While The Great Mouse Detective brought Disney Studios out of what some refer to as their first dark age, 1989’s The Little Mermaid kick started the Disney Renaissance. For pretty much the entirety of the 90’s, Disney released a major hit year after year. They became almost unstoppable, pushed the Oscars into finally starting the Best Animated Feature category and led the way to Disney becoming the monster of a company that it is today. Being their first fairy tale based movie in 30 years (Sleeping Beauty released in 1959), The Little Mermaid also marked a return to their roots.
The Little Mermaid was an immediate success, both financially and critically. It earned $84 million domestically on a $40 million budget in its initial run, and has earned a total of $211 million in theatres worldwide after a 1997 re-release. Some people refer to it as the movie that brought Broadway into animation. It spawned a Broadway musical in 2008. It’s also one of the movies with an upcoming live action remake planned.
The Little Mermaid’s plans began early on, with Walt Disney himself hoping it would be one of his earlier films as part of a package based on Hans Christian Anderson tales. Most of his other stories have eventually been adapted by either Disney or other studios as well, including a little story called The Snow Queen. For a variety of reasons, one being World War 2, production for The Little Mermaid was shelved for decades. They brought it back into production in 1985 when Ron Clements, who directed The Great Mouse Detective along with co-director John Musker, showed interest in the project. At first Disney’s CEO thought it would be too soon considering they released Splash, a live action romantic comedy film with a mermaid, through Touchstone the previous year. The next day, he changed his mind and approved it along with Oliver and Company.
My history with The Little Mermaid is a bit complicated. Before watching it last night, I had seen it 3 times. I watched it twice as a child several years apart, and once a few years ago when I went through one of my nostalgic phases. Between those three times, I’ve never really known how to feel about it. I didn’t know whether I liked it or not. After seeing it again last night, having seen every previously released Disney movie in the last couple of months beforehand, I think I’ve finally decided how I feel about The Little Mermaid.
Let’s talk about the animation and the music first, because they’re both really good. More money was spent on the animation in this film than any other Disney movie in decades. They even split the animation into two different locations, one being their main studio, and another being a satellite studio they built within the Disney MGM Studios theme park in Walt Disney World in Florida. MGM mainly supplied painting and other inking support.
The Little Mermaid was also the first Disney movie in years to use live action modeling to help with animating human characters, used frequently while Walt Disney was alive. It would also be the last Disney movie to use hand painted cells – every movie since used digital methods to assist with colouring. Computers were used in this film on occasion though, including colouring a rainbow at the end of the movie and rendering Prince Eric’s ship. The result is a very good looking movie. Swimming animations are quick and smooth. There are a lot of great subtle facial expressions and fantastic use of body language. The environments, both on the surface and underwater, are fantastic.
The music is also great, with several songs that are hard to get out of your head after the movie is done. “Under the sea” and “Kiss the girl” are both Jamaican style numbers. It sounds weird when you realize the movie is supposed to take place near Denmark, but they’re both led by Sebastian the Jamaican lobster, so I’ll let it pass. “Under the sea” is a fun song that celebrates how awesome life is living underwater, while “Kiss the girl” is a groovy romantic number. The most famous song in this movie is between “Under the sea” and “Part of your world”. Part of your world is kind of this movie’s anthem song, and it’s a nice sounding balled with clever lyrics and a later reprise that makes it sound bigger. It also serves as a musical core for the soundtrack, and it’s an effective on at that.
Believe it or not, they almost cut “Part of your world” from the movie. It’s probably a good thing that they didn’t.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the story and characters. The central focus of the movie is Ariel, a 16-year-old mermaid who is fascinated by the human world. She often forgets about her duties as King Trident’s daughter and explores ship graveyards, searching for human artifacts to add to her collection. She’s a bit rebellious, but kind hearted. King Trident, who is one of Poseidon’s descendants in Greek Mythology, is basically the king of the ocean, and he really doesn’t approve of Ariel’s obsession. He tries to steer her away because he loves her, and he distrusts the humans, but he takes it too far at times.
At one point, Ariel comes across a ship sailing across the sea and immediately swims up to it, climbing up the side as far as she can to see humans up close. She’s infatuated by the human Prince Eric. She ends up saving Eric’s life after a storm, and sings a brief reprise of “Part of your world” as he wakes up. Eric in the meantime is captivated by her voice. When King Trident finds out, he destroys Ariel’s collection in a fit of rage. In despair, Ariel asks for help from Ursula, an evil sea witch. In exchange for losing her voice, Ariel grows legs, and has 3 days to convince Eric to kiss her or else she belongs to Ursula. Seeing as she doesn’t have her voice, and Eric is captivated by that voice, it doesn’t make things easy.
My thoughts on the central story are mixed. On the one hand, Ariel is determined, fairly smart and her motivations are clear. She is a fully developed character. On the other hand, her obsession with humans troubles me a bit. At first she seems to fall in love with Eric just because he’s a human. Eric also falls in love with Ariel’s voice, and even drops her the second he hears that mysterious voice again, even after spending two enjoyable days with mute Ariel. Sure, they clearly enjoy each other’s company, but it feels like an incredibly shallow relationship.
Neither of them really learn anything. Ariel starts the movie wanting to be where the people are, and she gets her wish by the end of the movie. Eric loves the sea, and ends up marrying a girl from the ocean. I can’t help but wonder if they’re more in love with the idea of each other than they are with each other. That’s not a good base for a relationship.
However, the two main subplots are very well handled. First, you’ve got the story of King Trident learning to let his daughter go. Shortly after he destroyed Ariel’s collection, he realizes that he went way too far. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find his daughter and hoping to apologize. When he learns that Ariel does love Eric, he lets her go. It’s a harsh lesson, but one that a lot of parents face sooner or later. It makes him very relatable.
The other subplot is a political struggle between Ursula and King Trident. I won’t say too much to avoid spoiling the ending, but Ursula is trying to manipulate her way into taking over the ocean. This political struggle leads to kind of an epic climax where both human and merfolk need to work together. That aspect of the movie isn’t explored that much, but it’s fascinating considering the humans only just found out about the merfolk, while the merfolk generally don’t trust the humans. Ursula is a great villain with a good villain song. She’s manipulative, spiteful and very dangerous when she ends up getting what she wants.
As a whole, my feelings on this movie are mixed. The fact that Ariel doesn’t learn anything bothers me. The relationship between Ariel and Eric feels really shallow. However, I really like the two sub-plots, and the music and animation are great too. I can definitely see why people love this movie.
It also gives me hope that the live action remake could be really good. There are things to like about The Little Mermaid, but there are aspects that can be improved on as well. Ariel could stand to learn something, or at least she could show at least some sign that she’ll miss life underwater. Eric could show a bit more depth. There could also be more focus on King Trident and the political struggle. Just please don’t turn Ursula into an anti-hero like Maleficent. Please Disney, don’t ruin The Little Mermaid the way Maleficent ruined Sleeping Beauty. Also, please don’t make what is pretty much a shot for shot remake like Beauty and the Beast.
I’m taking a one week break before we continue with Disney’s 29th animated movie. I’ve got some novel planning to catch up on among other things. I also want to make sure I keep enjoying this blog series, and a break is the best way to do that. I will be posting a list of my order of preference of all the movies up to this point. After that, the next three movies are The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast and then one of my childhood favourites, Aladdin.
Interestingly enough, I’d seen 32 of these movies before I started this blog series, and there were 24 movies I hadn’t seen. In the first half of this series, I saw 12 movies I’d never seen before. That leaves me with 12 movies I’ve never seen before within the second half of Disney’s animated cannon. Also, both my longest string of movies in a row I have seen and same for the movies I haven’t seen are coming up.