The Little Mermaid is the magical underwater fairy tale that got Disney animation back on track. Ushering in a veritable Disney Renaissance. An era of Disney that will always be closest to my heart. The 70’s and 80’s were a dark time for the studio. Most projects were generally well received, but nowhere close to the classics of old. However, things started to look up with the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Their twenty-eighth animated production The Little Mermaid was the perfect opportunity to get back to the Princess themed fairy tales that Disney always excelled at. It was actually one of many stories Walt Disney considered adapting in his early days.
The Little Mermaid is based on the far more tragic Danish tale of a little mermaid longing to be on land. The tragedy is that she’s more concerned with having a human soul and experiences horrible pain in the process. She doesn’t get her Prince, turns to seafoam, but there’s hope that she’ll go to Heaven some day. Obviously a Hans Christian Andersen story like this needed major Disneyfication. Along with the best directing duo, best composers, and best animation that the studio has seen in a long time. Although the studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg foolishly thought it would perform less than Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid instead became the first Disney blockbuster…
The Little Mermaid is a fish tale that I’ve loved since I was really little. Despite its release at the tail end of 1989, most of the movie’s success was found in the 90’s. Which is why my brother and I watched The Little Mermaid frequently on VHS. Thanks to our parents who introduced it to us at such a young age. Katzenberg was crazy to think a “girls movie” like this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. I absolutely adore the romance, colorful songs, and undersea action. The Little Mermaid was a welcome return to Disney traditions. Once upon a time, there lived the magical mermaid & merman kingdom of Atlantica. Very different and more controversially phallic than Atlantis. The musical underwater palace is also populated by sea creatures of all shapes and sizes.
Ariel is one of my all time favorite Disney Princesses. She was the first true Disney Princess since Aurora in 1959. Unlike the classic Princesses, Ariel has a more defined personality and genuine aspirations. Ariel is a mermaid with gorgeous red hair, a green fish tail, and seashell bikini. Her voice and appearance make her the most beautiful Disney Princess in my opinion. She’s notably modeled after Alyssa Milano. Her trademark hair color was chosen to avoid comparisons to Splash. Voice actress Jodi Benson deserves all the credit for bringing a wide eyed wonder to Ariel. She dreams of going on land and is infectiously amazed by even the simplest gadgets, gizmos, whozits, and whatzits.
Although they’re more important in the book, Ariel notably has 6 sisters. Since her adventure is under the sea, Ariel’s animal sidekicks are all water based. Tropical fish Flounder is her panicky best friend. He’s mostly around for the underwater parts like outswimming a shark and giving Ariel a gift. Seagull Scuttle is her hilarious, but dimwitted land expert. I’ve definitely brushed my hair with a dinglehopper because of him. But Jamaican conductor crab Sebastian will always be my personal favorite. He can both answer to King Triton in the water and keep an eye on Ariel on land. While at the same time avoiding a crazy chef. King Triton is the hard headed ruler of the sea. Although Ariel’s 16 year old dreams seem narrow minded, there’s no denying Triton goes too far with his hatred of humans.
Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric. The most defined Disney Prince at the time. Again thanks to the voice actor Christopher Daniel Barnes. He’s a carefree, sea loving Prince with his own memorable supporting cast. Notably his dog Max, valet Grimsby, and maid. Ariel bravely saves Eric from a shipwreck, but she can’t be with him unless she has legs. Her father takes drastic measures by sternly destroying a statue of Eric in one of the more difficult scenes to watch. Despite it being a terrible decision, Ariel is swayed towards going to Ursula for help. One of the great devious Disney villains who is infamously modeled after drag queen Divine. Ursula is an evil power hungry half-octopus cecaelia sea witch who stands out for her sassy personality. As well as her electric eel henchmen Flotsam & Jetsam. Ariel makes a deal with Ursula that will give her legs in exchange for her voice. Which will return provided Eric kisses her within 3 days. Or else lose her soul to Ursula.
Ariel and Eric develop a sweet relationship in more time than most Disney couples of the past. Unbeknownst to Eric that her voice is the one he fell in love with. They have dinner (with a dinglehopper), explore the beachfront kingdom, and share a romantic boat ride. It’s enough for Ursula to disguise herself using Ariel’s voice and hypnotize Eric into marrying her. All the creatures come together to help, but Ariel is too late. The climax is a dark combination of land & sea. Ursula gains the power of Triton’s triton in exchange for Ariel and she becomes the first Princess to stand up to her villain. Resulting in the death of her eels. An angry Ursula commands the sea by growing to enormous size, but is brutally defeated when Eric rams a sunken ship into her body. I’m filled with joy every time Triton accepts his daughter by granting her legs (and a sparkly dress). Ariel marries Eric on land, says a heartfelt goodbye to her undersea friends & family, and lives happily ever after.
Ariel longed for the surface long before she met Eric. So she isn’t just leaving her life for the Prince she fell in love with. Ariel is still modern and not just for showing more skin. She still wears a lovely pink dress, blue sundress, and wedding dress, but The Little Mermaid is definitely more provocative than most Disney animated films. The animation is truly breathtaking (no pun intended). It’s hard to believe this was the last use of traditional hand painted cel animation. The underwater effect, bubbles, and swimming is impressive. Computer animation was extensively used to improve locations, but xerography was brought back to finally refine characters the way Sleeping Beauty used to. Humans & mermaids are mostly realistic with big eyes, while animals & fish are more stylized.
The broadway caliber music in The Little Mermaid was so good that it helped the film win 2 Academy Awards. The songs are some of the best in any Disney movie. Even the sea shanty “Fathoms Below” and traumatizing fish butchering French song “Les Poissons” are memorable. “Part of Your World” is my favorite Princess longing song. I surprisingly know all the words and Ariel finishing the song on a rock is iconic. “Poor Unfortunate Soul” is a deliciously devious Disney villain song for Ursula. “Kiss the Girl” is incredibly romantic and worthy of a nomination. But it’s Sabastian’s extremely catchy underwater Caribbean jam “Under the Sea” that deserved the Oscar. The Little Mermaid brightens Disney’s future with an aquatic fantasy that will be beloved for generations.