But wait, put the pitchforks down! -that’s not to say I don’t like it. Especially compared to the last few Disney movies like Oliver & Company and The Black Cauldron, The Little Mermaid is a godsend! For 1989 it was a huge update on the fairy tale story: the princess could be multi-faceted, her love interest have a personality, the songs could actually advance plot and character development, and all this without detracting from the traditional albeit corny tropes of fairy tale plotting. I just think some elements don’t hold up, despite how generally entertaining it is.
The story is about a little mermaid called Ariel who has a fascination and boundless curiosity with the world of humans. This is in strict defiance of her father’s wishes who believes the human world is incredibly dangerous. After she saves the life of one Prince Eric (who for some reason was having a birthday party out at sea) and her father finds out she’s in love with him, he destroys her collection of human trinkets, spurring her on to make a deal with the sea witch Ursula. At the cost of her voice Ariel is transformed into a human and given three days to kiss Eric or else she’ll belong to the sorceress.
The Disney fairy tale trappings are all present in spades: the darker aspects of Hans Christian Andersen’s original are absent, there are comic relief sidekicks, the protagonist falls in love at first sight, there’s some awkward moments, its heavily unrealistic, and there are plenty of songs. But there are a few things that instantly set it apart from Disney’s previous efforts in this genre and really signal in this new era.
Firstly, Ariel is portrayed as a relatable teenage girl which makes a huge difference. In past Disney princess films, the leads acted very much like characters in their era would and often their beauty was their primary characteristic. Ariel however is anxious, emotional, curious, rebellious, and reckless, a lot more modern. But at the same time these characteristics make her timeless, because let’s be honest, teenagers are still like that; and were for decades prior to The Little Mermaid. So I think it was a very smart decision. She has the same gut reactions, the same sense of independence and free-spiritedness, she complains about how her father “just doesn’t understand!”, she even has an idol in her room of her crush, and she makes mistakes like any teenage girl. Mistakes in general that arise from acting without thinking. Jodi Benson is great both in Ariel’s speaking and singing voice (and I’m still trying to forget she did Thumbelina right after this). Similarly Eric gets to be the first Disney prince with a personality. Like Ariel he’s much more relatable, someone who boys can identify with -there never was this kind of character in the previous princess outings. Now by today’s standards he’s kinda basic. If we’d seen more of him interacting with his shipmates or servants perhaps, he’d be a bit more interesting, but as is he’s just got a sort of generic pretty boy charm. I think my favourite character is Sebastian who despite the exaggerated Jamaican accent is fairly fun. I really like how he’s initially spying for Ariel’s father but is eventually forced to help her woo Prince Eric despite such a thing being Triton’s greatest fear. It shows he actually cares for Ariel and her happiness, and is sort of guardian angel for her. Not to mention he gets some legitimately funny moments (his “geez mon” still cracks me up). As for Flounder and Scuttle, I’ll say it, they’re pointless. Flounder only exists so Ariel has someone to talk to or sing to, and he leaves hardly an impression. Scuttle’s just there for the joke of misleading Ariel about human appliances. Of the two I prefer Scuttle because Buddy Hackett is great in the role (and is possibly doing some improvising) but any action they contribute to could easily have been given to Sebastian. Kenneth Mars is decent as King Triton (though I remember his voice being more booming) and I like that Ben Wright as Grimsby feels like a connection between old and new Disney, seeing as he was the original voice of Roger. Oh and did you know the maid and the chef were voiced by Edie McClurg from Ferris Bueller and Rene Auberjonois from DS9?
Another thing this movie really does right is it’s villain. While a part of me still thinks previous baddies like the Wicked Queen and Maleficent have a greater evil presence, there’s no denying how charismatic yet threatening Ursula is. There’s a real frightening power of persuasion to her that really stands out. She’s something of an unconventional seductress, a schemer, and a cheat; a frighteningly powerful one at that. And I loved seeing the little captured souls all withered in the seabed -a good use of dark imagery. Though The Great Mouse Detective featured the first villain song, The Little Mermaid was the first to make a tradition out of it. And it really worked! Through “Poor Unfortunate Souls” we get an idea of Ursula’s character, what she does, what she wants, her cunning, and her dramatic flare which could easily have been relegated to insipid dialogue. Add to that the magnificent, versatile voice of Pat Carroll and one hell of a great design (based on drag performer Divine), and you’ve got one of Disney’s most lasting and memorable villains.
But despite all this I do have some significant issues with the film. The thing I can’t overlook as an adult is that Ariel’s judgement is very questionable. She is a teenager after all, confused and emotional, and you can’t help but feel her thoughts and feelings are misplaced. Both Ariel and Eric fall in love at first sight, and you’ve got to question at that age if they really know what love is. That’s not a huge problem in and of itself because it’s a trope of all these fairy tale movies. But they never really get to know each other either. Ariel being unable to speak or even communicate much, means Eric only gets a fraction of her personality. His interest in her is mostly physical. And even then he didn’t initially think she could be the woman of his dreams because she lacked the singing voice. But they still get hastily married in the end. If there was a moral about the dangers of making reckless decisions, this movie didn’t convey it well because Ariel’s rewarded for hers anyway. Hell you could argue, she owes her happy ending to Ursula. And it emphasizes that she hasn’t learned much. I also have a big problem with the ending and one of the themes of the movie. Ariel’s continuously wishing for more, to be a human, unsatisfied with life as a mermaid. She keeps wanting to change herself, and when she falls for a human she sees this as the only way to be with him. Further, everyone including Triton eventually, seems to believe there’ll be no happiness for her if she lives in the sea and stays a mermaid. I really dislike this notion that she has to change who she is in order to find love and happiness -I think it’s a really unhealthy moral. The “happy ending” is that she becomes a human implicitly forever. She irrevocably changes herself for a man, and because of this, while Ariel’s a good character, she’s certainly not a good role model.
Let’s talk about the music. Another first, this Disney movie really introduced the kind of Broadway-calibre musical numbers the studio has since become known for. This is in large part due to Alan Menken who penned many of the songs we all adored as kids. They hit all the important songs: the longing-for-more song “Part of Your World”(very nice despite some corny lyrics), the villain song “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, the elaborate comedy song “Under the Sea” (a lot of energy and fun), the love song “Kiss the Girl” (overall okay) and they’re all pretty well written and performed. While most of them are Disney classics, there are a few lesser ones like the somewhat out-of-place “Les Poissons”. And what was up with that opening song Triton’s daughters were singing? Do they just sing exultations to themselves every day? And I really don’t understand why they even gave Ariel sisters, except to sell more toys.
The animation is really impressive, capturing the scope of the setting and characters. It feels right both in the fast moments like the shark attack and “Under the Sea” and in the slower more calming scenes. it’s certainly more engaging and visually delightful than anything in the previous decade. Moments like Ariel lifting herself up off that rock as the tide comes in, or Ursula singing look fantastic. But I do have to acknowledge that it doesn’t always age well, particularly in the sequences where Ariel’s singing and her face ...doesn’t look quite right. The animators made her wonderfully expressive in some places where she’s exasperated or bemused, but it may have contributed to some shots looking less refined. Again, by today’s standards.
By today’s standards The Little Mermaid is still an exceptional film, just maybe not as exceptional as when it came out in 1989. I admire it for being the game-changer it was and I still am entertained by it. But I think a number of better movies have come out of Disney since, and because of the mishandling I feel of the moral, the central relationship, and that principal character theme that rubs me the wrong way I can’t say this is one of Disney’s best. But it is still a good movie and because of what it largely paved the way for, I sincerely respect it.
Next Week: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)