Friday, October 06, 2006

A Memorable Mermaid

Disney has released the Little Mermaid on DVD. Looking back at its theatrical release, this movie represented two milestones for Disney.

When Disney first started producing feature-length animated movies, they pulled in a ton of money but costs went up and, by the 1950s, a Disney cartoon was no longer a sure-thing. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was a financial disappointment.

The reaction to the was to cut costs. The animation style became sketchier and the pallet more limited. They started using limited-animation where only parts of a character would be drawn for each frame instead of the entire character. This started a downward spiral where each Disney release was technically inferior to the previous one and the audience kept shrinking. Finally a group of animators quit and started their own studio in order to produce classic animation. The result, "The Secret of Nimh" was a big improvement over anything Disney had done in years.

After owning the animation market for decades, Disney suddenly had competition. In addition, the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" which featured animated figures in a live-action movie proved that Disney was still able to do the old-style animation.

Disney reacted to all of this by ramping up the animation department. While the Rescuers Down Under showed improvement over previous releases, The Little Mermaid was really the first movie released under the revamped Disney. It was a success by every measure. The animation and pallet were as good as anything done at Disney's height. The same was true for the plot and music. The movie was a success in the theaters and a bigger success on VHS. The Disney marketing machine continued to bring out new tie-in products five years after the movie left the theaters. It also inspired a direct-to-VHS sequel and a Saturday morning prequel.

This established the model for nearly every Disney feature-length movie since. Common elements start with adapting a classic plot or character. The lead is an adolescent who finds romance and adventure. There is always friction with a parent-figure although sometimes this happens with the love-interest instead. And there is music.

The formula finally began petering out by The Emperor's New Groove. This started as a musical and part-way into production they cut the musical numbers (it really started as a version of the Prince and the Pauper).

Ironically, The Little Mermaid's other milestone was that it was the last Disney movie that was completely hand-drawn. Starting with Beauty and the Beast, bits of CGI started showing up. Little did they know that in a decade and a half, hand-drawn animation would be completely replaced by CGI.

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