The Little Mermaid (1989)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some disturbing sexual implications.

With The Little Mermaid, Disney introduced the world to a new kind of animated feature and ushered in an era of modern classics that include Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin. At the time, The Little Mermaid seemed comparable to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, not for classic film status, but for beginning a string of incredible animated films (Pinocchio, Fantasia, et al) known for impeccable visuals and smashing soundtracks.

Not only did Disney set a new standard for animated releases, it also presented a new breed of female protagonists. Instead of the all-too-familiar passive damsel in distress, The Little Mermaid presents a strong and independent female lead. Through her rebelliousness, we recognize Ariel (Jodi Benson) as a typical teen, who grows increasingly curious about the opposite sex and disobeys her over-protective father (and ruler of the deep) King Triton by frequently visiting “the surface.” While Triton (Kenneth Mars) believes humans to be vicious savages incapable of feeling, Ariel has faith in their kind.

Very loosely based on Hans Christian Mermaid2Andersen’s fairy tale, the mermaid Ariel falls in love with a human prince (Christopher Daniel Barnes). With nowhere to turn, Ariel visits Ursula the sea witch (Pat Carroll), who concocts a potion that will make Ariel human for three days. During that time, Prince Eric must fall in love with Ariel or her soul will become part of Ursula’s creepy, wavering garden. To make things worse, Ariel must do so without her voice. So despite the strong, independent character, Disney forces Ariel to win over a prince using only her body. “On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word,” Ursula bellows in the song Poor Unfortunate Souls. Thankfully, Ariel won’t get her man until her voice comes back, but it’s still a rather disturbing implication.

Despite her independence, Ariel is not alone in her quest. The film’s supporting characters, in fact, take the film from merely romantic to exciting, funny, and horrifying. A timid fish named Flounder (Jason Marin) and an idiotic seagull named Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) join Ariel throughout her misadventures. For guidance (a la Jiminy Cricket), King Triton assigns a musical crab named Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) to follow her around. These characters provide much of the film’s comic relief, especially a wonderful duel between Sebastian and a French chef. On the flip side is Ursula, one of Disney’s most deliciously evil villains. Joined by growling eels Flotsam and Jetsum, Ursula carries out her villainous duties with a strange pizzazz and flair reminiscent of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Though The Little Mermaid is not as polished as subsequent releases, several scenes help to establish that sense of visual wonderment present in all great Disney movies. Take, for instance, a shark attack that takes place in a sunken ship, or a series of explosions that lead up to a shipwreck, or the final epic-scale showdown with Ursula. As with most great escapist films, The Little Mermaid establishes a land of wonder that we want to be a part of, from Triton’s shimmering castle and Ariel’s hideout to Ursula’s dark lair. The visual ecstasy comes thanks to the development of a new computer-assisted animation system that would eventually become commonplace in future releases.

Though the lands and characters are wonderful, the true star and spectacle of The Little Mermaid comes from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the songwriting team responsible for three Oscar nominations and two statuettes (the first for Disney since 1971), and the subsequent classic Beauty and the Beast. The tunes themselves are in an elite group of Disney’s most hummable musical sensations, and the lyrics only strengthen their lasting power.

Take Ariel’s ballad Part of Your World, which explains her fascination with the human world (“I wanna be where the people are/ I wanna see, wanna see ‘em dancin’/ walking around on those – what do you call them? – oh yeah, feet.”) at the same time as cathartically releasing angst (“Betcha on land they understand/ they don’t reprimand their daughters.”), while she gives us a tour of her treasure-filled grotto and swirls toward the surface. The Oscar-nominated songs Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl have Sebastian at the helm in a celebration of all things beneath the surface in a Rastafarian style and a sweet romantic selection that sounds like a Harry Belafonte tune.

The brief period of Disney amazement that The Little Mermaid spurred has long-since faded (though it did inspire Hayao Miyazaki to make 2009’s Ponyo) and the era that followed found Disney fascinated with legendary historical figures such as Mulan, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pocahontas, but left less to admire. Thanks to Pixar features, Disney is still competing in the animation world, but clinging on for dear life. Hopefully, for Disney and the audience, the near future will see a movie swim by and clear the drought with a refreshing piece of entertainment, just like The Little Mermaid did.

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