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The Little Mermaid (Alan Menken)

July 8, 2017

THE LITTLE MERMAID

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, 2014, Walt Disney Records
2CD, 44 tracks, 1:47:13

A re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale, Disney’s The Little Mermaid put a more upbeat spin on the story to big success in 1989. It received an extensive re-release in 2014 as part of the “Legacy Collection”.

Review by Luke Bunting

What is it?

This new take sees mermaid princess Ariel give up her voice to sea witch Ursula in exchange for a human form, all in order to win over the hunky prince living by the sea.  The movie was the first musical for Disney since Sleeping Beauty, featuring 7 original songs and the first feature film score by composer Alan Menken.

Coming at a time of declining relevance for Disney, The Little Mermaid was unexpected blockbuster that began an extended period of success for the studio. Much of the success for this “Disney Renaissance” was in no small part due to the contributions of Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.  Coming off of their surprise hit off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors, the duo brought their brand of smart, catchy, and accessible songs early on in The Little Mermaid’s development, shaping the plot and characterizations in crucial ways.

What does it sound like? And is it any good?

With 7 songs spread out over the film’s relatively short running time, Menken and Ashman were primarily responsible for conveying and selling almost all of the film’s major moments.  They begin things with “Fathoms Below,” featuring an unseen male chorus setting the scene to a shanty-like tune.  Demos reveal that this song was originally conceived as a longer and more involved piece, but the shorter version is more effective in context, getting the audience to the action much more quickly.  This is followed up with “Daughters of Triton,” an almost source-like song for the princesses to perform at the castle. It’s got a slightly operatic vibe, and while effective, is too short and niche to make much of a lasting impression.

“Part of Your World” is where the duo finally steps up their game, providing a fresh soul-searching ballad for our protagonist Ariel as she reveals her forbidden desire to live on land. The song doesn’t try anything new for Disney musicals, but is exhibit A for how much great execution can really sell a standard song.

The standout of the songs is arguably “Under the Sea,” a Caribbean-inspired steel drum piece extolling the virtues of life underwater. It’s a quick, catchy song with clever lyrics including fish puns and jokes that take several listens to truly appreciate.

The villain’s song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is well-conceived, if many of the lyrics seem a bit over-thought. “Kiss the Girls” returns to the Caribbean sound with slightly less effective results, but still manages to convey Ariel’s longing as she pines for the Prince’s kiss. And finally, “Les Poissons” takes the traditional French music sound to parody levels as the castle’s chef prepares to cook and eat Ariel’s crab companion Sebastian. This piece, while short, is another highlight, playing on French stereotypes across the board to great effect.

At Ashman’s urging, Disney had Menken audition to provide the score for the entire film, and luckily for us he was successful.  Despite suffering from a smaller performing ensemble and dry mix, Menken’s score is brimming with his now-trademark sense of melody and that indefinable “Disney Sound.”

Menken approached the score as one might expect, creating a consistent soundscape of jaunty woodwinds playing over pleasing string phrases. Over the years, we’ve seen this kind of “Disney sound” range from exhilarating to boring-as-hell, and luckily Menken does enough to keep this entry closer to the former than the latter. In addition to getting the sound right, his score uses several recurring original ideas, snippets of song melodies, and one-off tunes to craft a narrative and keep things engaging.

“Part of Your World” ends up as the de facto identity for the film, used in beautiful fashion by Menken for the main titles. Menken has flutes softly open the cue with the melody, and then transfers to string and female chorus as it builds. The theme continues to be referenced throughout the score, culminating in a choral rendition with lyrics during “Happy Ending” to close out the film.

Elsewhere, “Daughters of Triton” receives a shout out during the final scene as Triton and the family is reunited with Ariel. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is also used to represent Ursula and her evil plan, making appearances in “Interrupting the Wedding/Ursula’s Defeat,” and serving as a transition between the upbeat opening of “Ursula Intro” and the usage of Menken’s other theme for the character during the track’s second half.

This original theme is a sinister sounding idea for strings and woodwinds, and goes on to make appearances in “Flotsam and Jetsam,” “Ursula’s Lair,” and during the final battle track. Ariel receives a peppy melody introduced on woodwinds in “Intro Ursula,” popping up in “She’s Got Legs,” “Miss Manners,” and “Ariel Left Behind.” The theme remains fairly static until a frenzied action statement on brass during “The Truth.”

Lastly, the Kingdom’s theme makes its debut in “Tour of the Kingdom” before being revisited as a wedding march at the end of “Ariel Left Behind” and again “Interrupting the Wedding.” The latter is particularly worthy of note, with Menken at least attempting to battle his Ariel theme against the Kingdom wedding march and Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and non-song themes.

Luckily, action music is kept to a minimum in the film, which is one of the few areas that cause Menken’s inexperience to shine through. While “The Storm” and the finale sequence are not poorly scored, you can hear Menken straining to keep up and increase the tension and excitement with what is happening on screen.

Those sequences aside, Menken’s The Little Mermaid never really hits a false note. It’s a pleasing score, and one that shows a composer finding his footing while attempting a basic thematic narrative. Stand-alone highlights may be few due to mickey-mousing (“Tour of the Kingdom” being perhaps the only cue that stands on its own away from the score), but the overall presentation is never less than enjoyable. Add in seven songs which range from ‘good’ to ‘classic’ and you really can’t go wrong. While the original albums feature all of the songs and a decent selection of Menken’s score highlights, seek out the Disney Legacy Collection release for a remastered and expanded presentation that further illuminates just how much of an accomplishment this outing was for the dynamic Disney duo of Menken and Ashman.

Tracklist:

For a detailed tracklist, check out The Walt Disney Records: Legacy Collection page on Wikipedia.


Review (C) 2017 Synchrotones
Guest review by Luke Bunting.

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