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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

“I Didn’t Make It All the Way Through Third Grade For Nothing”

Okay, pop quiz everybody: when you hear the phrase “Disney Renaissance,” what are the films that first come to mind?  If you’re anything like me, you will answer The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  And why not?  All four of them were monstrously successful and critically acclaimed films that were released between the period of 1989 to 1994.  In fact, these films are regarded by most as the pinnacle of the art of animation.  It truly does not get any better than these four films.
What most people tend to forget is that there were actually five films released during the period of 1989 to 1994.  Know what it is?  I’ll give you a hint: the fifth one ain’t Pocahontas.  What’s that?  Did I hear someone just say The Rescuers Down Under?  Gold star for you, you know your stuff. 
That’s right, The Rescuers Down Under is the forgotten film of the Disney Renaissance.  It didn’t perform that well in the box office despite mostly positive reviews from critics, which could explain its tendency to be left out of discussions of the Disney Renaissance films.  I remember watching this film quite a bit as a kid on VHS; I was actually more familiar with this film than I was with the first Rescuers movie.   I enjoyed the film then, and I do enjoy it now.  Except now that I’m older, I can identify some issues within the film that more likely than not led to its underwhelming monetary intake.
First, let’s take a gander at the title: “The” and “Rescuers” and “Down” and “Under.”  Those first two words immediately cause its audience to hearken back thirteen years prior to this film’s release, when The Rescuers was unleashed on the world.  Our expectations are immediately set: the further adventures of the ever so dynamic team up of Bernard and Miss Bianca when they are called on another mission to help a young kid who is in trouble.  Through some skilled detective work, Bernard and Bianca deduce who kidnapped the child, why they were kidnapped, and where they were taken.  Bianca is always brave, determined, while still being charming and sophisticated while Bernard fumbles over his words, doubts their abilities, and at times let’s his superstitions get the better of him.  Through an elaborate plan involving some aid from the locals, Bernard and Bianca are able to rescue the kid while foiling the bad guy.
Though some of these elements are present in The Rescuers Down Under, a lot of them – in particularly the deductive mystery aspect, which is what I found so charming in the original – are not present at all.  Come to think of it, Bernard and Bianca don’t have that much screen time at all in this film.  Bernard and Bianca don’t make an appearance in this film until eighteen minutes have already passed.  Compare that to the original Rescuers movie where Bernard and Bianca appeared on screen together just seven minutes into the film. 
The audience spends the first eighteen minutes of film time getting to know Cody and discovering his plight.  Because of this, the mystery aspect of the first Rescuers film is promptly dropped since the audience knows exactly that it was Cody who has been kidnapped, that it was McLeach who took him, and what McLeach’s reasons were for wanting Cody.  Even after Bianca and Bernard are assigned the case, the audience’s time with them is rather sparse.  There are a lot more subplots in this film than there were in the first film.
There are a couple of scenes devoted to Cody’s escape attempts with the animals McLeach captured.  There’s a prolonged scene with McLeach revealing his a great deal about his current mental state.  There are several comedic scenes with Wilbur.  That all adds up to a lot more time spent with characters that aren’t Bernard and Miss Bianca.
            I can’t help but feel that might have contributed to the film’s lack of profits; it grossed only $47 million, so while it wasn’t a total flop, it was the least profitable film of the Disney Renaissance.  With the words “The Rescuers” in the title, I imagine many a person was expecting a film very much in the same vein as the first Rescuers film.  As much as I enjoy The Rescuers Down Under, it is not a Rescuers movie when compared to the original.  Why must I draw comparisons to the original at all?  Because The Rescuers Down Under is an incredibly important landmark film for Disney Animation: their first true sequel.
Of the fifty films Disney Animation has created for their canon over the past seventy plus years, only two have the distinction of being sequels: Fantasia 2000 and The Rescuers Down Under.  Now before anyone brings up some films that I’d rather avoid talking about, when I say true sequels, I mean sequels that were released in theaters under the Disney Animation banner.  That means that these are the only two film sequels to be considered canon.  That means comparisons between the two are practically required.
I know that there have been plenty of sequels that were departures from their respective original films, and by and large are considered to be improvements on what came before, like The Empire Strikes Back, X2, and The Dark Knight.  And there were elements of The Rescuers Down Under that were incredibly successful, but I admit that I did miss Bernard and Bianca.  I feel as though the story team was looking for an excuse to set an animated film in Australia and they chose The Rescuers franchise as their chosen avenue.  Which is no surprise, considering that the studio had been hankering to do a Rescuers follow-up something fierce.  After all, Oliver & Company had originally been conceived as a Rescuers sequel (just as the original Rescuers had been planned at one point to be a semi-sequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians), so the studio had wanted to expand on the story universe laid down in The Rescuers at least by 1988.
Why was Disney so sequel happy when it came to The Rescuers?  Well, if you think about all the films that are a part of the Disney animated canon, most of them ended pretty resolutely; there’s just no arguing with the phrase “happily ever after.”  But The Rescuers was unique in that it really did end things on an open ended note: Bernard and Bianca flying away on Orville for yet another adventure with the phrase “tomorrow is another day” ringing in the audience’s ears as they parted ways with the two mice.  The movie was a success and the story did call for continuing their adventures, so why not make a sequel?  It just didn’t get greenlit for production until 1988, eleven years after the first film’s release. 
Coincidentally, 1988 also happened to be the same year that Crocodile Dundee II (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092493/) came out in America.  Why is that significant?  Well, it’s an indicator that in the late eighties, American moviegoers were fascinated by the culture surrounding that not-so-small island in the south Pacific.  So in the year that a once proposed Rescuers sequel was released on the American populace, an official sequel to the original film was put into production with the untamed Australian outback as its chosen setting.  Coincidence?  I don’t believe in them.
Though the “Down Under” aspect of this film is the main thing that bothers me as an adult watching it.  In 2009, I was blessed with the opportunity to live in Australia (in Perth, in the Western Australia territory) for almost a year.  There’s a special section of my heart for the country, its history, its culture, and most of all, the amazing people who call the merry old Land of Oz home.  So while I’m not an authority on all things Australian, I can usually point what is true Ozzie and what is the impression Americans have of Australians.  And I’m sorry to say that The Rescuers Down Under is about as authentically Australian as Outback Steakhouse.
That's a Kookaburra, Australia's favorite bird
Oh sure, you see Ayers Rock, the Sydney Opera House, you hear a didgeridoo, a couple of boomerangs are visible at multiple points, native characters call each other “mate,” and a lot of the distinctive creatures making up Australia’s unique animal population make appearances in the film.  These are all things that people think of when they hear the word “Australia.”  I have no problem with these things being present in the film; my problem is the total lack of Australian people in this film.  For a film that’s supposedly set in Australia, there is only one actual Australian present.
Don’t believe me?  Then do what I did and check the IMDB page for each character that spoke with what is supposedly an Australian accent (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100477/).  I was quite dismayed to learn that every single “Australian” voice was in fact British!  Cody’s kangaroo friend at the beginning, Faloo?  British.  In fact, her voice actress (Carla Meyer) also doubled as Cody’s mom.  Actually, I knew she was British before I even checked her profile because of some pieces of dialogue in the film: she calls Cody a “lil’” friend and she says “right-o.”  Ozzies don’t say “lil’,” they say, “little.”  Also, I’ve heard “right-y-o” but not “right-o.” Both are big tip-offs that the voice actress in question was a true Brit.
The kangaroo held prisoner by McLeach, Red?  Voiced by British actor, Peter Firth.  The cynical koala, Krebbs?  Actually, he was voiced by Douglas Seale, who would feature prominently in a later Disney film, Aladdin as the voice of the Sultan.  The Doctor who treats Wilbur?  Voice provided by Bernard Fox.  All of these actors are very British.
Look, I know that Disney has never been nor will ever be able to be completely authentic to their settings and I can overlook the casting of British actors (no offense to the Brits, they’re amazing and they know it), but I feel as if this movie were being made now, there would have been at least more than one Australian actor making an appearance.  Look at Lilo & Stitch; Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee both provided voices in that film, and had both grown up in Hawaii.  Their experience greatly influenced the film and added a layer of authenticity.  Though I hesitate to bring up a Pixar film, Finding Nemo managed to be set in and around Australia, and was able to masterfully use actors that were from all over the world, but for the characters who were supposed to be from Australia, they cast real Australians. 
But I can overlook a lot of that for just being a product of its time, but there’s one aspect of The Rescuers Down Under that I can’t forgive: Cody.  He is supposed to be a native to Australia, there’s no question about it.  He says, “mate,” he says “no worries,” there is no question that the character of Cody is supposed to be Australian.  And yet he speaks with an American accent.  I’m not sure if the film makers were scared that audience wouldn’t be able to relate to the central character if he was not American or something, but I will say that even as a kid I found it kind of odd.  If there was any character who should have been voiced by Australian kid, it should have been this one.  Funny enough, the kid who provided Cody’s voice, Adam Ryen, wasn’t even American; he was Norwegian, and even got the opportunity to dub in Cody’s voice for the Norwegian release of the film.  Go figure.
The one Australian that did appear in this film was soap opera actor, Tristan Rogers, who voiced Jake the kangaroo rat.  Not too surprisingly, Jake was one of the better aspects of the film.  Granted, he embodied a fair few Australian stereotypes, from his outfit to acting as the rugged and charming rival for Miss Bianca’s affections, but I just loved seeing the animation of him hopping down the runway so I can excuse him for that.  Rogers delivered a solid performance even though his motivation was fairly simple: be Australian.
That isn’t to say that I dislike the film, because I like it a lot.  I just had to get the parts that bug me about this film off of my chest first.  Now we can focus on the good aspects of The Rescuers Down Under.  And there is plenty of good to be had, trust me.

That opening flight scene with Cody and Marahute is one of the most breathtaking scenes in the history of Disney animation and is most definitely the showpiece of The Rescuers Down Under.  It’s a magnificent scene to watch, and was influenced heavily by the works of Hayao Miyazaki.  Overall, I love the animation for Marahute.  She’s gorgeous to watch as she flies, and her behavior is accurately bird like, but at the same time, she’s incredibly expressive and sympathetic without having to resort to the Disney standby of having to animal speak.  Just watch her sadly bow her head at the thought of her dead mate, and try not to feel for her.  She is most definitely one of the film’s strongest characters.  Guess who animated her: surprise, surprise, Glen Keane.  Can the man do no wrong?

           I didn’t know this before I looked it up, but apparently Marahute is real.  I mean her species of eagle is a real one.  They are called the Wedge-tailed eagle (a.k.a. the Eaglehawk) and they are the largest bird of prey in Australia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge-tailed_eagle).  Though they are really big birds, I think Marahute was a rare ginormous variety because their real life wingspan is only about seven feet.  Sadly, they are an endangered species but only the ones found in Tasmania are in trouble.  And yes, that variety is indeed the largest of the Wedge-tailed eagles. 
So the whole story of poachers wanting this bird is not so far fetched.  I mentioned back when I reviewed Fox and the Hound that it is rare when Disney films have an obvious agenda.  The Rescuers Down Under does indeed have an agenda, one that is a reflection of the conservation awareness that began to become more prominent than ever in America in 1990’s.  Come on, what kid in the nineties didn’t watch Captain Planet?  Conservation is a cause that Disney has been a part of for several years now; The Land pavilion in Epcot is devoted to environmental awareness on several subjects, and there are quite a few attractions over in Disney’s Animal Kingdom that shed light on issues facing our planet’s well being.  But The Rescuers Down Under was the first Disney animated film to display Disney’s stance on the subject.

         The poacher in this film, Percival C. McLeach, is the typical despicable, heartless, ignorant face that comes to mind when one thinks of a person who willingly hunts down and kills rare and special animals for profit.  He was the kind of villain that the audience had no problem hating, but at the same time he was entertaining while being a threatening menace.  He also proved to be the only character to have a life beyond the film (ironically since he takes a header down a waterfall): remember that poster I talked about in The Black Cauldron?  McLeach is in it too, making it an amazing piece of merchandise for celebrating the lesser-known Disney Villains.  And Patton himself, George C. Scott, voiced him.  In fact the other day when I sat down to watch this film, my mom sat down with me and I mentioned to her that George C. Scott did a voice in this film.  Without even needing to point out his character, the first time McLeach appeared on screen, my mom smiled and said, “That’s George C. Scott.  They gave him his nose.”  After looking up a picture of George C. Scott and comparing the two… they totally gave McLeach his nose.
   McLeach was an effective villain.  His actions were absolutely abhorrent: he was going to torture and murder a little boy just so that he can make some money for ending a rare species of bird.  That’s pretty cold, but at the same time he has some really funny one-liners.  The scene that revealed the most about his character was the scene where he is talking to himself about how to get Cody to tell him where Marahute is.  It’s a little reminiscent of DeNiro talking to himself in Taxi Driver, especially when he’s mocking the radio broadcast that declares Cody dead.
Of course, that scene is also really funny for the gag of Joanna tricking McLeach time and again to eat his eggs.  In fact, as scary as Joanna might have seemed to Cody and the rest of the animals, she was actually more comedic for the audience to watch.  The bit where she sets off to eat the eagle eggs should have been horrifying for the audience to watch, but instead it’s one of the funniest moments of the film as she attempts to eat rocks.  Those great sounds she makes are courtesy of legendary voice actor, Frank Welker by the way.
Joanna isn’t the sole source of comic relief in the film though.  I find the bits with Frank the somewhat psychotic lizard amusing, but for me the biggest laughs in the film were due to the new Albatross air pilot, Wilbur.  One of the reasons that I think The Rescuers Down Under is so special is because it was the only time John Candy provided a voice for a Disney film.  The studio had wanted to work with him again after The Rescuers Down Under, as he was one of the comedians they had in mind for voicing the Genie in Aladdin before the role went to Robin Williams, and they had cast him as a talking turkey character in Pocahontas.  Unfortunately, he passed away early in that film’s production and they made the decision to not have the secondary animals speak, so all of the work he did remained unused.
The scenes that made me laugh the most as a kid involved Wilbur, and I have to say that hasn’t changed.  The part where he freaks out in the hospital because of the shot they are planning on giving him was hilarious.  Though I have to say that if a nurse started loading up a shot for me in a double barrel shotgun, I would have freaked out too.  His interactions with Bernard and Bianca in New York were also really funny; his shtick was pure John Candy and I loved it.
And finally we come to those two little mice.  They are the ones who put “The Rescuers” in The Rescuers Down Under and if I had one complaint about them, it’s that we didn’t see nearly enough of them.  Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor didn’t miss a step when they reprised these roles thirteen years after the fact.  Their voices hadn’t aged a day and they still brought to the table what the audience liked about Bernard and Miss Bianca the first time around.
Eva Gabor was still as charming, sophisticated, and sexy as ever as the lovely mouse.  Miss Bianca spends the film determined to save Cody, unknowingly being flirted with by Jake, and oblivious to Bernard’s attempts to finally put a ring on it.  What’s great about her is that she is Bernard’s biggest fan and knows that he will pull through when all seems hopeless.  As for her best outfit in the film, easily the Casablanca era Ingrid Bergman inspired number she wears in that fancy restaurant.
The restaurant date scene is one of my favorite scenes in the film.  What’s so charming about The Rescuers films is how they show how mice live in such a huge world.  The exclusive restaurant sitting on top of a chandelier was inspired.  I also loved the scene where the call for help was relayed from Australia to the other side of the world.  Those mice sure do get creative, huh?
Miss Bianca said it herself when she declared Bernard the hero of the day.  Newhart has such an identifiable voice that’s just perfect for the everyman quality Bernard evokes.  He’s still as nervous and bumbling as ever, but he definitely steps up when the occasion calls for it, when he manages to save the eggs from Joanna, when he has to save Cody and when he finally takes Miss Bianca off the market.  One of my favorite small moments is the part where he says, “Oh my Gosh – I hope I know what I’m doing” just before he kicks Joanna in the nose.  Though I do have to question where exactly he summoned up all that upper body strength to pull Cody up to the surface of the river.
Once again, a Rescuers film ends kind of openly.  Bernard and Bianca, newly engaged, flying off into the night, God only knowing what their next mission would entail.  Not so surprisingly, this was not planned to be the final Rescuers movie.  There were plans for a future sequel, and possibly more beyond that.  Sadly though, all plans for any further Rescuers films were scrapped with the passing of Eva Gabor in 1996.  I have to admit, it would have been interesting to see what else they could have done with the story.   
Besides being the first true Disney sequel, this film is significant for another reason.  This was the first Disney film to be completely processed digitally.  You’ve all heard of the CAPS system that was the standard of the Disney Renaissance, right?  Though there were scenes in The Little Mermaid that employed it, this was the first film that used it all the way through.  Though there are some bits with the computer animation that don’t seem as seamlessly blended with the hand drawn animation by today’s standards, overall it made for a very pretty film that did show off a fraction of the beauty of Australia.  Oh well.  Cheers mate.   

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

“What Would Her Father Say? I’ll Tell You What Her Father’d Say. He’d Say He’s Gonna Kill Himself a Crab, That’s What Her Father’d Say!”

            Now guys, I am many things but I am most certainly not stupid.  Looking back at what we’ve covered thus far, the first five Disney films are time honored classics, attention waned a bit during the package films, there was a lot of excitement about Walt’s golden age, and we’ve been heatedly talking about the so-called dark age of Disney’s history.  Those discussions were all well and good, but I’m not naïve.  I know that this is the moment in Disney history everyone has been waiting for.  I speak of course of the Disney Renaissance.  There had been some great films released prior to 1989, but for many people, myself included, the time from 1989 to 1999 was the period that made many a young person discover and fall absolutely head over heels in love with Disney.  And I’d be lying if I said that these films weren’t the ones I was the most excited for when I made the decision to do a project like this.  It all began with a certain redheaded mermaid who dreamed of something more.   
             The Little Mermaid is definitely a film that holds a special place in my heart.  It was the first movie I ever saw in movie theatres at the ripe old age of four.  I could not even begin to say how many times I’ve seen this film, and God only knows how many times I’ve listened to “Part of Your World.”  This is one of my favorite Disney films and no matter how many times I watch it, I still laugh, cry, and sing along.  But it’s not just an important film to me; it’s an important film to the Disney Company and to the world.
            The Little Mermaid earned $111 million during its initial run at the box office (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid_(1989_film)).  With subsequent rereleases, the film has earned $211 million to date.  But in my opinion the greatest impact The Little Mermaid has had is not a monetary one, but an emotional one.  A great example: just a few days ago, my mother and I were visiting a good friend’s house to buy some eggs (she and her husband raise chickens).  They’ve recently adopted a lovely but quiet little girl from Guatemala named Breesa.  We were sitting around her kitchen table talking about everything that was going on in our lives and in the world, when my mom brought up Waking Snow White.  I was explaining to her and Breesa what I had been doing for the Waking Snow White project, and I mentioned that the latest film I was writing about was The Little Mermaid.  I happened a look over at Breesa, who had been listening intently but not saying much.  At the mere mention of The Little Mermaid, her eyes suddenly lit up and she had the brightest sparkling smile on her face.  I immediately recognized that look because it’s the same look I get at the mere mention of The Little Mermaid.
            There is so much that I love about this film that it’s difficult for me to choose a place to start.  I guess that the best place would be the area where Mermaid won its Oscars: the music!  The Little Mermaid was the first collaboration between Disney and the two men responsible for the incredible The Little Shop of Horrors, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.  This film would prove to be the start of a long, loving, healthy relationship between Menken and the Disney studio and a showcase of the talent of Ashman before his passing during the production of Beauty and the Beast.  The music produced for The Little Mermaid would define an entire generation of Disney films, as well as a generation of Disney fans.

The defining song of The Little Mermaid for me is an easy choice: “Part of Your World.”  My iTunes say that I’ve listened to “Part of Your World” fifty-two times, but that doesn’t take into account laptop changes, computer crashes, and the numerous times I listened to it as a kid on cassette tape.  When that is all taken into account, I can say that I’ve listened to this song a lot.  It’s one of my all time favorite Disney songs and arguably one of my favorite songs of all time.  The lyrics are so completely original and the music is just beautifully composed. 
But Jodi is the one who sells it.  Every nuance in her vocal performance of that song reveals several corners of Ariel’s soul.  As revealed on the Platinum Edition documentary, Howard Ashman is the one who influenced Benson’s performance the most.  It was an incredible moment to see the legendary lyricist say to Benson that instead of doing a traditional belting Broadway approach to “Part of Your World,” that she should sing as though she was having a conversation, giving the song more power.  It was that very subtle change in approach that gave the song its power.  So much so, that Jodi Benson revealed that “the mermaid song” is the song her daughter requests her mom sing; raise your hand if you would love to hear Jodi Benson sing “Part of Your World” to you every night.
No one has been able to top Jodi Benson’s original performance since The Little Mermaid came out and there have been a fair share of attempts: Miley Cyrus, Jessica Simpson, several Broadway actresses, and God only knows how many Disney theme park performers (one of whom would go on to run in the Miss America pageant).  I’m talking about the ladies who play Ariel in the Disney Hollywood Studios attraction, Voyage of the Little MermaidVoyage of the Little Mermaid is a live stage show retelling of Ariel’s story.  By and large, the ladies who play Ariel don’t sing “Part of Your World” poorly; they just don’t sing it Jodi.  My sister insists on sitting on that show each time we visit, but I’m not sure why we even bother anymore; as cool as some of the visual effects are, all we do is unfairly bash the way the girl sings “Part of Your World.”
“Part of Your World” was one of The Little Mermaid’s most famous scenes, and it was a perfect showcase of what makes Glen Keane such a remarkable animator.  No other animator gets into a character’s head and expresses every little nuanced emotion that they feel just through their hyper expressive eyes like Keane can.  “Part of Your World” was more than just a mere princess wish song; Keane, Jodi Benson, and Howard Ashman elevated it to bare Ariel’s soul before the audience.  The crux of the film’s meaning rests on the shoulders of this one scene, so it’s kind of hard to believe that Jeffrey Katzenberg at one point decided that the scene needed to be cut from the film.
This story was detailed on the Platinum Edition documentary: apparently at one of the earliest screenings of The Little Mermaid, a little boy that Katzenberg was sitting behind had dropped his popcorn during “Part of Your World” and became totally focused on picking up his popcorn.  When Katzenberg saw this, he became convinced that the scene was boring and should be cut from the final film.  Naturally, everyone else involved in the film’s production was aghast at such a suggestion.  Ashman, both Ron Clements and John Musker all made their arguments about why the scene should not be cut, but Katzenberg would not budge on the issue.  It took the efforts of Mr. Keane himself (who had already animated three-quarters of the sequence at this time) to convince Katzenberg to give the scene another chance at another screening.  To this day, Katzenberg calls this story rather “humiliating” for him to hear because of how hard it is to imagine the film without “Part of Your World.”
It’s not just the song that makes the scene so memorable.  Glen Keane did an absolutely astounding job animating Ariel in this scene.  As a kid, I never got bored during the scene; I was always so focused on how pretty Ariel was.  Her appearance is credited to the efforts of two men: her supervising animators, Glen Keane and Mark Henn (Disney leading lady extraordinaire).  Keane has stated numerous times that his main inspiration for Ariel was his wife, who apparently looks exactly like Ariel “without the fins.”  Her body type was based on then sixteen Alyssa Milano, with Sherri Stoner providing live action reference for many of Ariel’s major scenes. 
One major aspect of Ariel’s animation that I feel almost never gets talked about is her hair.  I’m not talking about the decision to make her a redhead (something that was the subject of great dispute during the film’s production); I’m talking about the fact that for her scenes under the ocean, her hair is constantly moving.  Most of the time in animation, hair stays put unless it’s unavoidable.  But when Ariel is swimming, there is not a single frame where her hair doesn’t change its position.  If I had to pick one hand drawn animated film to be the pinnacle of hair animation, it would definitely be The Little Mermaid (of course, if I had to pick one animated film overall to be the pinnacle of hair animation, I would have to give it to Tangled, but we’ll get to that later).  They achieved the look of Ariel’s hair movements by studying footage of Sally Ride when she was in space.

            The fact is that Ariel’s hair is the subject of my favorite scene in Little Mermaid: the scene after Ariel rescues Eric and is singing on the rock.  There are times where the reprisals are some of the strongest pieces of music and animation in a film.  Case in point, is the first reprisal of “Part of Your World.”  That animation of Ariel on the rock is my all time favorite piece of Disney animation.  Not only does she look absolutely stunning (the way her blows in the sea wind looks incredibly realistic), but I love the moment when the water crashes behind her and the allusion to the figurehead on the bow of a ship is made.  That look of raw determination and excitement that is evident in her eyes cemented Ariel’s status as new breed of Disney princess.
            There have been a lot of teenage heroines to come out of Disney, but Ariel is the first who truly is unquestionably a teenage girl.  She’s whiny, she talks back to her father, and she speaks the credo of adolescent kids all over the world: “I’m sixteen-years-old – I’m not a child anymore!”  Many a young woman watching this film inadvertently will find herself identifying with Ariel on multiple levels.  She’s at the stage in life where she’s definitely not a kid, but not quite a woman either and wants something out of her life that differs greatly from what her family has in mind for her.
            Disney was definitely entering into new territory with Ariel.  Their golden age heroines - Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora – were perfectly nice young women who had the rotten luck of having bad things happen to and around them.  Not so with Ariel.  Ariel wasn’t perfect.  She was actively trying to change her fate and in the course of doing so made plenty of mistakes, some of which could have had serious and permanent repercussions.
            This doesn’t detract from Ariel’s likability.  Quite the contrary, it actually makes her that much more human and that much more sympathetic.  There are some feminists who might be tempted to criticize Ariel for giving up her whole life for a guy, but I would say that this is not the case.  “Part of Your World” lets the audience know from the start that Ariel had always wanted to have a life on the land.  Falling in love with Eric was simply the nudge out of the door that she needed, or the push out of the sea I should say.
             But what a guy to fall in love with, right?  If Ariel is any indication that Disney had created a new kind of heroine, Eric is definitely the start of a new kind of prince with more personality than ever before.  Christopher Daniel Barnes provided his voice (he also played Greg Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel), and was successful in giving Eric a boyish, gravelly, yet mature manner in the way that he spoke.  Eric is jovial, seafaring, and shy all at once.  He even evoked his inner Prince Phillip during the film’s climax as he steered that sunken ship like a sword.  But the main reason why Eric is awesome: he jumped back onto a burning ship just to save his dog.  I can’t speak for the entire female population of the world, but that’s the kind of man I want to marry.

            He also has great chemistry with Ariel, which is surprising since the majority of their scenes happen after she has lost her voice.  I once heard a girl allege that Eric fell in love with Ariel based entirely on her appearance.  Naturally, I disagree.  Even though she doesn’t talk for at least a quarter of the film, Ariel’s personality manages to shine through.  Her curiosity for every single thing she sees is very endearing but she still manages to show off that signature Ariel spark.  Just check out her facial expressions when Eric is trying to guess her real name during “Kiss the Girl.”

            Ah, “Kiss the Girl.”  It’s one of my favorite Disney songs, it’s one of the best Disney love songs, and it provides the basis for the most romantic Disney scene since Lady and Tramp’s date.  It starts off in a very comedic manner with Scuttle’s… uh… “vocal, romantic stimulation.”  But thanks to Sebastian’s professional intervention, (“First we’ve got to create… da mood.”) an atmosphere that is so romantic and memorable is created.  Gentlemen, take notes, because I can safely say that there is not a woman who was once a dreaming little girl in 1989 who has not fantasized about sharing a rowboat ride with their prospective significant other.  The circle of blinking fireflies, the fountain like cascade of water created by a ring of fish, and the sexy atmosphere created by the leaves of an old willow tree are all optional, but highly recommended.

            Of course, “Kiss the Girl” wouldn’t have been half the song it turned out to be were it not for the amazing performance of Samuel E. Wright, a Broadway star who has voiced Sebastian in subsequent appearances after the original film as much as Jodi Benson has voiced Ariel.  Of the supporting character in The Little Mermaid, Sebastian is my favorite.  His scenes are some of the most meaningful and some of the funniest the film has to offer.  The chosen quote used to title this entry is the one line from any Disney film that no matter how many times I hear it, I still laugh. 
            But Wright’s best comedic performance in the film was when Sebastian was going to head to head against the seafood loving chef, Louis (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Rene Auberjonois, who had a major role on Boston Legal for a number of years).  The most that Wright says during the scene are some gasps and screams, but the scene is staged so perfectly that it never fails to make me laugh.  “Les Poissons” is a lyrical tour-de-force on Ashman’s part, and is completely successful at making the act of cooking seafood incredibly barbaric. Let me just say that it’s very difficult for me to eat crab cakes after watching this movie.

            But for a better example of Wright’s talents as a vocalist, look no further than the song that won the first Oscar for Disney since 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, “Under the Sea.” The calypso tone for the song was one of several of Ashman’s contributions to the film, and completely changed the direction of Sebastian’s character, originally envisioned as an Englishman.  “Under the Sea” is a perfect example of what a master lyricist Howard Ashman was.  The way he arranged certain words to form a cohesive story and rhythm is absolutely brilliant to listen to and still holds up twenty-one years later.
            Of course, Ashman left his handprints all over The Little Mermaid.  He was a lot like Walt Disney, in that when he performed demos of the songs, he would become every character a lot like how Walt would play every character when he pitched the story of Snow White.  Especially indicative of this is the sea witch herself.  It had long been a dream of Pat Carroll’s to voice a Disney character, and she turned in a dynamite performance as Ursula. 
            Everything about the character was big and over the top, and I’m not just talking about her body shape either.  Her gestures were big and theatrical, and served as a sharp contrast to petite and graceful Ariel.  I love the animation that accompanies her line in her introductory scene, “And now look at me – wasted away to practically nothing.”  Some of her choreography during “Poor Unfortunate Souls” comes across as downright sexual and provocative. 

            Which is not surprising when you learn exactly whom they based Ursula’s looks off of: world famous drag queen and a John Waters’ favorite, Devine.  Don’t believe that a drag queen and Disney could ever cross paths?  Just take a gander at Ursula’s makeup and hair.  Definitely a new, slightly more controversial era for Disney animation, I’d say.
             I’m sorry that I even have to bring this up, but it’s hard to talk about The Little Mermaid without getting into this particular subject.  Some of you I suspect already know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t, there are many people who have accused Disney of hiding some very sexual images in and around this film.  On the cover of the original VHS release of The Little Mermaid, supposedly an artist rendered one of the spires on Triton’s castle in the shape of a penis.  Disney insists that this was completely accidental, and I’m inclined to agree; let’s face, there are plenty of things in this world that are reminiscent of male anatomy but are not intended to be such.  All subsequent home releases of The Little Mermaid have not included Triton’s castle in any way.

            Oh, but we’re not done with the hidden penis imagery.  For a long time, there were those who claimed that the priest performing Eric and Vanessa’s wedding was sporting an erection.  I am happy to say, though, that this one has been disproven in recent years.  If you happen to own a VHS copy of The Little Mermaid, go back and watch it again.  The so-called erection is actually just a side angle of the priest’s knobby, bent knees.  Even though it’s been established to not be an erection, the shot in question has been re-edited for the Platinum Edition release.
            That isn’t to say that there aren’t some risqué elements in The Little Mermaid.  I mentioned the use of Devine as a character model, but there's also Ariel herself to consider.  For the first half of the film, she swims around in a belly revealing seashell bikini.  No Disney princess had ever been that exposed before, further evidence that Disney has acknowledged the women’s lib movement in its heroines.  And then there’s the scene where she undergoes that rather painful looking transformation into a human at the hands of Ursula.  For the next two scenes, Ariel is completely naked from the chest down. 

            It’s something you don’t often see in family films, but there really was no other way to realistically get the story across.  I have to wonder if any of the story people suggested at one point that she turn into a human wearing some conveniently appearing pants.  I am glad that they stuck to their convictions and decided that when she first appears on land that nudity would be implied.  Through the use of some clever editing, the audience never actually sees anything too scandalous.  Contrary to popular belief, Ariel was not the first Disney princess to appear naked on screen; that honor goes to Cinderella in her introductory scene when she takes a literal bird bath. 
Ursula’s magic in that scene are some impressive visuals to be sure.  We have the effects animation department to thank for a lot of that.  The Little Mermaid is an amazing film to watch for the effects animation alone.  The storm scene alone took ten animators over a year to finish.  There really hasn’t been an animated scene so dependent on effects animation since Pinocchio.  There’s lightning, there’s fireworks, there’s explosions, there’s rain, and there’s water.  Lots and lots of water.  The waves are so violent and tremendous; it gives the audience an idea of how vulnerable sailors were in those ships of yesteryear.
The storm also provides an impressive backdrop for Ariel and Eric’s first meeting.  For Ariel to save someone twice her size from a storm like that is an impressive feat to say the least.  It’s no wonder that Eric became obsessed with finding the girl who saved him.  Though the love story is a prominent part of The Little Mermaid, at its heart it is a story about fathers and daughters. 
King Triton (voiced by Kenneth Mars, and animated by Andreas Deja) is easily the most complex father to spawn a Disney princess.  Though he comes across as harsh and unfair to Ariel, the audience gradually sees is an overprotective father whose only fault is loving his daughter too much.  Though Ariel makes some mistakes along the way, Triton is at fault for what takes place in the story as well.  Like so many fathers, he wants to believe that he knows what is best for his daughter but fails to see the kind of person his baby girl is growing into.  The story of Ariel and Triton is the story of all fathers facing the terrifying prospect of their youngest daughters growing up. 
His character’s complexity is due in no small part to the skill of master animator, Andreas Deja.  Though he would become famous for animating villains, Deja was able to portray Triton from multiple points of views.  When he’s lecturing Ariel, the audience sees him as harsh, inconsiderate, and unfair.  When he’s destroying Ariel’s collection of human things, he comes across as terrifying, verging on villainy.  It is during these moments, that the audience only sees Triton from Ariel’s point of view. 

It’s only when the audience sees Triton in the moments without Ariel does the audience how much love he has for his rambunctious daughter.  He doubts himself as a parent and blames only himself when Ariel goes missing from the sea.  But when Sebastian explains to him Ursula’s involvement, he rushes to save his daughter and doesn’t hesitate in exchanging his life for hers.  But the moment that never fails to trigger the waterworks is towards the end when he’s watching Ariel watching Eric (in a pose that is a very subtle tribute to Hans Christian Anderson).  The short dialogue he exchanges with Sebastian truly does reveal that Triton finally understands his daughter, but the clinching line:
Triton: Well… I guess there’s one problem left.
Sebastian: And what’s that, Your Majesty?
 Triton: How much I’m going to miss her.
And just like that Triton turns Ariel human without any trouble at all.  What gets to me about this part is that Triton had the power all along to give Ariel her dream and that she never had to make a deal with Ursula.  But all of the hardship had to happen before they could finally communicate with each other on the same level.  At the end of the film, Eric (a human) has earned the respect of his father in law who sends off his daughter’s marriage with a blessing.  Ariel’s whispered, “I love you, Daddy” never fails to bring the tears to my eyes.

Ariel’s relationship with her father is one that many women can relate to, myself included.  Ages back when I reviewed Dumbo, my awesome reader, Tink, shared an incredibly personal story about the emotional response that particular film evoked in her.  She apologized at the start of her comment for what she had to say about the emotional response she had to Dumbo.  I am going to say this for everyone who wants to comment that if there were any kind of films that demand that personal, emotional stories be shared, it’s the Disney animated films.  I can’t think of movies that create as strong an emotional response as these films.
One of my favorite stories revolving around The Little Mermaid came from the Platinum Edition documentary.  Back when the film was released, the studio received a letter from a New Jersey state trooper who went to see the film and spent the entire duration just crying his eyes out.  His relationship with his own daughter was estranged, but when he saw The Little Mermaid, he was so moved that he called her and worked things out with her.  I have seen only Disney films have that kind of power.
            The Little Mermaid was released thirty years after Sleeping Beauty, which had been the last Disney fairy tale up to that point.  It is a film that has not gone away since its release.  The Little Mermaid had an animated series for a number of years on the Disney Channel.  I mentioned earlier The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, a live stage show retelling of the film.  The visuals they are able to create within that theater space are amazing to watch, especially the puppetry they use to recreate the “Under the Sea” scene.  I have begun to believe that Disney uses stage shows in the theme parks as a means of gauging the interest of the public in taking stories to another venue, far away from Florida and California.  Of course I'm talking about the Broadway stage.  In 2008, The Little Mermaid opened as a fully realized musical on Broadway and has recently begun touring the country.
Ariel is one of the most popular Disney Princesses, though they can’t seem to decide what her standard dress should be.  On several pieces of merchandise, I’ve seen her wedding gown, her mermaid garb, her pink dress, and a recreation of the sparkly blue dress that she wears at the end of the film (my personal favorite, although I also like the blue and black dress she wears for the tour of Eric’s kingdom).  Ursula is a key part of the Disney Villains brand and appears in plenty of shows and parades.  Ariel and Eric are staples that appear in several parades and Fantasmic!
But in 2011, Ariel will get the full princess treatment when the first Little Mermaid dark ride is opened in Disney’s California Adventure with a version opening in the Magic Kingdom in Disney World in 2012.  This is something that has been planned by Imagineers for years, almost immediately after the film’s debut.  A version of what they had originally planned can be seen on the Platinum Edition DVD, though I’m not sure it will be the exact same vision as the final product.  Given The Little Mermaid’s impact on Disney, Disney fans, and countless others, the dark ride homage is long overdue.