Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 1: The Little Mermaid

So at the end of the 80's, a funny thing happened: Walt Disney Studios' animation branch, which had been all but destroyed in the wake of box office duds like The Black Cauldron, came back with a couple successful movies leading to a film that became a modern classic, revitalized the company, and - for better and worse - helped change the face of animation forever.

The Little Mermaid.

This is something I've thought about and danced around doing for quite some time now, even though this particular subject has certainly had its share of coverage from far more qualified people (if you haven't, check out the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty if any of this sounds remotely interesting). As a child of the 80's I grew up during this time of transformation/rebirth. The rise from the ashes of Disney animation played itself out right as I was smack dab in the middle of their target demographic, and not coincidentally, I quite like a lot of the films this era of Disney produced. So I want to write about it. Also, I'm thinking that alternating this with Tony Scott entries will make the whole blog a bit less depressing.

With that in mind, I'll spend ten posts discussing the ten films that are recognized as making up the Disney Renaissance, from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan. Needless to say, these might run a bit on the long side.

So without further ado, let's dive under the sea.


I don't actually need to summarize the film's story do I? Thought not. Good, more time for the nitty-gritty.

An adapatation of the Hans Christian Andersen classic tale seems an obvious fit for the studio made famous by films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, and in fact it had been an early project eyed by Walt himself in the late 1930's. However, it was shelved and never seriously picked up again until Ron Clements, co-director of The Great Mouse Detective, broached the idea to then-studio chairman Jeffery Katzenberg. Clements ended up with directing duties alongside his "Detective" co-director John Musker. Their new film was actually greenlit alongside Oliver and Company, and after the former proved the viability of an animated film using Broadway-style musical numbers as showpieces, composer Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (of Little Shop of Horrors fame) were brought on to give the musical treatment to The Little Mermaid.

The result is the blueprint that Disney would come to use for nearly a full decade: adapt well-known story, add a few characters for comic relief/kid marketing, and EVERYONE SINGS.

And here, it works.

Not only does the musical structure make perfect sense in the context of the original story and the characters (the titular Mermaid was always portrayed as having an unmatched voice, and in the film Sebastian is a composer/conductor), but it's also used in exactly the context that song and dance numbers should be employed in musicals. In short, a musical number in a musical film should serve the exact same purpose as an action scene in an action film (Rule #5).

Basically, it should tell us something about the characters, advance an arc (character or narrative), or provide payoff to something that the film has been building toward. And The Little Mermaid isn't just fondly remembered musically because it has catchy tunes (though it does), but because it folds these into its story and characters incredibly well. "Part of Your World," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Kiss the Girl" - all are burned into the viewer's memory because of what they mean to the story and the characters, not just because they're fun diversions (this would be a lesson forgotten by some Disney films of the following decade). Ashman and Menken knew their business, and even in their freshman animated effort it shows - a memorable score, clever lyrics, and tunes that you'll find yourself humming long after the movie's done.

Unfortunately, the films visuals don't hold up quite as well as its audio. At the time, The Little Mermaid was very impressive, featuring a large number of characters on-screen during the songs, animated sea animals, humans, and fantasy creatures, and it had one showstopper of a finale. Then there were the effects needed to simulate an underwater world, with air-brushing, challenging lighting, super-imposed elements, and countless hand-drawn bubbles. Ariel is an accomplishment in her own right, with tremendously detailed flowing hair and a marvelously expressive face (which is crucial for the film's second act). However, not everyone comes off so well. There are some particularly ugly character designs (this was when Disney was starting to take some visual cues from eastern animation but went for more traditional "cartoony" looks for supporting/background characters), and a lot of the animation for people looks somewhat "rubbery" or lacking in believable skeletal motion. It also has a more limited/muted color palette than films that followed it, and less detail overall in the line work and designs than, say, Beauty and the Beast.

Now I'm not trying to undercut The Little Mermaid's accomplishments in the medium (in fact the experience of working on this film is assuredly WHY Beauty and the Beast looks so great, even at barely more than half of Mermaid's budget), but watching these films in close succession makes this point abundantly clear.

The other thing that's clear is that this is the Disney film where we start to see the first hints of what I call the "Slapstick Event Horizon." Don't misunderstand, this isn't a knock against slapstick (I love good physical comedy), but in The Little Mermaid we start to see a lot of fall gags that. . . well, not to put to fine a point on it, but that serve no purpose. None. In fact, some of them manage to undermine, though in a very small way, the scene they're in, coming too soon after a major dramatic reveal or in the midst of an otherwise somber/introspective moment. This sort of thing is at best a misguided attempt to keep kids in the audience interested even if there's no one belting out show tunes, but at worst it's a misunderstanding and undermining of something that's of the utmost importance in any film.


Now I don't want to completely derail things here so I'm not going to spend too much time digging into tone right now because believe me, we'll cover it PLENTY before this series of posts is done. Suffice it to say, this is the starting point, where we see the the split between a useful blueprint and a constrictive formula begin to form. As the 90's opened and wore on this rift began to widen, culminating in a strict "model" for how these sorts of films were "supposed" to be made, and a business-driven mantra for the entire animation division. A model of safe bets and market research taking precedence over passion and creativity. Of regurgitation and profit-padding. And ironically enough, it was this very model of thinking that nearly killed Disney Animation all over again in the 00's. I won't fault The Little Mermaid for this, but here is where it began to take root.

For all that, The Little Mermaid definitely holds up as a seriously good movie. Interestingly, there's more than a little of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner subtext to the whole proceeding, with the Mermaid/Human romance - intentionally or not - being a rather clever allegory for mixed marriages. And the voice cast is well-served by largely lesser-known actors. But the movie may not be quite as great as some remember - Sebastian and Triton are the only characters with actual arcs, and only Sebastian's is shown/earned. In many ways, The Little Mermaid feels very transitional, stylistically stuck somewhere in between Sleeping Beauty and the later 90's films like Mulan. Ironically, even with the debut of the soon-to-be standard "Liberated Independent Disney Heroine," Ariel. . . still needs Prince Eric to save her from the villain in the end. Not ideal, but I guess you have to crawl before you can walk.

And to be fair, Disney began to make up for any shortcomings in those two areas in their next fairy tale adaptation. In spades. And so, after a brief aside to cover The Rescuers Down Under (yeah, you'd forgotten about that one hadn't you?), that's where my Disney Renaissance retrospective is going next.

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