Come 1989, Disney was back on top both critically and financially as a movie studio. Oliver & Company, while not wowing many movie buffs, was a commercial success and one of Disney’s biggest in years while Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was able to secure near universal praise for its combination of animation and live-action. Even considering the successes enjoyed by those two films, it’s 1989’s The Little Mermaid that is often credited with launching the Disney Renaissance; a new period of creative and commercial success for the venerable studio that utilized a combination of animation and broadway. After 1989, there was no question who was the king of animation and family entertainment. While it could be argued that Disney was never truly dethroned, it was certainly challenged and the studio struggled to prove that it was still the best at what it did. There would be challengers in the 90’s, but none that would prove to be worthy adversaries. Of course, by the close of the decade hand-drawn animation is practically dead and Pixar is a new household name, but the end of the 80’s through to the mid 90’s proved to be traditional animation’s last gasp and one of its finest eras.
The Little Mermaid represents a first for the company, and also a last. The previously mentioned Oliver & Company, made regular use of music and the broadway element, but it was The Little Mermaid that truly committed to this format. The music directors for the picture, the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, are both veterans of broadway and are credited with steering the The Little Mermaid in this direction. The film, particularly the first act, is driven by the songs contained within as the film moves from one to another with often little traditional dialogue in between. This proved so successful that future films adapted this style, but arguably none were as artistically successful as The Little Mermaid in doing so.
The Little Mermaid was the beneficiary of a huge budget, and it shows when compared with the animated films that preceded it. It was also the first feature-length production to benefit from Disney’s new studio in Lake Buena Vista, FL, then known as Disney MGM Studios (with a theme park to follow, now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios). It was the last picture to use traditionally drawn animation cells for Disney. There were numerous amounts of FX added to the picture due to its undersea setting, and some computer effects were used as well here and there.
The Little Mermaid, based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, tells the story of the young princess, Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson). Ariel is the seventh, and youngest, daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), ruler of the seas. Ariel is a free spirit who is fascinated with the world above which her father forbids her from interacting with. She is able to sate her curiosity through human artifacts and items found in shipwrecks scattered across the ocean floor until her exploits bring her face to face with a living, breathing human. Ariel soon finds herself in love with the prince, Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), and knowing her father will never allow such a romance to continue, in desperation she turns to the sea witch, Ursula (Pat Carroll), to make her human. The story is predictable, but satisfying, and Ariel exhibits a lot of the same emotions most sixteen-year-olds are known for which helps make the unbelievable seem believable. There are several memorable supporting characters to the story. Flounder (Jason Marin), who does not resemble an actual flounder at all, is Ariel’s companion and the foil to her care-free spirit. He’s cautious and kind of a worry-wart. The film makes it seem like he’ll play a large role at first, but he soon fades into the background after the first couple of scenes. Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), the sea-gull, is Ariel’s guide to the world of humans. Unknown to Ariel (and Scuttle himself), Scuttle knows practically nothing about humans but she is more than willing to believe anything he says. Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), the crab, is the conductor of the royal symphony for King Triton and is also the King’s trusted confident. Triton charges the Rastafarian crab with keeping an eye on Ariel with the intent being that he’ll get her to forget about the human world. Sebastian, possessing a big heart, is soon convinced by Ariel’s actions and behavior to aid her in her quest to become human.
The love story is perhaps the film’s weakest aspect. The character of Prince Eric is a young man looking for the right girl, though he appears to be in no hurry. During a thunderstorm at sea, he winds up in the water where Ariel is lurking. She rescues the prince from drowning and sings to him on a beach while he remains unconscious. Waking, she flees, and Eric becomes obsessed with finding Ariel. When Ariel returns as a human, she is without her voice (thanks to a bargain made with Ursula), and the two must fall in love in order for Ariel to remain human. This being a Disney movie, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that the two do eventually fall in love, though Ariel declares her love for Eric to her father after their first encounter. It feels rushed, and I suppose it is considering the movie has a run-time of under 90 minutes. I’ve seen worse when it comes to rushed love stories, but there are many cynics who will roll their eyes at first mention of the word love with this story.
The music, the film’s backbone, is quite good. I am not a fan of the broadway format, but if a film is going to be overstuffed with songs then they better be good ones. The Little Mermaid is the beneficiary of three iconic music pieces. While most other Disney movies seem to only have one or two, The Little Mermaid boasts the trifecta of “Part of Your World”, “Under the Sea”, and “Kiss the Girl.” “Part of Your World” is Ariel’s big solo number and it’s melody is used during the score as the main theme of the film. It is returned to many times over, which is good because it’s a simple and very pleasing melody. “Under the Sea,” the Caribbean sounding up-tempo track, is the film’s most fun moment and song and is likely the favorite of many of the film’s viewers. “Kiss the Girl” is the slower track and it too boasts an island sound. Not surprisingly, both are sung by Sebastian. Ursula gets her own song as well, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” but I find it to be less lively than the others. It also drags on for too long. There are other smaller tracks in the film but they prove to be less memorable, but their bite-sized running time also keeps them from being a distraction.
I probably wouldn’t have much affection for the film if it relied solely on its music. Thankfully, The Little Mermaid is a fantastic picture to look at (made even better now that it’s available on Blu Ray), and it owes much of that to its setting. The undersea setting proves to be a visual delight from the first scene. When the audience isn’t being asked to focus on anything but the visuals, the animators make use of a blur effect to make the film appear as it would if being viewed by the audience if placed underwater. Once the plot begins, the picture quality is clear and pristine. Every movement from the characters is accompanied with bubbles and hair is wild and untamed as it floats about. Most of the locations are depicted with shades of blue giving it a dark, sometimes cold, feeling. When the picture explodes with color, such as during the “Under the Sea” segment, the juxtaposition with the blues make the picture really come alive and creates a warming effect on the audience. The above water scenes pale in comparison as the kingdom Eric inhabits is somewhat lacking in personality. I’m not even sure which part of the world it’s supposed to represent. The climax of the film is a spectacle to behold with all of its lightning and massive whirlpool. Ariel and Eric’s confrontation with a colossal Ursula is perhaps rivaled only by Aladdin’s final showdown with the snake Jafar.
Disney pictures, especially in more recent times, are often criticized for their shallow female leads. The classic example being Snow White, who confesses in song she’s just waiting for her prince to come and rescue her from her hum-drum life. Ariel is sometimes criticized in the same way, though perhaps not justifiably. She’s plucky and strong-willed, and when she wants something she’s willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve her goals. She is naive, but that comes with being only sixteen. I do like that it is Ariel, and not Eric, that first takes on the role of rescuer as she saves him from drowning early in the film. And when it comes time to face Ursula, it’s Eric and Ariel together taking her on. If there’s room for criticism it’s in Ariel’s perception that she can only be happy if she’s made human and is able to win Eric’s love. The film doesn’t try to deny Ariel’s take, and even supports it, which might make some parents uncomfortable. The film also has some scary moments which may frighten the very young, and Ursula is not some harmless screw-ball villain, but the scare-factor is still pretty minimal. Parents ultimately know what is best for their kids and the best advice that can be given from an outsider is just watch the film first before exposing your kids to it, if you have concerns.
The Little Mermaid is a crowning achievement for Disney and is justifiably rated highly amongst the studio’s films. It’s a gorgeous picture with memorable songs and characters that easily stands the test of time. Despite its lead being a young princess, it’s a film that should have no trouble delighting both boys and girls while keeping the adults who watch it with them suitably entertained. The Disney Renaissance unofficially began with The Little Mermaid, and I suppose it ended sometime around Mulan or The Emperor’s New Groove. Amongst the Disney features released in that window, it’s probably second only to Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King certainly has its admirers, as does Aladdin, but it’s combination of sound and visuals make it number two for me and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who felt it should be number one.