The basics: Mermaid is back in theaters for the first time in eight years, as part of Disney’s well-plotted re-release of animated movies whenever there’s a new batch of young ones (read: fresh meat) who haven’t seen them on a full-size screen. Meanwhile, the stupendously bloody Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoven of Total Recall and Basic Instinct, is science fiction, a war film, a western, and a parody of propaganda, all crammed into 125 minutes.
Yes, it’s a huge reach to try and compare the two, but here I go. Both are from literature — Mermaid from a Hans Christian Anderson tale, Troopers from the 1950s Heinlein novel; both are significantly changed from their sources; and more importantly, both films are about sacrifice, and are in one way or another about growing up: from boys to men, from girls to women, and a mermaid to a human girl to…well, now that would give it away.
Mermaid was the first large-scale Disney musical to truly signal the company’s animated revival of the last decade. Good for it. Mermaid is one of the most satisfying kids’ films of the last 20 years, with a strong combination of the hip, the ironic (for a Disney film, at least) and the sincere. Like the even more accomplished Beauty and the Beast from two years later, Mermaid is a reminder of how much talent was lost when Howard Ashman, the lyricist and producer of both films and a driving force behind Little Shop of Horrors and Aladdin, died after completing Beauty.
The music is one of the best integrations of songs and story I’ve seen; do you know how hard it is to make breaking out into song seem natural? Alan Menken, on the first of many hugely popular scoring duties, at times was learning on the job, but succeeded in adding his musical voice to the Disney world.
Mermaid is about finding what you need to be fulfilled, and it conveys this in a more gentle way than the overwrought Hercules last summer. What will make Ariel a complete human being is not something her world can provide, and she must go beyond it to find happiness. This means sacrifice on her part: when she gives up her voice to be human, and her melody floats away, it’s heartbreaking. The ending has a bittersweet tinge, too, because of a loving act of sacrifice that is actually rather daring; I can’t imagine Disney ending another animated film exactly this way.
And now, there’s Starship Troopers, with some of the hugest war scenes and dismemberment scenes you’ve ever seen. A much, much different animal than Mermaid, and not at all sincere, but as a sheer, huge-scale guilty pleasure it’s… well, it’s still troubling. But that seems to be the point: Verhoven is famous for making fun of vacuous modern media (his science fiction films Robocop and Recall all parody them), and it’s almost as if he made Troopers to be a movie-long parody of propaganda: the film is structured around an Internet-styled media outlet giving the ultimate in sound-bite portrayals of the future world’s war (“Know your foe”; “Do your part”; “Would you like to know more?”)
In a fascist future where voting rights are earned through military service, an especially gorgeous bunch of young ones leaves high school and joins the armed forces to fight pillow-sized cockroaches, 10-foot-high arachnid warriors, and beetles on the scale of the AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back. Soldiers on both sides of the war get impaled, dismembered, torn apart, even decapitated in the nonstop bloodbath of the second half; all this is in the service of a war that’s completely ugly and pointless, as if humans joined the war simply because it was an excuse to fight (Earth is under a harmonious one-world government when the film begins, but one that’s still pretty Caucasian…). The result seems deliberately shallow, as if the entire future is a shallow one.
These two movies, separated by eight years of cinema history, showcase the ever-faster pace of movies. Sometimes this overload works like gangbusters, like the hugely entertaining The Rock, but many films today have huge pacing problems as a result. Troopers seems to have been edited down to the minimum footage needed in some sequences, and some characters appear well before they are really introduced, which is awkward in movie storytelling. This probably was over 2 ½ hours long at one point, and things seem missing. Mermaid is better able to take its time to tell its story than recent Disney fare, which stumble over themselves to fit in everything in 80 minutes (including time-outs for songs).
One of these days there will be a backlash to this sort of over-stuffing, perhaps through re-releases like Mermaid; either audiences or filmmakers will stop wanting such addled flicks, and this era’s films (from what might be remembered as The Caffeine Era) will be seen as curiosities. Meanwhile, go to the movies and marvel at how much they are like a drug fix.