Believe it or not, there was a time that Disney didn’t own every major property that gets released nowadays. They relied on adapting fairy tales with their animated magic by adding songs and making the story a bit more child friendly. Many people believe that the 90’s was the peak of the Disney Renaissance as they created some of their most iconic movies in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King but I’d like to take you to where I believe that peak began, The Little Mermaid. With its gorgeous hand drawn animation, outstanding music and half descent message to young girls, The Little Mermaid stands tall as a modern classic.
The film is based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the same name, and it focused on a young mermaid named Ariel (though she has a different name in the fairy tale), the youngest daughter of the King Triton who has an obsession with the surface world despite her father’s strong hatred for it. She collects whosits and whatsits a plenty and ends up falling in love with a human prince after seeing him one night on his ship and rescuing him after a giant storm destroys the boat. From there she has a fight with her father and takes a visit to Ursula the sea witch. Ursula grants her legs but with a catch, she must give up her voice and if she doesn’t get the prince to kiss her by the end of the third day, she’ll become Ursula’s forever. The movie changes and adds a bit to the story like King Triton’s disapproval of the surface world, Ariel’s mother still being alive and the ending as in the fairy tale, she’s given a knife to kill the prince as he’s fallen in love and to marry another woman but she throws it away, sparing his life, and she’s taken by the fairies for her kind heart towards man. Overall the original is a bit of a downer.
I really liked what Disney did with their take on this classic tale. They gave Arial an actual reason to be curious about the surface and wanting to sacrifice her voice for legs. Her collection of thingamabobs shows her desire to understand a new world and although she never really gets to know Prince Eric, he’s more than just the first guy she sees and rescues. They made Prince Eric a better character and improved the ending by not making Arial just another jealous girl who didn’t get her way. Disney created an actual “fish out of water” story as Ariel realizes there’s more to freedom than the ability to go where you please but to actually have the ability to speak your mind. You could also look at it as there’s more to a person than just looks, Prince Eric learns to appreciate Ariel as her mute self but instantly drops her when he hears her voice. It also helps that Arial is a thin and attractive young girl, one that might be a rib shy, so I feel the message doesn’t hold as strong.
The animation is absolutely outstanding, with a brilliant level of detail, and the way people’s hair flows in the water is mesmerizing, and the fact that anything that moves in the water leaves a trail of bubbles blows my mind. I really miss the 2D hand drawn animation that Disney Studios were known for and though I understand how time consuming this process is, the product was something that computer animated movies just can’t quite capture. Just look at the image above with Arial on the rock, the wind blowing in her hair and as she raises herself higher than she’s ever been, the water crashing behind her, and that was all done by someone with a pencil and paper. Even the grand finale against Ursula is a pleasure to the eye with so much going on, the detail is simply nuts. It truly is a lost art of cinema – at least it is still continued at places like Studio Ghibili – but this was something Disney nailed in the 90’s and its a shame they’ve let that slide.
Another absolute standout would be the music because man, it’s so damn good, and it really helps tell the story, even in parts without dialogue. You can hear elements of Part of Your World scattered in the orchestral score, hinting at someone who looks for somewhere else to explore. The musical numbers themselves are great and guaranteed to get stuck in your head with every song being iconic. Part of Your World, Under the Sea, Pour Unfortunate Souls, Kiss The Girl, and even Les Poissons are all excellent, though I’ll have to say that not all villain songs work but Pour Unfortunate Souls really hits it perfectly as Ursula nails her motive while persuading Arial to give up her voice. Not all movies have as many memorable songs as The Little Mermaid and I think that shows the strength of the film.
The voice work is all top shelf as many of the actors did their own singing as well. Jodi Benson voices the young Arial and reprises the role in the sequels, and she absolutely nails the innocent nature of Ariel, making her voice memorable even though it’s not there for a good chunk of the movie. The character of Ariel is an interesting one as she discovers her freedom and learns there’s more to someone than the way they look. Pat Carroll voices the evil sea witch Ursula, who I would say is one of the best Disney villains period. They have her act almost like a drag queen and it completely works with the character. She too sings her song, and the voice she brings has such a sinister flair to it that no other voice actor could’ve done.
Not all the characters pitch perfect, the fact that King Triton (voiced by Kenneth Mars) can’t ever make any decisions for himself, despite being the king, is a bit disappointing, and Prince Eric (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes) only wants the girl who sang to him and really lacks any character development as he marries Arial at the end only because of her returned voice, not because he finally got to know her. Also, the dude lacks any moves and has no idea what to do with a girl as shown by the multiple times he could’ve kissed Ariel but kept blowing his chance.
The Little Mermaid kicked off what is known by many as the peak of the Disney Renaissance, and though it branches off the original fairy tale quite a bit it is to make it their own and strengthen the story for younger audiences. The animation is phenomenal and the music iconic. Although the message doesn’t quite stand the test of time – see above character flaws – but there’s a reason why this movie is as fondly remembered by people who grew up with it – the Disney magic.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid is an iconic Disney movie that started the Disney Renaissance, it’s animation is beautiful, the songs are super catchy and story well known to those who grew up with it. It’s message and character arcs may be a little weak but that doesn’t stop how awesome this movie really is.