The Little Mermaid (1989)

Turning around the reputation of Disney animation in 1989, The Little Mermaid, the studio’s loose and much more upbeat take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale originally published in 1837 that looked to restore their more old-fashioned emphasis on fairy-tale stories, their first full-fledged effort in the genre that largely popularized the studio in thirty years.  It’s a story that, despite Disney, during Walt’s day, planning to adapt this and other Andersen stories back in the 1940s, they rejected during its initial pitch, in large part because they were already in development on a mermaid-related film for a follow-up to the 1984 smash hit, Splash, for their subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures.  However, when a short script treatment reached their desks, execs were delighted enough to make the plunge, causing development-plagued Splash, Too to never see the light of the silver screens, relegated as a made-for-TV film without any of the main talent on board, while director and co-writer John Musker’s script (The Great Mouse Detective, Aladdin) was back on the table, and four years of production was underway.

Ariel is a mermaid, the hopelessly romantic teenage daughter of sea-king Triton, who ends up meeting, saving, and falling for a land-walking, sea-faring human prince named Eric.  After Triton vehemently disapproves of her pursuing a relationship out of the sea, Ariel makes a pact with the wicked witch of the sea, Ursula, in order to appear as a human herself to woo the handsome object of her desires.  Unfortunately, in addition to her fins, she must also give up her beautiful voice, the one identifying aspect that Eric fell for, in the process of getting human legs.  Now she must try to woo Eric in a world she knows very little about without the ability to communicate, and do so in short order, lest she become yet another mermaid to become Ursula’s decrepit slave forever.

In addition to the romance between Ariel and Prince Eric, The Little Mermaid is chock full of memorable anthropomorphized supporting characters, including the powerfully menacing Ursula (Pat Carroll), the delightful scene-stealer Sebastian the Crab (voiced with a Jamaican accent by Samuel E. Wright), the loyal side buddy Flounder, klutzy comic relief Scuttle the Pelican (Buddy Hackett). The film is also beautifully voiced in the purest of fashions, with Broadway actress Jodi Benson delightfully demure and bringing out the innocence, but also the spunk, in a role that necessitates that we like Ariel (reportedly made a redhead in order to differentiate her from Madison from Splash)from the first moment we see her, which is especially important because there is a prolonged period of time in which we don’t hear Ariel’s voice at all.

It’s hard to imagine a more voluptuous and menacing voice than Pat Carroll’s for cecaelia Ursula, though the character was written with Bea Arthur in mind, and whose design strongly suggests the drag actor Divine as her inspiration.  And Samuel E. Wright adopting the Jamaican accent (the original intent was for the laid-back major character to be stuffy, British, less impactful to the story, and named Clarence) for Sebastian proves a smart move, not only in making that character thoroughly enjoyable, but also in bringing a great deal of personality to the two most memorable and catchy calypso songs in the film, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”.  It’s nice to see that emphasis is placed on the best voice for the characters rather than celebrity status, which is a choice that works very well in making each particular character so memorable in both voice and design.

Directed and written by the team of Ron Clements and John Musker, who previously collaborated in contributing writing and directorial duties for Disney’s animated film, The Great Mouse Detective, in 1986, they set out to try to craft something special from the outset.  Traditional hand-painted cels comprise most of the film’s 2D style, though, for the ending scene, the directors also employ a then-new digital technology used by Disney in other short form films called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), stemming from a collaboration between Disney and Pixar, which would be the style that Disney would use for a period on animated features henceforth, until 3D computer animated films would become the predominant choice for feature films in the 2000s.

One of the biggest highlights of The Little Mermaid is the music, perhaps still the best in Disney’s long string of animated musicals.  Disney had originally hired Howard Ashman to put together the theme-appropriate songs, and he reached out to Alan Menken to compose the music, having worked with him before on the stage musical, Little Shop of Horrors. Their approach here would be to try to combine more traditional Broadway musical style numbers with more catchy reggae and calypso stylings, resulting in the soundtrack that separated the film from the rest of the animated musicals of their past, while also embracing the classic Disney formula. That music would prove to deliver the greatest accolades for the film, and would go on to win two Grammys, and also two Oscars, for Best Song (Alan Menken Howard Ashman’s “Under the Sea” bested their own “Kiss the Girl”, which was also nominated) and for Menken’s original score.  The platinum-selling soundtrack would go on to become, at that time, the biggest ever for an animated feature.

Another highlight is the emphasis on a vibrant color palette and rich, sumptuous art design, both in the foreground and in the backgrounds, something the studio had often eschewed in the name of cost-cutting.  Matching along with the music, the editing and animated choreography is truly a delight to behold, and lingers in the memory of the film far beyond the simple but touching story at the heart of the feature.

Themes within the film include trying to fulfill one’s desires to break from the entrenched nature of one’s family and social expectations in order to try to live the life one truly desires, even if the consequences may not work in one’s favor. The attempt at leading the life one has always dreamed about, especially on the verge of adulthood, is worth the effort over accepting one’s lot, feeling always misunderstood, and living a life of regret for never trying.  With that, there also comes the caveat that there are people out there, embodied in Ursula, who will use your ambition in order to get something for themselves, acting as the gatekeepers on one’s dreams.  Ariel filled her personal space with the shiny items found up above, much in the way many teens adorn their walls with posters and pictures of their favorite actors, films and idols within the music world.  Ariel’s giving up of her voice in order to “get in the game” is symbolic of what many artists and entertainers have given up in order to break into show business, especially in signing contracts that greatly impact their freedom later.

The film would go on to rejuvenate a struggling Disney animation wing that had lost a lot of the public’s interest, earning nearly $90 million on a budget less than a third of that take. The Little Mermaid never rose above third at the weekly box office during its initial release and didn’t crack the year’s top 10, though they reaped greater rewards on the home video market, as well as in related toys and merchandise.  With likeable and fully expressive heroes, a formidable and memorable villain, a clever script, an emotional core, colorful animation, and the catchiest of songs featuring Ashman’s lovely lyrics and Menken’s wonderful scoring, The Little Mermaid would upend upstart competitors like Don Bluth and others to push Disney back to the forefront of the American animation world once again, and do so in a new (but respectful to the old) way that no one else has been able to touch since.  It’s an affectionate fairy tale that delighted a generation of fans, and continues to do so for generations to come.

Disney has done bigger and arguably better since, but that was when the formula of The Little Mermaid provided the blueprint on what audiences crave; this oceanic animated musical proved to the the tidal wave that rejuvenated big-budget animation from 1989 on.

Qwipster’s rating: A+

MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences (some mild violence and scary images)
Running Time: 83 min.


Cast (voices): Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Christian Daniel Barnes, Buddy Hackett, Samuel E. Wright, Jason Marin, Ben Wright, Rene Auberjonois
Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Screenplay: John Musker, Ron Clements