Thursday, July 28, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - 28-29: Mermaid, Rescuers 2.

Despite finding some financial success in the darkest years of their career, the output of Disney's Animation branch had stopped being the critical darlings they once were, and as time went on, their word of mouth started becoming more and more muted. In recent years, stiff competition had slowly begun rising, with one of the more prominent ones being that of their own, former in-house animator Don Bluth. Having left the company of his own free will, he eventually branched out to create his own studio alongside Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, soon turning in great films such as The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time.

Wishing to make a comeback in the animation circuit after the disastrous debut of The Black Cauldron, several factors that included the recent success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the talent of the new directors they'd enlisted, and some newfound confidence in their abilities led the studio to bet their chips on a return to their fairy tale roots, and return to releasing not only more films on an annual basis, but better ones. It was all thanks to one film performing so well, and becoming so beloved that it would single-handedly inspire one of the greatest runs in Disney's long history...

The Little Mermaid:
Having proved themselves earlier with The Great Mouse Detective, directing duties for Disney's return to form fell on the shoulders of longtime employees John Musker and Ron Clements. The Little Mermaid was a return to Disney's fairy tale and musical roots, taking the key premise and characters from Hans Christian Anderson's famous story, and making it much more hopeful and happy to fit within Disney's traditions. It was released at the perfect time, generating newfound interest and financial gain for the studio, and ushering in the age known as the Disney Renaissance.

Even 27 years after its release, the film has aged terrifically, and despite several following Disney films eventually coming to perfect its formula, its execution of the template, as well as its technical polish means it still remains one of the finest of its type. It was perhaps the studio's most beautifully animated and designed film since Sleeping Beauty, restoring the multi-dimensional photography to enhance the space of the environments, and the animators pushing their skills to their limits once again, with numerous impressive and atmospheric sequences, each distinct from the other with their own colorful tones and cinematography choices.

Once again, the film also featured a memorable batch of great characters, including a large number of supporting players that contributed to the movie's unforgettable humor, whether it be from Sebastian's high-strung anxiety, Scuttle greatly misrepresenting the human world and inventing gibberish terms on the spot, even to a crazy castle cook voiced by Odo from Star Trek. As for main characters, while Eric doesn't make for an engaging male romantic lead, at least Ursula proves one of the most entertainingly venomous in Disney's villain roster, and King Triton makes for a believably harsh but regretful father. The Little Mermaid herself also makes for one of the more grounded and relatable Disney princesses, and while her needlessly hasty three day romance is still a bit misplayed, the character's passionate enthusiasm and amazement at the sights and objects of the human world - both in dialogue and in silence - are genuinely endearing qualities.

But above all, the true stars of the movie are songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Crafting the film closer in vein to a grand Broadway production, and with the two forming a unified musical narrative through score and songs, the result arguably becomes more iconic than their accompanying film, setting a gold standard for every musical number in all Disney movies to come. Out of the film's many numbers, which include Calypso ballad, sinister Waltz, to the big Broadway show-stopper, the most memorable of which actually comes from the closest that came to being cut. Then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had little faith in "Part of Your World" managing to hold the attention of kids, but after Menken and Ashman fought to keep it in, it ended up defining the entire tone of the film, and out of all the "I Want" songs in Disney's many musicals, the song here executes the idea so perfectly that not a one of them have been able to match it or surpass it.

The Little Mermaid became another game changer in Disney's history, and became such a success that even Don Bluth couldn't manage to best it. It did what it needed to, restore Disney's good will and gain back the love of audiences, and still manages to be a favorite among fans of the studio today, and it was still only a stepping stone to more great films...

****1/2 / *****

The Rescuers Down Under:
WHY DOESN'T ANYONE REMEMBER THIS MOVIE?! Released inbetween some of Disney's biggest critical and commercial successes, The Rescuers Down Under always falls under the radar of Disney enthusiasts. With the film performing poorly at the box office, advertising and marketing campaigns were immediately pulled, and nearly all of Disney's future sequels would then be shifted to their direct-to-video market under the DisneyToons label.

An odd break inbetween Disney's epic musicals at the time, I highly doubt that anyone wanted a sequel to The Rescuers, and ironically enough, the far superior sequel is much more entertaining than its predecessor, yet is less fondly remembered. Rather than attempt another low-key adventure in the vein of the previous Devil's Bayou setting, the scale of the production was significantly increased, capturing the grandiose Australian landscape in all of its dangerous but awe-inspiring power. The movie, particularly its first ten minutes, essentially serves as an excuse for Disney to show off the full power of its newly built CAPS technology, allowing the animators a much greater range of scenery and incredible new photography techniques, especially getting an opportunity to stretch their legs during the film's several great flight scenes. It's some of Disney's most majestic animation to date, and full of far more personality in character designs and expression than the simplistic touches of the original.

While thin on actual plot and character, it's the movie's simplicity in its set up and execution that tends to be part of the movie's adventurous charm, ostensibly becoming a Raiders of the Lost Ark for the studio. The strongest element of the original was the romance built up between Bernard and Bianca, and it continues to be an endearing element of the movie here. It honestly tends to make you feel sorry for Bernard every time he's about to ask Bianca to marry him, as his attempts are continually foiled either by circumstance and danger, or by a smooth-talking and quick-witted native hopping mouse that serves as their guide to the outback. Humor also comes in the form of new Albatross escort Wilbur, brought to life by a gleefully hyper John Candy, while George C. Scott makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and sinister villain as poacher McLeach, complete with a gargantuan transport truck he probably got on loan from Immortan Joe.

It's not without flaws, and doesn't have quite the same depth that's typically expected from the studio, but for what it does, it's a great family adventure. It's unfortunate failure may have led to the creation of those countless awful home video sequels that ruined their original counterparts, but that's hardly a black mark against the actual movie itself, which is one of the best doses of light fun under Disney's animation label.

****1/2 / *****

And that does it for today, and if I may have your attention, I'm announcing another schedule change. Due to ongoing time constraints in my personal life, rather than my retrospective concluding in November before the release of Moana, I will instead be extending the retrospective through to the month of December, with final top tens and concluding thoughts and ranks to come at times yet to be announced.

For now, I hope you've enjoyed reading my thoughts, and join me back on August 14th when we further explore the Disney Renaissance.

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