THE LITTLE MERMAID

(1989)
With the voices of Jodie Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Jason Marin, Buddy Hackett, Kenneth Mars
Directed by Roger Clements and John Musker
Style: Hand-Drawn, Computer
Reviewed by JB

Giving the prince the bird?     Perhaps this film should be retitled THE LITTLE MERMAID THAT COULD. For such an old school, old-fashioned movie, THE LITTLE MERMAID, based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, has its place in film history. Before this film, it had been years since an animated film, Disney or otherwise, had really caught the imagination of the public. THE LITTLE MERMAID changed all that.  Although the previous year's OLIVER & COMPANY had done very well, it was THE LITTLE MERMAID which got the "buzz", as it signaled a welcome return to the classic "Princess" cycle, which had ended with the box office failure of 1959's SLEEPING BEAUTY thirty years previously. THE LITTLE MERMAID's positive reviews and 80 million-plus in tickets sales brought feature length animated tales back so strongly that we are now oversaturated with them, one computer generated tale about wild animals or penguins blending into the next one.  Yet don't blame all of that - or any of it - on THE LITTLE MERMAID, a highly enjoyable hand-drawn throwback to the good old days of SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA that is now often considered the first film of the new Golden Age of Disney.

     It was back to basics time with THE LITTLE MERMAID:  a young, pretty heroine yearning for a better life, a handsome prince looking for love, an evil villain filled with jealousy, and tons of the kinds of secondary sidekicks that gave many of the older Disney classics much of their kick.  Ariel, the big-eyed teen with flowing red hair, was surely the most memorable Disney heroine in many a year, possibly since Snow White herself.  Voiced by Jodi Benson, Ariel was a more modern and realistic kind of Disney girl, her mermaid fins notwithstanding.  Yet, instead of the stiff, idealized realism in the designs of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Ariel was just as beautifully cartoony as her surrounding cast.  The film and character are also greatly aided by Jodi Benson's gorgeous singing voice, put to excellent use in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's "Part of Your World", a song in the tradition of "When You Wish Upon a Star", with heartfelt lyrics and a winding, yearning melody.  

     Ursula the Sea Witch, voiced by Pat Carroll, brought back memories of great Disney villains of the past. As a baddie, Ursula could have projected a little more more "eee-ville", yet there is no arguing that by the end of the film, she has done enough to get what she deserves in a somewhat violent demise for a G-rated film.  Likewise, Kenneth Mars' King Triton is neither drawn nor played as regally as he might have been.  Yet it's pointless to quibble about these two characters when the rest of the cast features several minor players who bring so much fun to the film.  Tops among them is Sebastian the Crab, voiced by Samuel E. Wright. Originally set to be a stuffy English butler-type, Sebastian was reimagined with a Jamaican accent, leading to the two great calypso songs "Kiss the Girl" and the show-stopping (and Oscar-winning) "Under the Sea", the catchiest little ditty about living in the ocean since The Beatles' "Octopus's Garden".  There is also
Scuttle the Seagull, who pretends to know everything about humans, but actually knows almost nothing about anything.  Marvelously voiced by comedian Buddy Hackett, Scuttle's voice is the only one that may be instantly recognizable as that of a celebrity.  

I got your octopus's garden right here!     Although simplicity seemed to be the key to the success of THE LITTLE MERMAID, you have to hand it to the Disney artists, who had some of their most challenging characters and situations ever.  Ariel's constantly flowing hair, Sebastian's six legs, Ursula's octopus tentacles, most of the story taking place under water... nightmarish scenarios for even the best animators.  Yet, as they so often did in the past, the Disney people made it look all so easy.  And sure, Sebastian may not have been as cute as Thumper or Jiminy Cricket, but he had personality to spare and became a beloved characters for many children and adults. 

     There were also special effects galore, including some minor computerized imagery, but they all served as part of the story, as did all the songs.  In fact, THE LITTLE MERMAID was built like a Broadway musical, and not surprisingly, later became an actual Broadway musical, something of a new and quite annoying Disney tradition where every successful film spawns a TV series, three DVD sequels and a New York stage show.

    Again, don't blame all that on THE LITTLE MERMAID.  Like DUMBO, all it wants to do is make you happy for an hour or so.  It does so by giving you a simple story - girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again - some nifty little tunes, and a handful of memorable characters.  So simple, so effective and, thankfully, so influential that in its wake, we were treated to such new Disney delights as THE LION KING, ALADDIN and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, among others.  THE LITTLE MERMAID made Disney films important again. 4½ - JB

Walt Disney     The Secret Vortex


PART OF OUR WORLD IS REALLY WEIRD

Also in the wake of THE LITTLE MERMAID were new Urban Legends concerning the newer Disney films.  Rather than delve into it here, let's just say that some people see what they want to see in Disney movies  and posters, but when you are freeze-framing THE LION KING to see if the clouds actually spell out S E X in the sky, it may be time to, I don't know... get a life?!?!?


SEQUELS

The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000 - Direct to Video)
The Little Mermaid III: Ariel's Beginning (2008 - Direct to Video)

Disney sequels, something that Walt Disney himself didn't seem to have much use for considering he never made one in his lifetime, often follow the same storyline.  The original characters (Ariel and Prince Eric, for example) have a son or daughter (a daughter in this case) who gets in all sorts of trouble.  I haven't seen any of the direct to video sequels, but I imagine some sort of lesson is learned. Similar plotlines occur in THE LION KING 2, LADY AND THE TRAMP 2 and RETURN TO NEVERLAND, the latter being an actual theatrical release.