The Little Mermaid (1989)
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
Ariel is a young mermaid who is obsessed with the human world. She spends all of her time collecting human artifacts from sunken ships, much to the chagrin of her father, King Triton. Triton assigns the court composer, Sebastian the crab, to look after her, but he is unable to prevent her from rescuing the human Prince Eric when his ship goes down in a storm.
Desperate to put an end to her trips to the surface, Sebastian tells Triton about Ariel’s secret grotto where she hides her human collection. When Triton surmises that his daughter has actually fallen in love with the human she rescued, he destroys everything in the grotto in a fit of rage. This drives Ariel to the sea witch Ursula, who agrees to turn her into a human in exchange for her voice. However, there’s an additional catch: Ariel only has three days to get Eric to kiss her or she’ll turn back into a mermaid.
With the help of Sebastian and her friends, Ariel is almost able to get the prince to love her in return. Seeing this, Ursula cheats, and turns herself into a human with Ariel’s voice. Eric immediately proposes to the disguised Ursula, leading to a big fight on the wedding boat. They successfully break Ursula’s spell over Eric, and he and Ariel are about to kiss, when the deadline expires and she turns back into a mermaid. Now bound by contract to be Ursula’s slave, Triton offers to trade himself for his daughter. Ursula uses his power to pretty much turn into Cthulhu, but Eric kills her by ramming her with the mast of his ship. Seeing that his daughter is truly happy with Eric, Triton turns her back into a human so she can be with him.
In 1985, director John Musker became interested in doing an animated version of the Little Mermaid fairy tale while he was working on The Great Mouse Detective. Disney had previously tried to develop the story into a film all the way back during the 30s and 40s, but it had been shelved along with most of the studio’s other projects during the package film era and had never been picked up again. Musker pitched it again at the “Gong Show” pitch session that I mentioned last time. Katzenberg wanted to start releasing a movie every year, like Disney had done during its golden age, and therefore greenlit both Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid at the same time.
Work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit took some animators off of The Little Mermaid, and while they were waiting Musker and his writing/directing partner Ron Clements decided to retool the story. Crucially, they brought in Broadway songwriter Howard Ashman, who’d recently provided a song for Oliver & Company. At his suggestion, they turned The Little Mermaid into a full-blown, Broadway-style musical, with the songs serving as major story beats instead of window dressing.
As soon as the work was finished on Roger Rabbit, production on Little Mermaid ramped up in earnest. Sensing that they had something special, Disney poured more resources into it than they had for any movie since Sleeping Beauty (fittingly, the last time that they’d actually adapted a fairy tale). They even opened an entire secondary animation facility, at Disney’s new MGM Studios theme park that was still under construction at the time. This was also the first time that they’d shot live-action references for various scenes, something that Disney used to do all time, since Walt Disney had died. The underwater effects were also particularly labor intensive, with one animator estimating that they’d drawn over a million bubbles alone.
All of the hard work was worth it. The Little Mermaid made $84 million on its initial run, a record for an animated movie. It also received almost rapturous reviews. For once, the praise of “best Disney movie in decades” wasn’t actually hyperbole. It got three Oscar nominations, the first for a Disney animated movie since The Rescuers, winning two.
After six months or so, we’ve finally made it. The beginning of the “Disney Renaissance,” the company’s resurgence back into dominance of the feature animation industry after two decades of misfortunate and failure. The seeds had been set over the past two movies, but this is where it all came together into something truly special.
It also happens to be the first Disney movie that I have strong memories of seeing in theaters. I was seven years old when it came out, and while I know that I saw several of their other 80s releases with my parents, Little Mermaid is the first one that I remember. I was actually fortunate enough to experience Little Mermaid’s impact on audiences twice. About four months after it opened, my family moved from the US to England. Back in the 80s and 90s, worldwide movie launches weren’t really a thing yet, and it could take six months to a year for hit American movies to make their way to Europe. I was enrolled in a British school, and I was the only one in my class who’d seen it. It didn’t come out in the UK until almost a year after its American release, and I got to experience Mermaidmania all over again.
Watching the last two Disney movies before this, I got the sense that Disney was just one ingredient away from a major breakthrough. They were close, but were missing something from the formula that they needed to finally get back to the successes of their golden age. They found it in The Little Mermaid’s secret weapon: Broadway. Disney’s golden-age movies had all featured music heavily, of course. Even the package films had mostly been based around musical shorts. But the studio had started to drift away from that after Walt Disney’s death, until The Black Cauldron had no songs at all. And there were precious few songs from their 70s and 80s output that were actually memorable in any way.
Hiring Ashman and his songwriting partner Alan Menken was a stroke of genius, one of the best moves that the studio ever made. It might be a stretch to say that this one decision saved Disney’s animation department, but it wouldn’t be a wholly unsupported statement either. Ashman and Menken transformed The Little Mermaid into a full-on Broadway musical, with the “I want” song, the villain song, and the big Act 1 finale showstopper. The last time that a Disney lead character had gotten a big solo song of their own was Sleeping Beauty, thirty years earlier, and there’d never been anything quite like the lavish production of “Under the Sea”.
It helps that for once there isn’t a poor vocal performance in the lot. Jodi Benson is fabulous as Ariel, and Pat Carroll gives us the best Disney villain in decades with her role as the sea witch Ursula. Normally, I’d cry foul at the only overweight woman in the movie being portrayed as a villain. However, Ursula is just too fun to stay mad at for long. Hell, my sister-in-law has a tattoo of her on one arm! (she also has Ariel and Flotsam & Jetsam tattoos).
Other then that, I have very little to complain about for this movie. It’s as close to perfect as a Disney movie has yet come, and is clearly in the running for the best movie I’ve watched so far in this project. By most accounts, the “golden age” of Disney animation was either the five original films before the package films, or else the return to feature animation in the 50s. For my money, the true Disney golden age begins here.
Animation: A (This movie is truly gorgeous, and makes full use of the possibilities of its undersea locations)
Main Characters: A (After a whole bunch of passive protagonists, we finally get a female lead who knows what she wants, and is willing to go to great lengths to obtain it)
Supporting Characters: A- (Other than Sebastian, all of the supporting characters are slightly underused, even Prince Eric. But they’re all quite memorable, and I don’t find any of them grating)
Villains: A (Ursula immediately joins Maleficent and Cruella in the pantheon of greatest Disney villains)
Music: A (give Ashman and Menken all of the awards)