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Once upon a time Toei Animation was not a studio that just churned out shonen and shojo series by the truckload, no matter the quality. Hard to believe, but in the 60s through the early 80s, Toei's film division was practically the Disney of Japan, starting out with films based on Chinese and Japanese folk tales, and branching out to making a fairy tale film every year in the late 70s-early 80s.
They did films based on "Aladdin," "Swan Lake," "Thumbelina," "The Wild Swans," but probably the most well-known in the West is their version of "The Little Mermaid." (Almost certainly due to a 1989 VHS release about the same time as that other, more famous version of the story...)
You all know how the story goes; mermaid is a little obsessed with the world above, rescues a human prince from drowning, sells her voice to the sea witch... but this film, unlike that other, better-known film, is a faithful adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's story, so the mermaid learns that selling your voice to get with a man you barely know doesn't work out... Yes, the little mermaid turns into sea foam, and it's wringed for all the emotional impact it's worth!
The fidelity to Andersen's tale works in its favor - though his ideas on mermaids not having souls are just given a cursory reference in this film, leading to some confusion (at least in the English version) when the narrator says that the little mermaid's soul ascended to heaven - when it was said earlier mermaids don't have souls... and there's no daughters of the air in this version, either. Still, the original Japanese probably was different.
To make the story fit a feature-length runtime, of course, they've given the little mermaid Marina a dolphin sidekick, and added some action sequences, like Marina getting saved from being killed by the sea witch's polyps, or the prince fending off a wolf attack. None of these detract from the story, of course, and manage to keep viewers interested.
Now, where do I go on?... Character design work is very good, well-done even. The music is fine, with a song about halfway through that in the English dub is so reverbed it's unintelligible, but in the original Japanese is not. It's still a pretty good song, though. The voice acting, from a Montreal-based cast, is fine enough and manages to work most of the time.
If you are looking for an alternative to the Disney style of fairy tale film (as well as its many ripoffs) looking for any of Toei's stuff in this vein is a good bet. And this is probably the easiest one to find at the moment, given that Discotek Media released it on DVD a few months back.
Some of the more prudish people out there might object to the fact that the mermaids are all bare-breasted (but are seashell bras really realistic?), and some of you might object to the incredibly sad ending - which I don't. Teach your kids that not everything ends happily, I say...
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