The Little Mermaid is No. 28 in one of the movies’ great traditions: It is a full-length animated feature from Walt Disney studios. And, like many of the films Uncle Walt supervised, it is based on a classic fairy tale.
It’s a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story (one that ends rather more happily in the Disney version). ‘Tis the tale of a mermaid, Ariel (voice by Jodi Benson), who falls in love with a prince and dreams of joining him in the world above the sea. To do this, she would have to sprout legs, which involves driving a hard bargain with a dreadful sea witch, an octopus called Ursula (Pat Carroll). Ariel also runs the risk of displeasing her father, a ruler named Triton (Kenneth Mars).
As is the Disney wont, there are some cute characters who play off the heroine (and who, to speak more cynically, make themselves very available for mass merchandising). Flounder (Jason Marin) is, as you might guess, a fishy friend; Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) a frequently confused seagull; and Sebastian (Samuel Wright), the Jiminy Cricket of the movie, a musically inclined crab.
After an opening reel in which it appears the movie might drown in cuteness, The Little Mermaid begins to swim in its own high spirits. The vernacular is modern and the songs (by Alan Menken and producer Howard Ashman, the team who created the musical Little Shop of Horrors) are fun, particularly the two Jamaican-flavored numbers sung by Sebastian. There’s also a funny patter song by a French chef (at the prince’s castle) who warbles on about the joys of cooking—horrors!—seafood.
But, as is so often true, the movie is stolen by the villain. The great purple-and-black octopus Ursula is the Disney animators’ triumph, a rolling mass of tentacles, each of which seems to have its own life. She taunts the goody-two-shoes Ariel with her devilish bargain; later, when she takes the form of an above-water maiden, she surreptitiously kicks the prince’s dog. Hissing is allowed.
Ariel is a bit of a drip, as is often the case in these Disney films; she’s perfect-looking, and her waving hair tends to overwhelm any sign of personality, aside from a certain spunkiness. (In case you’re wondering, the mermaids wear what appear to be little sea-shell brassieres, a Disney tradition of modesty that goes back at least as far as the nymphs in Fantasia.)
The film is directed and written by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also created Disney’s enjoyable The Great Mouse Detective. Their assured work, which manages to be both respectful of tradition and just a bit hip, plus the top-notch achievements of the younger animators, bodes well for the future of Disney’s most cherished legacy.
First published in the Herald, November 17, 1989
Well, yes, it’s an understatement to say that it worked out well for Disney after that, animation-wise. In that sense, the turning point that The Little Mermaid represents makes it one of the more significant movies of its era—this was the moment Disney went from being a moribund dinosaur to a giant player again. This is also a chance to remember how important Howard Ashman was to Disney’s turnaround; by most accounts he had a lot to do with making The Little Mermaid a smart movie.