The Little Mermaid was created out of sheer desperation. Disney hadn’t had a bona fide animated hit in two decades (or a blockbuster since 1961’s 101 Dalmations). The entire 1980s passed them by without even a minor hit—a radically missed opportunity given the era’s optimism (as cheery and false as Mickey Mouse), and given that Don Bluth’s hit knockoff of the Disney formula An American Tale registered as some crazy neo-socialist rodent version of Upton Sinclar’s The Jungle with Italian-American cats standing in for slaughterhouse managers. So even though the market was ripe for the picking, Disney’s animation department accordingly left very little to chance. The result wasn’t slim, but malnourished. It wasn’t quirky, but calculated. It didn’t touch the heart, it raped it. Every second-string in-joke from the more rambunctious members of Disney’s stable of animators which made so many previous, dubious Disney features bearable—Cruella De Vil’s yin-yang hair, Fantasia’s demure hippo ballerinas, even The Aristocats’s swinging discothèque interlude—had been fussily eradicated from the palate. Well, maybe that’s not completely true, but we’ll get to Ursula in a moment.
The Little Mermaid is the story of one packrat pre-tween princess whose undersea kingdom is only matched in depth by her remarkable sense of consumer-minded entitlement. She keeps artifacts of human pop culture (mark my words: everyone who saw the film in theaters when they were young and really took Ariel’s plight to heart later decorated their Sweet 16 wheels with a bumper sticker reading: “I wish I could be like Barbie, that bitch got everything!”) in a cavernous underwater sarcophagus that, in essence, stands in for what’s truly missing in her life. She has everything except legs. More to the point, she has everything but what’s between those legs, and her hoarding materialism resonates as Disney’s prepubescent form of masturbation. Now we know what makes those Happy Meals so, um, “happy.” Which makes it all the more deviously satisfying is that Ariel comes into her own with the help of a bloated, androgynous octopussy who, legend has it, was modeled on John Waters’s leading lady Divine.
As voiced by Pat Carroll and as drawn by a team of gay chubby-chasers, Ursula is queer corpulence personified (another point of reference: Charles Laughton’s Nero in The Sign of the Cross), which explains her high position in the pantheon of anti-heroines for those kids who, like me, stomached the surrounding cloy by focusing on the diva tantrums. Her majesty’s lip-pursing, tentacle-caressing, boob-shaking antics caught the attention of others, though, and soon the moral majority (fresh off their close scrutiny of Jessica Rabbit’s twat on laserdisc) were noticing phalluses in the original VHS cover’s castle turrets and erections in the wedding pastor’s robe. (From the looks of it, they won: Beauty and the Beast was so freshly-scrubbed and squeaky sexless that the Academy had no choice but to award it a Best Picture nomination.) I guess Triton’s self-sacrifice at the film’s end symbolizes the lengths parents’ willingness to blow their mad money budgets on Disney-imprinted bric-a-brac rather than allow their children an onanistic, copped feel of the other side.
I don't know how much digital restoration a film that hasn't even reached voting age would necessitate, but restore they did. And it looks roughly the same as I remember it looking on video, aquamarine colors and the faintest hint of actual artists' pencils and brushes instead of CGI. The sound mixes are only as bombastic as Alan Menken's score, which means you'll be crying for Ursula to steal everyone's voice boxes.
There are more pointless knick-knacks stuffed in these two discs than there is in the entirety of Ariel's secret hiding trench. First up, and billed lowest in the DVD packaging, is a commentary by directors Ron Clements and John Musker along with Menken (one of the real driving forces behind the project, surely). The film is short enough that the three almost seem like they're left bandying for the allotted time, and even still there's a whole lot of unnecessary effusiveness to wade through to get to the pertinent tidbits. Still, it genuflects a lot less often before the Disney legend than a yacktrack from, say, Leonard Maltin undoubtedly would. Also on the first disc are the standard bushel of tacky previews, karaoke selections, and a new pervy installment of Disney DVDs' John Mark Kerr-baiting music videos, this one forcing Ashley Tisdale (of High School Musical fame) to pout and tease and bat her eyes to a nursery school bump-n-grind cover of "Kiss The Girl." I understand Dennis Hastert has issued a statement confirming that the video should be subject to investigation, but that he will not resign as House Speaker in its wake. The second disc is only as contentious in its Ursula-like girth. It's got the gamut: deleted scenes (dig the alternate version of "Poor Unfortunate Souls"), games, "making of" documentaries and featurettes, art galleries, and The Little Match Girl, a short about a girl who, unlike Arial, doesn't have it all. You could drown in all the crap afloat throughout this double-disc set.
Ariel didn’t want to be part of your kids’ world. That bitch wants to own your kids’ world.