Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fishing in the Discount Bin - The Little Mermaid

I seem to be on a Disney Renaissance kick on Fishing in the Discount Bin, so I decided to keep it going.  This time out, I do The Little Mermaid.  This is in my notes at September 19, 2015.

Well, I kinda want to keep the Disney thing going, and for a while now, I've been wanting to go through the big four of the Disney Renaissance, so let's do that, shall we?

For those that are new here, the "Disney Renaissance" is the name that film historians have given to the recent period where Disney animation was back on the top of their game and they could do no wrong.  Most historians agree it began with Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, because that's when Disney began pouring serious money into their animation studio again to meet that film's heavy animation demands.  It probably began in the mid-1980s, when Michael Eisner became the new big boss at Disney and realized that, since the studio was built on animation, it should once again become one of the studio's crown jewels.  But to the average person on the street, it covers their output in the 1990s, when each summer was punctuated with a new animated blockbuster from the Disney Studios.  And from that marvelous era, there are four films that stand head and shoulders above the rest...the four that pretty much everyone points to and declares the cream of the crop:
  • The Little Mermaid
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Aladdin
  • The Lion King
It comes as no surprise that these four films come early in the run of the Disney Renaissance.  Things were still new...they were still willing to experiment.  But, by the end of these four, they figured out what worked, a formula had been established, and while the films of the Disney Renaissance were of high quality, they never really reached these heights again. 

We start tonight with The Little Mermaid, and it is a good transition film.  It transition from...well, I don't know the name of the era immediately before the Disney Renaissance, but you can see in the animation style it transitions from pre-Renaissance to the Renaissance.  For you see, this was the last Disney animated film that was done completely by hand.  In traditional animation, the animator draws the animation on paper, it's then traced onto and coloured on a clear piece of plastic called a cel, then the cel is placed over top of the background painting and photographed by the movie camera.   But, after The Little Mermaid, Disney moved to CAPS -- the Computer Assisted Production System.  In CAPS, the animator draws the animation on paper, the animator's work is then scanned into a computer, and everything is done online.  Disney tested CAPS on 3 scenes in The Little Mermaid, and with the test considered a success, it became the norm. 

As such, a lot of The Little Mermaid feels a little more...hand-made than the rest of the Renaissance.  Ariel's off-model in a few scenes.  The animation just feels rougher than what came after.  And that...adds to its charm.

The Little Mermaid was another quantum leap forward in its music, when Disney recruited Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to do the music.  Menken and Ashman were fresh off the hit Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors, and jumped at the chance to work for Disney.  And that was their most powerful influence on the Disney Renaissance.  While most Disney animated films had traditionally been musicals, Menken and Ashman brought a real Broadway sensibility to the proceedings, actually making the musical numbers organic to the plot, rather then just plopped in.  As Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel, points out on the DVD bonus materials, on Broadway, the characters start singing when they run out of words.  And of course, it doesn't hurt that the songs are memorable as hell. 

And while there's always much said about the songs, I find that Menken's work as the composer gets overshadowed.  Menken's scores were always phenomenal.  I mean, with the shipwreck at the beginning, when Ariel rescues Prince Eric from the exploding ship, that's a pretty good action riff.  And I do count the opening credit music as one of my favourite opening pieces of music.  Yeah, it's mostly just an instrumental version of Part of Your World, but it really does feel like you're entering another world. 

But, perhaps most significantly, is The Little Mermaid represented a huge demographic shift for Disney animated films.  It was the first animated film to make more than $100 million at the box office.  When Disney took a closer look, they saw that it was more than the usual Saturday matinee crowd going to the film.  Teenagers were going to see it.  Couples were going to see it.  It wasn't just a kids film...it was a date movie.  This grown-up demographic became one that Disney starting appealing to more as the Renaissance went on. 

I missed my chance to see it when it hit theatres in November of 1989.  We went out to the theatre during Christmas vacation.  And while my mother and my sister went to see it, my brother and I went to the other end of the multiplex to see Back to the Future Part II.  I finally did get to see it in the theatre in 1997, when Disney re-released it so they'd have something to compete with Fox's Anastasia.  I couldn't round up any of my college friends to see it, so I wound up going to Camrose's old Baily Theatre by myself to see it.  I blogged before that I was enamored with the Baily because it was the first theatre I'd ever experience with a balcony.  So, with no one else along to see it, I got no fight when I wanted to watch it front row centre in the balcony. 

Watching it again tonight, it truly is a remarkable film.  There's such an energy to it.  Disney animation was full of such young bucks at the time, and this was really the first time the kids had been turned loose to see what they could do.  And of course, key to this all is our heroine, Ariel.  For the first time, our Disney Princess was more active and actually working to achieve her goals than just sitting around waiting for a Fairy Godmother to come and make things happen.  Yeah, a lot has been said about how her mission of selling her voice to land the man of her dreams sends the wrong message, but at least she wasn't like Aurora who was asleep for her whole damn movie.  Baby steps, people. 

And Prince Eric is actually a bit of a badass.  As I remember tweeting the last time I watched the film, Prince Eric is the last Disney prince who outright kills the villain.  He plunges that ship straight through Ursula's heart!  After this, it went on to be the much-mocked cliche of the villain falling to his death.  So, yeah.  Go Eric. 

The Little Mermaid is just good entertainment.  And wound up being a harbinger of things to come.

No comments: