Now this is more like it, as far as princess movies go. 30 years came and went between Sleeping Beauty and this, and quite a bit changed: the Xerography process ruled the roost animation-wise, then Walt died, Disney World opened, and then, after over 25 years of seemingly increasing irrelevance, the animated films began to quietly crawl back with the new Eisner-Katzenberg-Wells leadership in the 80s. Successes like The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as an increased focus on TV animation, began to restore some of the lost luster to the Disney name. And so in 1989, The Little Mermaid was released, and nothing was the same anymore. To me, this was never a favorite as a child beyond the songs getting lodged in my brain (I was a dumb kid who thought it was too “girly”), but I rediscovered it as a teenager and fell completely in love. It remains one of my absolute favorites.
First, there’s the artistry. Some of the kinks are still being worked-out CGI-wise, they haven’t gotten to the gorgeous digital ink-and-paint CAPS system yet (save one shot near the end of the film), some background characters look unfinished, and occasionally there are some weird movements. But the character animation and backgrounds are overall magnificent, continuing the leaps forward made by films like Detective, Oliver and Roger Rabbit. Ariel, Sebastian, Ursula, Eric, Triton and the rest are all wonderfully appealing designs, moving in ways both amusing (Duncan Marjoribanks’ restless Sebastian who can shift into a confident showman at the drop of a hat, Ariel gets a lot of physical comedy in the second half via Mark Henn) and achingly truthful (Glen Keane’s masterful, sincere work in “Part of Your World”). Ursula in particular is a fantastic design who moves with sinewy glee thanks to Ruben Aquino and his crew. The effects animators, led by future director Mark Dindal (Cats Don’t Dance, The Emperor’s New Groove), deserve a big shot out for the surely pain-in-the-ass, near-constant bubbles, as well as stellar work in the action sequences (particularly the storm and the final fight with Ursula, which has one of my favorite dispatchings of a Disney villain ever).
And then there are the songs. Oh, man, these songs. Outside of maybe “Daughters of Triton” (which is super-short and doesn’t burrow into your brain), there’s not a single dud amongst them. Lyricist Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were fresh off the success of the film version of their delightful, blackly comic Little Shop of Horrors, yet they manage to perfectly switch styles here to a more “Disney” feel, while bringing their own spins to things. It is an absolute crime that because of AIDS, we only got two and a half Disney musicals out of the late Mr. Ashman (I say “half” because in Aladdin, 3 of the film’s songs are still his: “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”). His endlessly clever wordplay in songs like “Under the Sea”, “Kiss The Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” can shift on a dime to the power and yearning of “Part of Your World” (I’m also quite fond of the comic ditty “Les Poissons”, sung with delightful relish by Rene Auberjonois). Menken’s music seems to have been born to play alongside Howard’s lyrics, and he does a fine job with the score as well, his first for a feature film. The reggae and calypso flavors for “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly striking.
The voice actors all do their own singing, which would not always be the case in later films, and it lends a great authenticity to the performances. Jodi Benson’s immensely likable yet frustrated acting as Ariel gives way to her knocking “Part of Your World” and the triumphant reprise out of the damn stratosphere. While he doesn’t sing, Kenneth Mars lends weary dignity and anger, yet also a softness to King Triton, especially in his final conversation with Sebastian. Speaking of, Samuel E. Wright is absolutely hilarious in the role, high-strung yet able to shift into his composer persona easily, and he absolutely kills both his big numbers. Christopher Daniel Barnes, a future animated Spider-Man, does a great job bringing Prince Eric down to earth, making him a relatable “aw shucks” kind of guy instead of the stiffs we had previously (he has a priceless facial reaction to a statue that depicts him as one of said stiffs). Pat Carroll is an absolute scream as Ursula, spitting out her lines with glee, though I don’t know how she wrapped her mouth around some of those super-fast, twisty lyrics in “Souls”. And ringers like Auberjonois, Buddy Hackett as Scuttle the seagull, Jason Marin as Flounder, Ben Wright as Grimsby (amusingly, the directors had no idea he had previously done voices like Roger in 101 Dalmatians for Disney), Paddi Edwards as Ursula’s creepy-ass hench-eels Flotsam and Jetsam, and Edie McClurg as the maid Carlotta round out the numbers nicely.
The story is immensely well-crafted, moving from scene-to-scene with a minimum of fuss and getting what it needs to get done, done quickly yet with just enough time to let us breathe and watch the characters develop (Sebastian has a particularly good scene where he shifts into more of Ariel’s ally). Speaking of which: Ariel has come under fire from some critics for not being a good role model for young girls, and is accused of only wanting to land a man. This is a fair interpretation, but it’s one I rather disagree with. Ariel is shown early on to already be fascinated by humans (there’s a joke about certain types of Internet nerds somewhere in here), and in “Part of Your World”, she expresses feelings that she just doesn’t like being underwater that much (“Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far”). Yes, she’s a hormonal teenager, and Eric does serve as a love interest, but I found that relationship interesting nonetheless. Ariel’s interest in the human world does not suddenly stop when she meets Eric; there’s a delightful montage where she explores his kingdom, and her joy at everything she gets to do is infectious. And his reasons for falling for her in the first place, not just her voice but the fact that she saves his life, strike me as more legitimate than “hey, just met you in a forest/at a ball, let’s totally get married” (which, incidentally, recent Disney films like Frozen or Princess and the Frog have done an excellent job of skewering) But that’s just my spin on things.
So yes, I believe The Little Mermaid absolutely deserves its place in the Disney canon as a stone-cold classic. Its imperfections stick out today, but for me make it even more loveable than some of the more polished later films. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (this, Aladdin, Hercules, the vastly underrated Treasure Planet, and the aforementioned Frog) are hard at work on a new princess film, Moana, set for release late next year. I can’t wait to see how it stacks up to one of the all-time greats.