The quality of supplements on a Disney release can vary wildly between releases, either filled with some of the most useless fluff one could ever imagine or reaching Criterion (at their best) level of quality with incredible in-depth insight into the film or the Disney studio as a whole. This release thankfully leans more towards the latter end of the spectrum, though is not without some of the usual faults–specifically where no one can seem to admit the studio/company/brand can make missteps and the fact Disney can’t stop itself from selling an ad as a special feature.
Most everything comes from the previous DVD edition but there are a few new supplements to be found on this Blu-ray edition. The first feature, and I assume a big selling point since it’s being advertised rather heavily, is a rendition of Part of Your World by Carley Ray Jepsen. Admittedly I’m not the target (I don’t even know who this singer is) but it’s as typical a pop rendition of a song one would expect now and nothing particularly special. Even the video itself is predictable and feels like it should be a soda commercial or something along those lines.
@DisneyAnimation (a title that’s attempting to be “hip” or is actually advertising a Twitter handle—not sure) is actually, surprisingly, a rather charming feature. Running at 11-minutes it presents interviews with some of the veteran animators and plenty of the new blood that works at Disney. It weakens during the last little bit when it does fall victim to the Disney touch of making everything feel-goody, but the majority of it tries to give a look at the work environment for the animators and collecting the stories on the younger members on what drove them to get into animation and work at Disney. I rather enjoyed the stories and even enjoyed the look at an annual event where everyone draws caricatures of their fellow animators.
Deleted scenes were included on the previous DVD (and are again included here) but we get yet another deleted scene exclusive to this edition, presenting Harold the Merman. Apparently the character strongly appealed to directors John Musker and Ron Clements but he was ultimately cut to save time. I was expecting from the build-up that the character played a big role in the original story but it appears he was more of a set up to show what situation Ariel was to get herself into: the dweeby character (complete with glasses of course) had sold his soul to Ursula in hopes of attracting the ladies. Of course this doesn’t end well for him when she comes in to collect the debt. Put together by animating storyboards it’s an interesting sequence to see but it was rightfully cut.
Under the Scene: The Art of Live-Action probably proved to me to be the most interesting of the new special features. This 13-minute feature looks at Disney’s use of live-action models during the early days in animation. This point of reference had actually stopped being used for decades until it was decided to pick it up again for The Little Mermaid. The feature actually gets a little bit into the nitty-gritty of why Walt Disney used this: for Snow White Disney wanted realistic movements, finding some of their experiments in animated movement coming off too rubbery in look (limbs didn’t move right, dresses/capes didn’t flow right, etc.) The solution was to film actors, in costume, acting out scenes and filming them. From here they tried a rotoscoping technique (where animators would trace the action frame by frame) only to find that technique lacked any real life and looked too technical, so they went to only copying certain poses and then animating in between. This ultimately created a more lively and naturally flowing end product.
We then get to see how this technique was applied to The Little Mermaid, complete with some of the test footage with the actors acting out the scenes. There’s also test footage of how people and objects move in water. What’s most interesting about this newer footage and the footage shot by Disney in the early days for stuff like Snow White and Alice in Wonderland is the obvious difference in budget. For the early stuff sets were actually created for the actors to move around on and costumes were far more elaborate. Material for The Little Mermaid obviously lacked any real budget (the animation department was in trouble during this time, and some feared it could be shut down at any moment) and was shot on the cheap. There are no sets and the props are items are things that were obviously just lying around (like a binder or a cheap office chair) or taken from the cafeteria or possibly the garbage. Overall I found this supplement a fascinating inclusion for multiple reasons.
Howard’s Lecture is a 16-minute feature about Howard Ashman, who wrote the songs that appear in the film. At the base of the feature are clips (shot on home video) of Ashman doing a lunchtime lecture for members of the crew about animation and music. Around this footage many members of the crew, including directors Musker and Clements, talk about his heavy contribution to the film, which included help in developing characters so he could make songs around them. It’s a well-intentioned feature, though I sort of wish we got the full lecture.
Part of Her World: Jodi Benson’s Voyage to New Fantasyland is basically a shameless ad featuring Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel) taking her children through the new Fantasyland attraction at Disney World. The construction of this addition was actually featured on another Disney Blu-ray a couple of years ago, and now here it is, all finished. The attraction, an obvious lure for tourists/victims, which features recreations of certain settings from Disney’s animated film, admittedly looks cool, but again this is about as shameless an advertisement as I can think of. At least they tried to keep it tied to The Little Mermaid by having the voice of Ariel host it.
The new features then conclude with Crab-E-Oke, which presents animated karaoke videos of songs from the film.
Next we then find the “Classic DVD Features” under a separate heading. All of them, other than one, appear to be upscales of the standard-def footage.
First up are 27-minutes worth of deleted scenes (well, less than that since a good chunk of the feature presents Clements and Musker talking about the sequences.) The scenes are presented as storyboard presentations with voice overs. The scenes are alternate takes, extended bits, or even alternate musical numbers, presented in what sound like demo reels. There’s nothing significant to be found other than the fact that Ursula is actually Triton’s sister, a plot point left out of the finished film (though ultimately probably not all that important.)
The section “Backstage Disney” of course looks at the more technical aspects on the making of the film starting with Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid, a 45-minute documentary on the making of the film. This proves to be one of the more fascinating making-ofs for a Disney release considering the time the film was made. From the 70s to the 80s Disney’s animation wing was going through an incredibly rough period ultimately culminating with the box office failure of the (fascinating for all sorts of reasons) The Black Cauldron. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner came in to “save” the company by focusing more on its film division. What came from this was the possibility that the animation department could be shuttered or at least severely downscaled since it wasn’t making money. The writing on the wall became clear to everybody when the animation department was downsized and everyone remaining was moved to warehouse far from the studio, with the animation wing of the studio, which was innovative for the day, going to incoming filmmakers. Now working in trailers the team pretty much had to come up with a hit or else that was it.
The documentary then of course looks at every aspect on the making of the film, checking off all of the usual items: music, writing, casting, design, issues that arose, release, etc., and it does it all rather well, but the most interesting portion is when it covers the difficulties the studio was going through. Of course the documentary still presents it with rose-coloured glasses, even though the reality was it was much more serious than what everyone would suggest. All participants really try to put a positive spin on it, the animators saying almost losing their jobs and seeing the animation wing almost shut down motivated them that much more, forgetting the fact that any artistic licence that they had beforehand, even if it was miniscule, was now pretty much gone.
Storm Warning: Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit is a short 9-minute piece that looks at the oft overlooked “effects” animators who are responsible for animating the stuff that appears around the characters, like storms, bubbles in the water, ships, backgrounds, and so on. They then throw in a bit about the adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story in The Little Mermaid: The Story Behind the Story. It primarily looks at the process of adapting the story (which involved making it “happier”) while also employing Ejnar Stig Askgaard, curator of the Andersen museum in Denmark to show up here and there and talk about the writer and his work. This latter feature runs 11-minutes.
Disney then throws in another adaptation of an Andersen story, the short 7-minute film The Little Match Girl. The film was originally intended as a segment in a new Fantasia film that was ultimately scrapped. It’s a wonderful inclusion that surprisingly sticks fairly true to the story and I’m glad Disney at least saw fit to let it see the light of day, even if it’s only as an extra. Surprisingly this feature is presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition and appears to come from the original digital source (and looks great!)
The “Backstage Disney” section then closes with a few short features. First is a short 2-and-a-half minute Presentation Reel, which is a sort of demo made up sketches and designs showcasing the film and its look. This is then followed by the film’s theatrical trailer, a 1-minute piece where Clements and Musker draw caricatures of one another, and another quick feature where a couple of animators comment on their characters and the touches they put into them. We then get to see what was apparently the secret mermaid handshake.
Continuing on through the ported DVD features there’s a “Music and More” section which presents a typical Disney Song Selection, where viewers can jump to their favourite song (with optional subtitles.) There’s also a terrible tweener rendition of Kiss the Girl by Ashley Tisdale.
The audio commentary has also been carried over, featuring director/writers John Musker and Ron Clements, as well as composer Alan Menken. It’s actually a rather surprising track, geared more towards film enthusiasts. The three (though primarily the two directors) talk about the importance of the production, the development of it, and the issues around it. Menken pops up mostly about the film’s music and musical numbers. Other features cover the making of the film fairly well but this one gets a bit more technical and into more detail than those features, so in that regard it’s worth listening to.
Disneypedia: Life Under the Sea is a short quasi-documentary/educational piece that covers some of the sea creatures that appear in the film. It’s mostly fluffy but children might get some enjoyment out of it.
The last two features then interestingly cover an abandoned theme park attraction that was to be based on The Little Mermaid. Behind the Ride That Almost Was is a 6-minute featurette about the ideas behind the ride, complete with concept art and models. This is then followed by the 4-minute virtual presentation of how the ride would have operated. It was actually a clever idea with some interesting designs (like how it would simulate taking riders under water) while also offering a brief look into how these attractions are created at Disney’s theme parks.
This then closes off the disc features. This gold boxed Diamond Edition then includes a DVD version of the film along with a code for a digital download. There’s a blue boxed Diamond Edition that doesn’t include the digital copy code.
Despite some fluff and the expected instances where Disney sort of skims over things I actually found this edition to be a rather fascinating one to go through with some great insights and fantastic archival footage. It’s certainly one of their better special editions. 8/10