THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989):
Written by: Hans Christian Andersen (original story), Roger Allers, Howard Ashman, Ron Clements & John Musker
And now we come to the TRUE game-changer at the studio- the movie that started The Disney Renaissance, and helped define a decade. Coming out in the late 1980s after a series of “scratchy outline” movies and weaker faire, this Fairy Tale-based story had some work to do. Re-working a Bittersweet Ending Hans Christian Andersen story into a Happily Ever After plot, they went ALL-OUT with phenomenal animation, character design, songcraft (getting Broadway & Little Shop of Horrors alumni Alan Menken & Howard Ashman to do the work on that), and writing- critics noted that the movie came off as a full-bore Broadway Musical, complete with an ingenue, an “I Want” song, glorious villain songs, INCREDIBLE over-acting, and more. Basically, this movie rules, and you can totally see how they created a sensation. It pretty much helped knock Don Bluth off the platform as the preeminent family movie maker of the time, too.
Ariel’s innovated the modern Disney Princess, always wanting “More!”, though they really make her quite petulant while sympathetic at the same time- it’s a tricky balance to maintain (since those characters can be REALLY annoying), and it turns out that the best way to do it is to make the heroine as attractive as possible, with the largest eyes imaginable on a human face. I mean, there’s Puppy Dog Eyes, and there’s THIS. Combining Ariel’s beauty (making both boys & girls appreciate the movie- I know plenty of girls who adored how Ariel looked) with some great sidekicks (the cowardly Flounder and stick-in-the-mud Sebastian, who plays a similar archetype to many ’80s movies where adults chase kids around as their job- like The Wizard and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but more sympathetically), a PHENOMENALLY-hammy villain in Ursula, and a Prince who’s more than just a backdrop to the story; the movie really works on every level.
The music is incredible, and you can totally see how it helped set off The Renaissance. The Disney Movies in prior eras tended to have more old-school sing-songy stuff (basically anything before the ’60s), and the ’60s saw lots of jazz (a genre *I HATE*) and then-current musical trends, making the films more dated in retrospect. By the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of films only had songs as background music, or at least just limited them- The Great Mouse Detective has only a couple songs, and The Rescuers Down Under has NONE. But it turns out the best way to pull things off was to get a couple of full-blown Broadway guys to do things- they get the notion of what makes great musical numbers, they know how to write hammy stuff (Broadway REQUIRES over-acting, like most live theater). Ashman & Menken did an incredible job, tearing the house down with hits like Under The Sea, Part Of Your World, Kiss The Girl (girls LOVE this song) and one of the easy all-time Villain Songs, Poor Unfortunate Souls.
Adding the bombastic nature of Broadway, more timeless types of music, and more outrageous characters combines perfectly here. This movie really stands above almost everything else in terms of music- any of the four big songs were hits, and could count as the “Iconic” song of the movie (compare it to Frozen, which really just has one). Massive Disney Retrospectives have to actually CHOOSE one- Ariel’s big “I Want” song produces the most iconic scene in the film (her lunging forward while the waves crash down as she does a reprise of Part of Your World), but Ursula’s Villain Song easily fits into Fantasmic! and assorted Castle Shows, too. And Sebastian’s big band number is a showstopper.
The animation of Disney changes permanently after this- this and Great Mouse Detective, separated by only three years, look like they were made fifteen years apart, because Disney was no longer sparing expenses in making these films. Everything after this looks a million times better than what came before, and they soon outstrip Don Bluth’s stuff completely. Glen Keane, the world’s greatest living animator, more or less made his entire career by being Lead Animator on Ariel (he’d also be lead on The Beast and Rapunzel, to show you what his pedigree in the business is). And this isn’t even close to the peak- they’d get better with each passing film after this point, only topping out around Pocahontas because there wasn’t much else to DO with the art form.
The “how they made it” stuff on the DVD set is fun, too. Jeffrey Katzenberg admits he’s the world’s least-patient man working in a business where everything takes a million years to happen and get finished, they describe Howard Ashman basing the film around a Broadway Musical theme for maximum fabulousness, and the various changes that occurred over time (Ursula shifted animal-themes several times- usually into those multi-colored super-finned fish- and was skinny for a while until they made her a Squid/Divine combo).
What’s nice, too, is that they keep a lot of things to a minimum. The Love Story isn’t quite so sappy and saccharine, and they avoid some problematic tropes- they still Fall In Love Instantly, but it’s easily passed off since they’re teenagers, there’s some legit basis (her saving & then singing to him; her also being funny and making him laugh rather than JUST being pretty), they have the most romantic song EVER behind them, etc. The Prince isn’t as bland as many other Love Interests tended to be in these films. The Sidekicks (which this film would inspire a LOT of- the Disney Renaissance is full of them, however forced their introduction- LOOKING AT YOU HUNCHBACK!!) didn’t overwhelm the plot and were used at a minimum and allowed for some much-needed slapstick, etc.
Shockingly, almost every character is good. Ariel is a great pouty, whiny teenager who is nonetheless earnest and sincere. King Triton pulls off being an Angry Authority Figure without coming across as completely unreasonable or evil (he even feels guilt and sadness when he sees what destroying Ariel’s collection does to her emotionally, but redoubles himself upon seeing that it “needed to be done”). Prince Eric is adventurous and funny instead of being bland. Flounder is forgettable, but is cute & collectible enough for the kiddies, and fits as a cowardly background guy. Sebastian is humorous because he’s part Butt Monkey/part Reasonable Authority Figure, especially once he gives up against the onslaught of Puppy Dog Eyes and starts helping out Ariel (he’s about to ruin the whole deal… until he sees her sad eyes and has to just give in). The Villainous Sidekicks are both scary and not incompetent. Ursula is magnificent in her Drag Queen Splendor. Scuttle avoids being an Annoying Sidekick by keeping his appearances short. Heck, even Eric’s poor adviser/helper guy Grimsby is a neat character- he’s stodgy and always wants Eric to settle down with someone (more or less like Prince Charming’s dad, and Prince Phillip’s), and it’s one of the cuter bits when he starts edging Eric to go after the poor mute girl instead of some ethereal memory of a life-saving songstress.
Ariel- The Definitive Disney Princess:
Ariel is pretty much the symbol of the latter-day Disney Princesses- rebellious, wanting “More!” and possessing the most gigantic eyes ever. Ariel is RIDICULOUSLY cute (and famously scantily-clad- as a preteen, I found myself thinking she was TOO nude. I actually felt weird about watching it with my younger siblings, like they were “Too young” to see a girl with such semi-nudity!). And then they go attempting to forge a million Foot Fetishists at once with a close-up of her wriggling toes. No wonder Carlton Banks’ mother wouldn’t let him watch this movie – and to think, the only real sex controversy it caused was the Home Video Cover with the castle’s parapet dong.
Overall, though, it’s a magnificent design- a perfect balance of color (giant red hair and a distinct shade of green/blue that’s actually called “Ariel” in honor of her- with pink skin and the iconic purple bra) and design- this is pretty much what EVERYONE thinks of when they think of Mermaids these days. She’s probably the most easily-recognizable female Disney character overall, and is one of the most popular of the Disney Princesses despite being created more than twenty years ago. She was one of the first Disney characters to get a Broadway show, and is a top-tier “Meet & Greet” character (presumably for an actress okay with showing their navel, though I’ve seen a good bunch wearing flesh-colored body-stockings out of modesty and a desire to avert the gaze of more perverted tourists, I would assume). It’s also interesting how they deliberately made her sisters more bland to contrast Ariel’s unique appearance- they have smaller eyes, less bouncy hair (OH MY GOD ARIEL’S HAIR IS SO BIG), their tails match their bras in color, and they’re all more generic overall.
Ariel is, in a word, ENDEARING. Her character motivation is arguably the weakest of any of the Disney Princesses- she just Wants A Man and that’s it- not really acceptable any longer. Oh, and she’s fascinated by human stuff, and wants to run around past the surface of the water. However, the movie-makers were skilled enough to bypass all of this with Part of Your World, one of the greatest “I Want” songs in history. Sung by Jodi Benson with this childlike innocence, eagerness and sheer WANT, it really encapsulates the whole moment. One person, when talking about the importance of the songcraft of the movie, pointed out that the song could have been called I Want Feet– an important reference to how important it is to verbalize things properly. And that shot of Ariel on that rocky outcrop, singing about her Prince… THAT is how you make a Big Moment.
Pictured: Among the greatest laughs in Disney.
Honestly, though, despite the relatively weak motivation, you WANT TO LIKE THIS GIRL, which is tricky to pull off. They kind of get away with it by making her flawed (“I completely forgot- my father is gonna KILL me!”), immature and impulsive, but in that funny sort of way. The “combing her hair with a fork” scene will never NOT be funny, in particular because of Eric & Grimsby’s total “WTF?” reactions. One of my favorite moments is when she grabs onto the reins of Eric’s carriage, and just REVS IT, getting the horses to go tearing across the countryside and over a huge gorge, just because she’s so into it. Her wild, childlike glee is perfect in that bit. And there’s also when Sebastian is about to drop the whole thing… and she just Puppy-Dog Eyes him into giving it up. The work of the animators can’t really be underscored here- Ariel spends almost half the movie as a SILENT CHARACTER, so the animation work has to do every single bit of the heavy lifting.
Ariel Merchandise & Face Character stuff in the parks is always a tricky thing- she takes numerous forms in the movie, with her signature “look” being the Mermaid Form, which proves problematic for toys and costuming, since she can’t walk around. You always end up with this awkward “short fish-tail that bends where knees are on a person” thing. Plus the Face Characters end up in bikinis. During much of the film, she wears a pleasing “peasant girl” look with the bow that you almost never seen in ANYTHING, then wears a PINK dress, and then has a wedding dress for one scene. Oh, plus the giant crab-bag dress Scuttle makes for her out of a shipwreck. So there’s a plethora of options for her Merch… but they usually default to “Mermaid” and… “Green Dress”? Yes, because Ariel’s distinctive red mane clashes poorly with the big, pink, puffy-armed ’80s dress, Ariel often gets stuck in a sea-green outfit, both as a Face Character and on Disney Princess Merch. Given that she NEVER WORE THAT in the movie, it’s a bit odd.
This crab is kind of a breakout character in The Little Mermaid, and was rather unique- a reasonable authority figure who was basically roped into all of Ariel’s crazy schemes. It’s actually neat to see his character progression, as he starts out as a tattle-tale following Ariel around and reporting to King Triton, but ultimately feels horrible when her collection of thingamabobs is destroyed, and there’s that brilliant moment where he freaks on her for making a deal with Ursula. Sure, he’s pissed, but when he demands she go back to Atlantica, he looks into her gigantic, innocent, pleading eyes and just resigns himself to his fate, lest she “be miserable for the rest of your life!” Zazu from The Lion King takes a lot from this guy, as do a few other “Conscience/Adviser” characters, and usually they end up as butt-monkeys who get beaten on a lot.
About the Performer: Samuel E. Wright is probably most well-known to regular people for playing Sebastian (a role he continued in the TV series and the sequels), but he was a well-respected Broadway perfromer, being nominated for a few Tonys. He was even the original Mufasa in Broadway’s “Lion King”!
Basically created to be the ultimate target of late ’80s Teen Girl Swooning. Look at those GIANT EYES. The blue color. The pitch-black, perfectly-coiffed hair. The fun-loving, kind-hearted personality. The whole “obsessed over some mythical love” thing.
In any case, Eric is a bit more notable than most Disney Princes, in that he’s afflicted with a lot of the “I want MORE” syndrome the Princesses get, and he’s kind of a happy-go-lucky adventurer. He pokes fun at poor Grimsby, and is a hopeless romantic, chasing after some mystery girl he’s basically created in his head. He soon falls for the crazy & mute Ariel, but things get weird when Ursula gets her suckers on him and he’s all brainwashed, but he soon pulls off one of the most BAD-ASS Disney Feats ever, going all Cthulhu on that fat broad using the mast of an un-sunken ship and some handy weather.
About the Performer: Eric was played by a largely unknown actor, who is mainly known to geeks for playing Peter Parker in the 1990s “Spider-Man” TV series. He also played Prince Charming in the “Cinderella” sequels, which is an odd bit of casting (playing TWO Disney Princes?). Jennifer Hale (Black Cat from the same cartoon) plays Cinderella, which makes for some humorous moments as the pair are reunited, but in TOTALLY different characters. I keep expecting Doctor Octopus to bust through the wall and team up with Lady Tremaine and wreak havoc.
Ursula was TERRIFIC. Like Maleficent, she takes up a huge amount of the plot, despite very little screen time- the mark of an excellent villain. She would overwhelm the entire movie had Ariel & Eric not been interesting, along with the Sidekick characters. Ursula was based largely off of the crossdresser Divine, and portrayed by Howard Ashman (the brilliant composer of many Disney tunes who died of AIDS in 1991) to a large extent, from whom the actress basically copied his movements and vocal style- particularly bits like “Life is FULL of tough choices, innit?” Her disgusting, corpulent appearance just sets off the whole thing- instead of being this slinky, feminine character, she’s gross on almost every level, taking cephalopod characteristics instead of those of beautiful fish, she’s purple instead of caucasian, she’s fat, she wears too much make-up, her hair’s short and ratty instead of flowing all ’80s-style, etc. Just sickening to watch, but so fascinating to look at- a GREAT design overall. Funnily enough, overweight butch lesbians actually use the term “Ursula” as a term of endearment.
AND THAT SONG!! Poor Unfortunate Souls could easily pass for the best Disney Villain Song even among such tremendous competition- you could pick from a few choices, but nobody would deny you this one. She’s just so CONNIVING and sinister at the same time. You KNOW you can’t trust her, but you could buy how a dumb lovestruck 16-year old would sign the scroll. The ham-fisted delivery completes it- that whole moment is utterly fantastic.
About the Performer: Pat Carroll was doing Broadway and comedy stuff many years before “The Little Mermaid” came out (even winning an Emmy), but has largely played “mom” roles and voice actor work since the ’80s. She considers Ursula one of the favorite roles of her career, and has even played her in video games and the TV series.
Triton was a really impressive character in The Little Mermaid, and a bit of something you don’t see that often- a VERY overprotective dad. In fact, he’s downright fearsome and dangerous, and one of the few to use violent actions to get his way. It’s a testament to the writers and directors that he nonetheless comes off somewhat sympathetically, to the point where he’s seen as a good person despite his flaws. It really comes down to the fact that everything he does is because of LOVE- he cares for Ariel dearly, to the point where he’ll do anything to protect her (especially from the surface people), and even sacrifices himself for her in the movie’s final act, which is basically the final thing that makes him a heroic figure.
MAN is he a piece of business, though. He gets an EPIC introduction, swooping in over a crowd of merfolk on a chariot pulled by dolphins, his trident glowing with raw power. And he’s this proud, doting father, enjoying his daughters at their little singing recital… until it’s revealed that Ariel bailed on the whole thing, embarrassing him in front of the ENTIRE KINGDOM. And HOLY CRAP does he get angry- just shouting “ARRIELLLLLLL!!!!” with his trident blazing. And of course this sets off their relationship, without which the rest of the movie really doesn’t work- he establishes his position, punishes her for her misdeeds, and gets furiuos every time he’s disobeyed. But in that horrifying moment where he DEMOLISHES her entire grotto, full of the things she cherishes most in the entire world… you actually believe him when he says “I HATED having to do that to a sympathetic, but still gobsmacked, Sebastian.
It’s like, he goes over the top, but you know where it comes from. Hell, ALL fathers know where it comes from (in the sequel, we’d realize much of it stems from the death of his wife Athena at the hands of a human vessel). Ariel’s irresponsible and disrespectful, and rushes into situations Triton knows to be dangerous. But his rage ends up breaking Ariel’s heart and driving her away, which is what leads her into the tentacles of Ursula. But all that stuff when he feels horrible for demolishing her grotto, when he tries to sacrifice his freedom for hers, and when he finally gives her what she wants (“how much I’m really going to MISS her”) and nods to her future husband… he feels REAL, you know? This is a person who makes mistakes, behaves too emotionally, and is a bit too used to being obeyed.
About the Performer: Kenneth Mars is an unknown to me, but he’d done bit parts on TV for years before the movie came out, and did more after. The one I actually remember is Otto, the German dude ranch owner (and Francis’s employer) on “Malcolm in the Middle”. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, and had voiced Triton in everything until then, as well as some other animated characters (most notably Grandpa Longneck in the “Land Before Time” series).
Reception & Cultural Impact:
Jesus, ya think? Ariel basically codified the entire Modern Disney Princess thing, and the movie itself formed the new “Disney Template”. Take a waifish, huge-eyed young woman with a strong personality and a desire for “More”. Perform a huge, soaring “I Want” song. Give us a mass “Crowd Song”. Give the main character a cute, toyetic Sidekick. Give her a secondary sidekick, either cuter or more cynical than the other one. Throw in a handsome male. Throw in a SPECTACULARLY hammy villain, complete with their own song. You see this, or variations of it, with Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana and more, and it continues to modern times with Tangled and Frozen. Why does the same template still get used? Because IT NEARLY ALWAYS WORKS. Ariel is probably the most copied Disney Character in history, with the “Princess Films” ramping up incredibly after this point, largely inspired by her. Even OTHER STUDIOS started ripping her off almost immediately.
The movie was an ENORMOUS smash hit, too. Everyone was astounded, going “What is THIS?!?!”- Disney hadn’t been this good in decades, having fallen into “Animal Pictures” and weaker faire while their true classics like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty lay in the past. Disney had spent more time, effort, and money on this than in any film in decades, and it showed. Don Bluth, who’d been showing up Disney for about ten years with his own quality pictures, was undone in moments. The movie made over $80 million in an era where that was BEYOND huge, was the #1 selling VHS the year it was released, and immediately started the Disney Renaissance, as everyone who worked on this film (in particular Keane, Ashman & Menken) was put onto new projects immediately, and budgets and expectations soared.
The movie gave us FOUR all-time iconic songs, the first of the new breed of Disney Villains (Maleficent & Lady Tremaine were spectacular, but never SANG), and a Disney Princess who will churn out Merch Money for a hundred years. Though Ariel often takes a backseat to the more current Princesses, and the more outwardly positive characters like Belle or more “classic” ones like Cinderella & Aurora, she’s still a huge part of the Disney Parks, being not only a Meet & Greet Character (though she lost her Grotto to the Disney Fairies in Disneyland), but the subject of a slow-moving Dark Ride (mainly known for having some cheap animation on the fish, though some REALLY advanced stuff for the Ariel & Ursula Audio-Animatronics). Tokyo DisneySea also includes her in one of its Ports of Call, with a HUGE cavern/cave system of things, from her Grotto (complete with stuff she’s found), a whale, a huge bronze statue of Triton and his dolphin chariot, and tons of Kiddie-Type carnival rides. Nearly every parade has some kind of spectacular Little Mermaid float, and at least one of the four songs will appear on Fantasmic! or a Castle Light Projection Show.
A Little Mermaid TV series (set under the sea) was released, and I saw all of it a couple of years ago- it’s not terribly memorable, despite retconning Ursula into Ariel’s past in a lot of places. A sequel and a prequel were released in the 2000s to very little acclaim- I found the idea that Ariel had to bar her daughter from seeing her grandfather, and always avoid the sea- to be way too depressing for the “Happily Ever After” ending the original movie got. Though the WORST part is probably just bringing in Pat Carroll to play Ursula again, as her “crazy sister”, because they were out of ideas.
The film inspired a Broadway Musical, largely because it was taking Broadway into cartoons anyhow, and it would inspire a new era on the Great White Way- Disney is actually credited with saving Broadway from failure and falling into seediness, as multiple productions (Beauty and the Beast and Lion King) reinvigorated the area with long-running shows. However, The Little Mermaid was a trickier production, and wasn’t nearly as successful as the later ones. An ongoing short musical still plays in the Hollywood Studios park, however, and Moana’s actress just played her in a Live Musical on ABC. Plus there’s a Live-Action Remake coming out later.
But really, this film is universally considered the start of a decade-long Disney Renaissance, so its legacy is secured.