Posted October 02 2006 - 03:54 PM
Apology: I received this DVD late last week right before the onset of a very full weekend. I hope that the review still proves of value despite its tardy appearance on the forum!
| Studio: ||Disney |
|Aspect Ratio: ||16x9 encoded 1.78:1 |
|Audio: ||5.1 DD English D.E.H.T. Mix (original sound mix not provided), 5.1 DD Spanish, French. |
|SpecialFeatures: ||Deleted Scenes, Commentary, Making-Of, much more… |
|ReleaseDate: ||October 3, 2006 |
The Little Mermaid marked a turning point for the Disney studios. By the late 1980’s most Disney feature-animation had degenerated into (more or less) forgettable films that failed to capture the artful and imaginative qualities of “the classics” from Disney’s Walt-inspired golden age. The studio had seen some radical changes in leadership since Walt’s departure, and with animated films like Oliver and Company
and The Black Cauldron
representing the best that the studio had been able to push to the cinema for some time, by the late 1980's the public’s opinion of Disney animation had been reduced to sentimental affections for the studio's earlier gems... which occasionally would cycle through the theater for a new generation of child viewers.
But The Little Mermaid changed all of that. It brought a fresh story to the screen that equally entertained both adult and child audiences without compromising the experience of either group. It brought a satirical sense of humor to Disney films that was welcomed with irreverent laughter (see that reach its fullest effect in later films like Aladdin and Emperor’s New Groove). Characters were bold and unconstrained by traditional fairytale models… think of the Sea-Witch Ursula’s sultry, almost Mae West-like innuendos... a character patterned after the cross-dressing Divine! And most important of all, The Little Mermaid brought the pairing of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman who delivered some of the best music in modern musical cinema: From the swelling aria “Part of your world” that introduces us Ariel’s ambitions to jubilant reggae inspired rhythms like Under The Sea, The Little Mermaid plays like a true musical -- each song is carefully crafted in lyric and composition to perfectly compliment the story’s message. On a musical level, The Little Mermaid is a flawless film.
Production-wise, while The Little Mermaid might not boast the caliber of animation artistry associated with the proudest Disney classics, it did raise the bar dramatically from its most immediate predecessors and ushered in a new era of “modern classics” such as Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and more. Now that Disney’s hand-drawn animation may become an artifact of history, these “modern classics” may become “classics” sooner than we might have originally anticipated.
A mixed bag. Definitely an improvement over the original DVD release (which wasn’t really a challenge considering how bad that previous DVD looked), but the image has some problems that I can’t help but feel aren’t film-source related. I’ve spent a few days with the DVD now… and every time I put it back on the projector my impressions are the same.
First, what’s right. It’s 16x9 encoded (appears 1.78:1… I see no masking either horizontal for 1.85 or vertical for 1.66). In appropriate scenes, colors are vibrant (though much of the film is dark with subdued colors… this was the way it was meant to look). Stationary background paintings come through nicely with a satisfying sense of detail. Edge halos are present but minimal and rarely intrude.
That’s about it for the good list. But before I go on let me remind you that I’m watching my DVD image scaled to 1280 x 720 pixels (via HDMI from my OPPO DVD player) projected onto 106” screen which is viewed from approximately 1.6 screen-widths away.
First on the list of problems: softness. And I’m not talking about that intentional soft-focus in the opening shot with the seagulls flying against the clouds. I’m talking about an undeniable softness that pervades the entire film and, strangely, seems to affect the sharp-edged fore-ground cell-animated characters more noticeably than the static-backgrounds. This softness doesn’t appear to be of film origin to my eyes. It has a “blurry” or muddy quality that obscures the hard-edge contours of the character drawings. Some scenes almost feel like a semi-transparent gauze has been stretched over the image. Scenes do vary, and some scenes do look sharper than others, especially given that some of the underwater animation was intended to look less edgy than the above-ground. But even Ariel and the Prince on the beach reveals this unmistakable softness. This may not present a problem for those viewing their image from greater than 2 screen widths, but I can assure you that wide-angle viewers (like those watching front projection or sitting close to their flatscreens) will find it troublesome.
In addition to the softness, there’s a muddy, murky quality to the image that also seems to point to something other than film-source artifacts. I’ve seen animation that preserved fine film grain and that’s not what I’m seeing here. I’m seeing some sort of “noise” in what should be monochromatic painted cell drawings that looks distinctly electronic in origin. Look at the reds in Ariel’s hair… there’s a blocky, dirty digital look to what should be a strong, solid, color. And the whites have the same problem – the whites of the sea King’s beard are dirty and don’t look “white” at all… but neither does the noise have the naturlness or “whir” of film grain. Combining the noise with the image softness and generally murky, appearance leaves a lot to be desired in my videophile opinion. While I don’t expect every DVD to be a Lowry miracle, I don’t want to be distracted by such obvious, electronic/processed artifacts as an alternative.
According to this excellent review at the DVD times, Disney chose to enlist the digital clean up services of a studio other than Lowry for this latest effort. The consequences of that (bad) decision are painfully obvious:
A germane quote excellent review by Michael Mackenzie:
With The Little Mermaid, however, Disney have sunk to a new low. The restoration this time was carried out not by Lowry but by Technicolor Digital Services, who have subjected the film to a series of harmful and inconsistently applied algorithms. Heavy temporal noise reduction is visible on a number of occasions, causing the pencil outlines of the animation to ghost and leave trails, giving a look much like that of an LCD screen with a very low response time. On other occasions, the lines become eroded in the same manner as Bambi and the Looney Tunes cartoons. Perhaps most distracting, though, is that the level grain and detail erosion varies on a shot by shot basis. Some shots look fine, showing a reasonable level of grain and detail, but others will suddenly look oily and smudged, especially shots with a lot of pale hues (presumably because they would be more likely to be affected by grain).
The end result is very disappointing, and it's clear that these so-called restoration "experts" should be kept away from films such as these, because they obviously have no understanding of how to deal with animation. These transfers are certainly watchable, but are far from pleasant, and in my opinion constitute artistic vandalism, given that these are likely to serve as the masters for several subsequent generations of releases of these highly-regarded films.
I agree with this author that one of the disturbing aspects of a digital “restoration” like this is that subsequent media releases are likely to be sourced from the same effort in order to amortize costs. If the eventual Blu-ray release of The Little Mermaid uses the same source utilized for this DVD, it won’t be a pretty sight.
Picture Quality: 3 / 5
|SCORE ||Description |
|1-2 ||An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch even on a 32” 4x3 480I TV. Think Outland or Jean De Flourette (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl, PAL-NTSC conversion artifacts etc.)-- truly horrid. |
|2-3 ||Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Kill Bill Vol 1. |
|3-4 ||Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos. |
|4-5 ||A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements limited only by DVD’s 720 x 480 resolution. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW" and ask you if they are watching HD. Think The Empire Strikes Back, the Fifth Element Superbit or the new Toy Story 10th Anniversary Edition. |
Currently running DVDs on my OPPO DVD player (Faroudja deinterlacing) which scales to 720P, feeding my BenQ 8700+ PJ via DVI, projecting onto a 106” 16x9 Dalite HiPower screen, viewed from approximately 1.6 screen-widths distance. Well mastered DVDs produce a stunningly film-like image in this scenario, and lesser-mastered material quickly shows its flaws.
There is a big problem with the audio on this DVD. Big. And I’m probably going it alone among my fellow DVD reviewing brethren in suggesting that there is. But before you write off my impression as the overly-demanding expectations of an ardent audiophile, remember that hardly any other DVD reviewer in print or on the web noticed anything wrong with the embarrassingly bad DEHT mix on Mary Poppins (which had filtered out all of the highs from the music and had newly recorded Foley tracks!) and that no other reviewer criticized the audio on Fox’s Hello Dolly DVD which had the highs so filtered from overly aggressive noise-reduction that compared to the same 5.1 mix on the AC-3 laserdisc (sans noise reduction on LD), it sounded like someone had wrapped towels around the tweeters. Not trying to toot my own horn here, I’m just trying to illustrate that most DVD reviewers don’t approach the audio recording from a “fidelity” stand point. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on any other reviewer and I’m sure there are DVD reviewers out there with hearing that surpasses my own. I’m just trying to put my comments in context given that they may likely be the only place you read such harsh criticism of the travesty of what Disney has done to the audio of The Little Mermaid.
The first cause for alarm is that the only
English audio mix provided on this disc is the Disney Enhanced for Home Theater (D.E.H.T.) mix. The original, great-sounding mix heard both on the previous laserdisc and DVD is nowhere in sight. I can’t believe that given the dearth of bonus material on Disc 1 that Disney couldn’t have found the bandwidth to include it. And perhaps the omission of the original mix wouldn’t have been such a bad thing had the new DEHT mix not been so troublesome.
The problems with the new mix are two-fold to my ears. One problem is directional… the placement choices of the sound. While most non-musical sequences seem fine in terms of what comes out of what speaker, the musical sequences, which are the heart and soul of the film, have been less tastefully served. Firstly, the lead vocal tracks to each song are duplicated in the front three channels… spreading Ariel’s (or Sabastien’s) voice across the front sound state in a strange, phase-shifting sort of way that I can only imagine was supposed to “enhance” the experience.
During the first song, Ariel’s voice sounds oddly detached and lacks the solid soundstaging and presence of the original mix. The decision to spread her voice over all three front channels dissolves any sense that you’re hearing a point-source of sound… ie: a person singing. Adding to that some overly aggressive placement of instrumentation in the rear channels and the sensation is more like putting a boom-box on your shoulder in a 1980’s MTV video than listening to a soulful aria as the song was intended to portray.
Now, I guess I should be thankful that The Little Mermaid’s DEHT mix didn’t suffer the same fate as that of Aladdin where the clueless mixing engineer decided to place the lead vocalist tracks in the rear surround channels as well. But that’s small consolation given that, unlike Aladdin, the original mix is not presented here as an option.
But now we get to the real problem I have with this new mix. It sounds artificial. And the musical vocal tracks have a dry, flat, electronic signature that’s entirely destroys the lush, vivid, liquid sound quality of the vocal tracks in the original mixes on the laserdisc and DVD.
Just how obvious is this problem? Well, it was so obvious to my ears that when first sitting down and skipping to my favorite “Part of Your World” sequence expecting to be showered with musical bliss (picture that old Maxell advertisement) as I have been accustomed to experiencing with the previous DVD and laserdisc, instead I found myself grimacing with disgust and running from the room to dig out my old laserdisc to do some serious A/B comparisons. I had to see if my memory was so in error or if the Disney tech team really are complete and total morons.
Discovered fact: They are morons folks. Allow me to state boldly the plain and simple truth. The techs who cooked up this DEHT mix are nothing but tone-deaf, MP3-listening junkies who wouldn’t know a holographic soundstage if it bit them in the ass.
So after blowing the dust off of my laserdisc player, I strategically ran cables both directly from the LPCM output and from the RF-output via my AC3 RF modulator so I could easily toggle back and forth between the 2.0 16/44.1 stereo (ProLogic) track on the LD, the 5.1 AC-3 (Dolby Digital) track on the LD, and the new 5.1 Dolby Digital DEHT mix on the new DVD. To make things even more fun, I hooked up my old DVD player so that I could also seamlessly toggle to the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix on the old
DVD. Wow. What a deal:
- 2.0 16/44.1 LPCM (laserdisc)
- 5.1 DD/AC-3 original mix (laserdisc)
- 5.1 DD original mix (old DVD)
- 5.1 DD DEHT mix (new DVD)
After a while I became quite skilled at quickly syncing the various discs up to within a few seconds of each other to enable quick and effective toggling during play. It helped that the laserdisc and original DVD shared the same chapter stops.
So what did I learn in my 2+ hours of source switching?
Firstly, the recording level of both the LPCM and AC3 on the laser is noticeably lower than either of the Dolby tracks on the two DVDs. I found this interesting as one might have assumed that the laser and early DVD shared the same core Dolby Digital compressed soundtrack. They clearly do not. Yes, I adjusted levels to compensate accordingly during my listening session.
The second thing I noticed was that while the “mix” of the 5.1 AC3 on the LD and older DVD sound like they are derived from the same LPCM master, the sound quality of the Dolby Digital on the (original) DVD was much better than the LD's AC3… much more open, natural, and with a richer sense of musical textures and micro-detail like musical decays and ambient “hall”. In fact, the Dolby Digital on the older DVD sounded very close to the fidelity of the 2.0 LPCM laserdisc track in terms of musical naturalness. I was quite impressed (though voices still sounded most natural of all on the laserdisc’s LPCM). The LPCM did present a more believable sense of space and nuance versus the older DVD’s DD track, but the improvement was subtle. Given this only slight improvement in fidelity on the LPCM, I felt that the gains in soundstaging with the discrete 5.1 encoding on the older DVD were a reasonable trade off and out of all the audio mixes the 5.1 DD on the previous DVD emerged as my preferred choice.
The important conclusion was that all three “original” audio presentations did a superb job of faithfully reproducing believable vocals that were lush, natural, and liquidly smooth. The sharp contrast with the dry, flat, almost brassy nature of the vocals on the new DEHT mix in comparison was undeniable. The vocals on the new DVD’s DEHT mix sounded “electronic” in a way that pulled me out of the film during what should have been the most encompassing moments of the story.
My memory had not betrayed me. This new mix really was the problem after all.
Because firstly Disney insists on putting a bastardized mix on this disc that disregards the integrity of the original recording's natural tonal quality and fidelity, and secondly because in doing so they also elected not
to provide the original mix as an alternative, I cannot view this DVD presentation of The Little Mermaid as quality effort.
Sound Quality: 2.5 / 5
B&K AVR 212 processor/receiver driving my Onix-Rocket Loudspeaker system.
Bonus features are where this DVD really does excel. And while I wouldn’t let my previous original DVD go on account of the proper audio presentation, the bonus material on this disc might be a justification for purchase by collectors. The commentary in particular was outstanding. There are some nice making-of documentaries (though I would have loved to have seen some of the original interview segments in their entirety that were used as source-material for some of the features here). And to my surprise, I even found something worth investigating in the “games” section of bonus menu (a place I rarely dare tread).
- All new 5.1 DEHT Audio Mix: You already know my thoughts on this matter.
- Feature Commentary: This outstanding scene-specific audio commentary combines input from Co-Writer/Directors Ron Clements and John Musker along with musical composer Alan Menken. This commentary is among the best that I’ve heard on any DVD, anywhere. It not only covers the full range of topics that would be of interest to serious film enthusiasts, but it presents the information in an easy conversational style that is a pleasure to hear. There is a wealth of information about the making of the feature that even less serious fans will find fascinating. I highly recommend this bonus feature for any viewer.
- All-New Music Video “Kiss The Girl” by Ashley Tisdale: This forgettable music video may have appeal for young adolescent viewers but anyone else will want to stay clear.
- Disney Song Selection: A nice feature that let’s you skip right to the song of your choice. Great for kids but also nice if you’d like to play the movie soundtrack in lieu of a CD.
- Under The Sea Adventure: A Virtual Ride: This feature details a proposed Disney ride that was conceived by the Disney Imagineering team but never constructed. At first I was wary given that this feature was located in the “games and activities” menu area. However, having explored the feature in detail, it turned out to be quite rewarding. The computer-generated simulation takes you through the ride with or without commentary. It’s actually quite an elaborate rendering.
- Behind the Ride That Almost Was: A short documentary about the proposed Little Mermaid theme ride including models, sketches, and discussion by key imaginers. Worth the time, and very interesting.
- Life Under the Sea: This short bonus feature plays like a mini-documentary featuring some basic facts about various kinds of sea-life portrayed in the animated feature. The general style is pandered down for young audiences but the basic information is educational if not very challenging. Young children may enjoy this.
- Backstage Disney: Treasures Untold: The Making Of The Little Mermaid: This is one of the bonus features on this set that really justifies your purchase. This 45 minute documentary is engaging and filled to the brim with fascinating information about everything behind the history and making of this film. It’s subdivided into categories or can be played in a continuous manner. Many of the original directors, writers, animators, and musical contributors make an appearance here and share their insights. Highly recommended! The only problem was that despite much of the feature being 1.78:1 in aspect ratio it was 4x3 encoded.
- Deleted Scenes: The seven deleted scenes/concepts here total about 26 minutes in length. This is another highly recommended bonus item and will appeal to all fans: casual and enthusiast alike. Many of the scenes are work-prints or contain a mixture of storyboarding and motion animation. Many of them, like the opening scene, are extended versus what you see in the final film. You’ll get to see and hear an extra verse in Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” song. You’ll want to watch them all. Downside: only 4x3 lbx but I’m not complaining as clearly many of these scenes needed to be sourced from video archive material.
- The Little Match Girl: Approximately 7 minutes in length. This stunning animated short contains no spoken dialogue and is an exquisite work of art. The animation and storytelling power are beautiful. The only problem is that this 1.78:1 OAR feature is not 16x9! It’s only 4x3 and reveals some mild EE when zoomed to fill my 16x9 screen. This is a real missed opportunity and I can’t understand why Disney couldn’t have provided it in full 16x9 resolution. The mind boggles…
- Storm Warning: The Little Mermaid Special Effects Unit: Approximately 9 minutes long. Meet the animators responsible for the environmental animation and hear them discuss their memories of working on the film.
- The Story Behind the Story: This wonderful 12 minute feature documents the life of Hans Christian Anderson paying special attention to the events in his life that inspired his profound work: The Little Mermaid. This is not to be missed by anyone.
- Art Galleries: 4x3 encoded and waste lots of resolution by not having the images fill the screen.
- Early Presentation Reel: Fans may enjoy but it’s actually rather bizarre… the images don’t follow the context of the song and it seems somewhat lacking.
- Trailer: Yep. In 4x3 full-frame.
- Silence is Golden: This song demo gives you a chance to hear the song that was first conceived and written for the spot eventually filled by Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Soul”. This is a great feature that fans will enjoy.
The Little Mermaid 2-disc DVD proved to be very disappointing from an audio/videophile perspective. After years of waiting for the ultimate disc presentation, and after a series of DVD triumphs with other Disney classics like Bambi, Cinderella, and Lady and the Tramp, The Little Mermaid greets expectant viewers with a surprisingly lackluster video presentation and an egregiously molested 5.1 DEHT mix without any provision of the original mix whatsoever. Bonus material is the saving grace of this 2-disc offering, but sadly the actual feature-film leaves untold volumes to be desired. While I don’t expect that my critical review will impact Disney’s profits in any appreciable way, I do encourage my videophile/audiophile comrades to make their displeasure known. And even if you find yourself purchasing this disc for completionist reasons, to keep the kids happy, or because you already sold your old disc on ebay and don’t want to go without, there’s nothing to stop you from calling that little 1-800 number listed on the back of your DVD packaging to let Disney know how much it bothers you that they copped out with the image restoration and didn’t even bother to provide you with the original soundtrack to this very special film.
What's most alarming about the problems with the audio and video of The Little Mermaid is that the decisions that caused them could just as easily plague any HD Blu-ray release. 1080p and lossless audio won't fix the problems with the digital clean-up and tasteless 5.1 remix. The time to teach Disney about your expecations for presentations that remain faithful to the source is NOW
. There probably won't be as many opportunities to repurchase this title again and again in successive HD formats. If Disney can't learn how to properly handle its film library in SD, the future of HD is looking grim.