video
Coming soon: DVD + Digital Copy ($29.99 SRP; November 19, 2013)
Previous DVDs: 2-Disc Platinum Edition (October 3, 2006), 3-Movie Collection (December 16, 2008), and Limited Issue (December 7, 1999)

VIDEO and AUDIO

As you probably know, Disney only gives Diamond Editions to its best-selling animated titles and each boasts a substantial restoration. Since The Little Mermaid also had the added task of being converted to 3D and prepped for reissue, I feared it might have gotten too dramatic an overhaul, as it's easy to speculate but tough to confirm that older classics have. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find this still looking like a 1980s animated film.
Not cels before a camera or a scanned-in, made-over digital representation, but the most pristine opening day film print not subjected to projector imperfection.

The 1.78:1 picture, a suitable aspect ratio in between the film's 1.85:1 theatrical one and past 1.66:1 DVD transfers, does not sport excessively vibrant colors or look overly scrubbed. Lines aren't given exaggerated weight. The visuals look absolutely perfect, but not in an artificial way betraying the movie's original appearance. You'll spot a tiny bit of film grain and should be able to recognize that this differs somehow from breathtaking past Disney A-list restorations, but not necessarily in a bad way. I am quite pleased with these results.

Sound is presented in 7.1 DTS-HD master audio and it is as expansive, rich, and potent as anyone could ask for. As the film was not presented in 7.1 channels in initial release, I think a more faithful mix ought to have been included for purists' sake. That said, even if it was, I must admit I would prefer to watch the film in this admirable, level-headed remix that's brimming with life.

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Changes to the Film, Bonus Features, Menus, Packaging & Closing Thoughts

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker: The Princess and the Frog • Aladdin • The Great Mouse Detective • Hercules
Diamond Edition Blu-rays: Beauty and the Beast • The Lion King • Cinderella • Peter Pan • Bambi • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Disney Animation on Blu-ray: Oliver & Company • Pocahontas • The Hunchback of Notre Dame • Mulan • Tangled
More Disney Animation on Blu-ray: The Fox and the Hound • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh • Lilo & Stitch • Brother Bear • Wreck-It Ralph
Waking Sleeping Beauty • The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea • The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginnings • Enchanted
New: From Here to Eternity • The Painting • House of Wax • Slacker • A Letter to Three Wives

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Reviewed October 1, 2013.