A Dinglehopper of a Release

Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid finds itself tugging on the classic morals of fantasy fairy tales against the growing progressiveness of its era. Protagonist Ariel seeks only the admiration of a blue-eyed prince, and will find her wish granted without a voice. “It’s preferred for ladies not to say a word,” sings a crab name Sebastian when laying out why Ariel’s affection for her land-based suitor isn’t right for her. Sebastian isn’t wrong. Prince Eric falls for the mute beauty. This, after she’s forced to change who she is to meet him.

Then again, through a spot of teenage angst, Ariel finds her true self. She refuses to blend in with her sisters. She defies her father, the muscle bound, trident-waving, masculine powerhouse Triton. By escaping to the surface, she escapes a male-dominated society to become her own woman, lest she turn into the vain Ursula, Little Mermaid’s pasty villain.

Little Mermaid captures the eye the same as Snow White or Cinderella do. Those classics too exist in the frame of olden thinking, reducing women to story props for men to find, while Little Mermaid represents that step forward. Society moves in steps; Little Mermaid is the sign of headway.

Little Mermaid is a hard film not to like, setting off the Disney animated renaissance

With spirited songs and lively color, Little Mermaid finds its voice. It’s a hard film not to like, setting off the Disney animated renaissance with a splendid array of characters and colorful vibrancy. It’s beautiful, even exotic in how Ariel’s hair flows when underwater and how motion evokes the feeling of rushing oceans. Doing this all by hand, viewed from an era of digitally-assisted tools, seems unfathomable.

Such fluidity creates ample character. Although thin in traditional characterization (Little Mermaid only runs for around 78-minutes), animation that emboldens each role. Triton unleashes his wrath on Ariel’s stash of human-found objects, and afterward, his face speaks of both revenge and empathy. That seconds-long close-up adds depth to what seems like a one-note brute.

In terms of fairy tale romance, Little Mermaid uses a slate of sunsets and moon-lit boat rides to emphasize the growing attraction. It’s phony in the way fairy tale love is, but done with a passionate eye, generous in color. Prince Eric’s eyes draw toward Ariel’s physical attributes (she’s not allowed anything else), yet it’s also not hard to believe such a setting is right for blossoming romance.

In the end, Ariel turns into a damsel. Eric battles a towering Ursula, using his seamanship to defeat the evil and get the girl. Little Mermaid closes in on equality for a portion of its runtime, but the gender gap still factors in. She’s saved, the kingdom sings, doves fly. It’s perfect in a classic, conventional way – with a gentle nudge forward.

Video

Disney’s second animated classic to arrive on UHD, following The Lion King, sadly isn’t on the same tier. There’s a fight between capturing the nuance of the original animation and the film-based source. Disney notably employs DNR to scrub the grain, attempting to preserve the animation cells themselves. It’s imperfect.

The opening shots of Little Mermaid show seagulls passing through foggy clouds. Moving grain surrounds those birds, while everything around them is static. That continues onto the boat, draped in fog. Digital tools cannot separate the grit of the background and the grain. The result is an inconsistent output, and that continues throughout.

Elements of film grain that remain appear mushy and noisy, specifically on certain colors like the flesh tones of Triton. Where not visible, muddy gradients stay behind. Watercolor backdrops display ugly, murky and ill-defined. This transfers to animation too. Characters at a distance lose their fine lines, little more than blobs of color. Up close, that doesn’t change either. There’s a fuzziness to sketch lines that looks entirely digital instead of organic. DNR will do that. Add in noticeable ringing when in darker areas and it’s a mess.

While Little Mermaid fails to reach the resolution heights expected of 4K, at least HDR enhances things. Ursula’s various spells show renewed life, glowing and vivid as seems was originally intended. Lightning strikes break out, rich and splendid in their bite. Contrast between the ocean floor and land is enhanced. Brightness on the surface glows.

Little Mermaid’s fleet of color emboldens primaries. Density in Ariel’s red hair, Ursula’s blue/gray skin, and other hues stand out with more power than on the included Blu-ray. That helps too. Sadly, that loss of resolution is unforgivable.

Audio

Debuting on UHD with a new Dolby Atmos mix, the original stereo track is evident given how natural the front soundstage is presented. Sounds regularly sweep between the fronts. Underwater effects prominently use motion with rushes of liquid filling space.

Surrounds see use, but lack force. A hurricane sends ambient rain effects around. That scene is the best of Little Mermaid’s Atmos track. LFE support is a little rough, lacking tightness, if still effective. A shark’s chomping, thunder, magic spells, and other elements make use of the low-end. That’s enough to give the mix a pass, even if not much of this sounds like an upgrade.

Extras

Three new bonuses appear on this release. The first is the lengthiest, 15-minutes as the women who worked with producer Alan Merken discuss their work, his style, and their experiences. A five-minute peek at the voice actors looks back on key roles like Ariel and Sebastian. While there’s little relevant to The Little Mermaid, the third new feature, a look at Walt’s collectibles, is still great.

Other bonuses carry over from the prior Blu-ray. That includes a commentary with co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, joined by composer Alan Menken. A look at the live action reference, a deleted scene, music video, short factoid video, and a music video round things up.

The Little Mermaid
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Movie

Disney’s adaptation of The Little Mermaid is an imperfect fairy tale that shows growth in the medium, but the UHD is an imperfect representation.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our Patreon-exclusive set of 49 full 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: