As much as Disney Princess movies helped build Disney’s animation studio into the monster that it is today, 30 years separated Sleeping Beauty (Walt Disney’s last princess movie) and The Little Mermaid (which kick started the Disney Renaissance). Since The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were the two first massively successful animated Disney movies since the 60’s, and they’re both fairy tale movies, let’s compare them to see which one is better.
I’ll be using the same categories that I used in my Cinderella vs. Sleeping Beauty post, except for the bonus live action remake category since The Little Mermaid’s remake hasn’t released yet. Disney is working on it though.
Most of these verses posts that I read online give points for each movie winning each category, and the overall winner is the one with the most points. I’m not doing that. While I will compare these movies in categories, not all points are equal. One movie may narrowly win in a number of categories, but fails hard in one specific element. I’m also not trying to say definitively which movie is better. I’m just saying which one I prefer and why. Now even though I’m a guy who generally prefers action adventure movies, and I have complaints about both of these movies, I did enjoy both of them when I rewatched them in the last couple of weeks. So without further to do, let’s see which Renaissance princess movie wins my favour.
In both of these movies, the main characters are the princes and princesses that end up falling in love, making this category an easy one to dig into.
With The Little Mermaid, you’ve got Ariel, King Trident’s mermaid daughter, and Prince Eric, a human living somewhere in Denmark. Ariel is obsessed with the human world, collecting “artifacts” from sunken ships and collecting them in her hidden cave. She’s very driven in this matter, wishing to learn more about their world despite her father’s disapproval. Eric loves the ocean, to the point where he’d much rather go sailing than finding a bride. They’re both interesting characters on their own, but my main complaint about The Little Mermaid is that their romance feels shallow. While they do have plenty of fun together in the three days Ariel spends as a human, she first falls in love with him because he’s a handsome human. He first falls in love with her because of her voice, something she lacks during her first stint as a human. That’s not enough for a compelling relationship.
With Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the daughter of an inventor. She lives in a small French village where most people live ordinary lives for that time. She’s very different than the rest of them, preferring to read and dream of adventure than to settle down and marry the village’s manliest man, Gaston. Beast is a cursed prince who’s a physical monster. He’s increasingly frustrated by his situation, is ill-tempered and is quick to judge. However, he’s soft on the inside, very protective of those he cares about and he also enjoys reading. He grows a lot as a person over the course of the movie, not because Belle makes him, but because he wants to be better. The two of them don’t like each other at first, but once Beast starts calming down, they start to see each other as friends. They connect through their mutual love of books and eventually fall in love. As of this point in Disney’s animation cannon, it’s the most well developed romance they’ve ever done.
Individually, both sets of main characters are very well written. Ariel and Belle both have clear motivations and dreams that separate them from their society. Although Beast and Eric are completely different people, their interests do mesh with their love interest fairly well. Where Beauty and the Beast wins here is that the love story works a lot better. They argue like a normal couple, but they’re also clearly willing to make sacrifices in their relationship. Ariel and Eric on the other hand feel shallow. Because of that, Beauty and the Beast slaughters The Little Mermaid in this category.
This is a very strong field for both movies.
The supporting cast in the Little Mermaid is fairly limited. You’ve got King Trident, Ariel’s father, Sebastian the Lobster, a couple of Ariel’s other fish and seagull friends, and Prince Eric’s advisor. Both King Trident and Sebastian go through significant character arcs themselves. They both start the movie very suspicious of the human world, trying to stop Ariel’s obsession in their own ways. Sebastian’s main goal from the start is to look after Ariel and make sure she doesn’t get in danger. He realizes that Ariel is fairly capable of taking care of herself, and that she really does love Eric. From that point on, he does his best to help her win Eric over. King Trident on the other hand is having a lot of trouble letting his daughter go. His main arc in the movie is learning to do just that, and it’s a harsh lesson for him. The other supporting characters don’t add much outside of humour and exposition, but they’re each valuable characters in their own ways.
In Beauty and the Beast, you’ve got a huge cast of supporting characters. There’s Belle’s inventor father, who’s a quirky man. He’s often amusing, but he also clearly cares about his daughter and consistently gives the movie dramatic value. The rest of the supporting cast mostly consists of The Beast’s servants, like candle sticks, the butler clock, a dresser, a teapot and her mug child … you get the idea. Apart from the butler, who learns to ease up as the movie goes on, none of these characters really go through an arc. However, they each add something to both of the main characters’ arcs. Their interactions are always entertaining. The movie makes creative use of their objects, both in the writing and the animation.
This is a very tough category to decide, so I ended up choosing which set of characters served the movie better. Beauty and the Beast’s characters contribute a lot of the entertainment to the movie as well as helping Belle and the Beast start to see what makes the other so special. On the other hand, King Trident’s character arc may just be the most compelling part of The Little Mermaid. Letting his daughter go is something that almost every parent in the world can relate to. Sebastian’s character arc is also a good one. That’s what makes The Little Mermaid win this particular category.
Even before I get into this, I know this part’s going to be fun. I wouldn’t call either of these villains the best in Disney cannon (that title belongs to Maleficent), but they’re at least worthy of being in the top 10.
Ursula in The Little Mermaid is an octopus sea witch (she’s got two arms and 6 tentacles, adding up to 8 limbs, so I’ll call her an octopus). She’s manipulative and tries to appear kind to Ariel, making a deal to solve a problem. Her real motivations are to dethrone King Trident, take his power and rule the ocean herself. When she temporarily gains the power, she’s terrifying, splitting the ocean in two, growing into a monster and killing sea creatures left right and center.
Also fun fact – Ursula’s voice actress Pat Caroll, who’s now in her 90’s, recently voiced a small role in one of the Tangled: The Series shorts. After all this time she’s still working.
Gaston in Beauty and the Beast is a completely different kind of villain. He doesn’t see himself as a bad guy – he’s just a conceited jock. He’s the very definition of an obnoxious manly specimen. He’s obsessed with marrying Belle just because she’s the prettiest girl in the village, even though they’re really not right for each other. When he learns that Belle loves the beast, he reveals himself as just as much of a moral monster as the beast is a physical monster. He leads the village to attack the castle, and even after the beast shows Gaston mercy, he still tries to kill him. It’s often hilarious how dumb Gaston is, but that doesn’t reduce him as a serious threat in any way.
Both of these villains work in different ways, and they’re both integral to the plot. Ariel wouldn’t become a human in the first place without Ursula’s help, while Gaston is the perfect contrast to the beast. Both of them have fun villain songs that also suit their character well. I’m not sure I can choose between them, so I’ll call this category a tie.
So far, each movie won in one category and tied in the third. This is honestly a closer competition than I thought it would be, even if Beauty and the Beast destroys The Little Mermaid in the main character category.
The animation in both of these movies is fantastic for their time.
The Little Mermaid is actually the last Disney movie that ever used hand drawn inking to colour the movie. It was also the first to use Pixar’s CAPS technology for digital inking, used in a couple scenes at the end. It’s a very colourful movie with great environments, fantastic facial animations and smart usage of limited CGI.
Beauty and the Beast on the other hand used more CGI than any previous Disney movie (although it wasn’t even the fourth to use it), with a bit of digital in every frame and a couple big environments done entirely by computer. That said, there’s still plenty of hand drawn animation, and it all looks fantastic.
These are both very good looking movies, even by today’s standards. On the one hand, Beauty and the Beast is more technically impressive. It’s also more colourful and more creative with a bunch of sentient objects as minor characters. However, The Little Mermaid’s animation directly affects the story more. When Ariel loses her voice to become human, the movie relies entirely on her facial expressions and body language for an extended period of time, and it’s done brilliantly. Her eyebrows move subtly at times when she’s confused, and her beaming smile when she’s seeing something new is infectious. But as much as The Little Mermaid’s animations serve the storytelling better, Beauty and the Beast does have the better animation overall. It’s got plenty of subtle expressions as well, like when Belle considers leaving after beast saved her from the wolves, only to look back. You can see the wheels turning in her head.
It’s a close call, but Beauty and the Beast wins due to its creativity and technical superiority.
A lot of these categories aren’t very easy to choose a victor, but this one is a bit easier.
The Little Mermaid’s songs are mostly Caribbean in sound and style. It may sound weird for a movie that takes place near Denmark, but Sebastian is a Jamaican crab so we’ll let that pass. It gives the movie a consistently groovy feel, with fun songs like “Under the Sea” and the smooth romantic number “Kiss the Girl”. There is variety mixed into this, like “Part Of Your World”, a balled that serves as a musical core for the soundtrack. Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Soul” emphasizes her manipulative nature, not to mention it just sounds awesome.
With all that said, Beauty and the Beast won two academy awards for its music. One for the original score, and another for the original song, “Beauty and the Beast”. “Be Our Guest” could have just as easily won the original song award. The soundtrack perfectly encapsulates the dramatic fairy tale feel of the movie, with a bit of mystery behind it. The songs all feel like Broadway numbers, often feeling big with a variety of tones. Even the deleted song, “Human Again”, is pretty good. I don’t like it as much as the rest, but I wouldn’t be against watching the extended special edition again.
I wouldn’t say Beauty and the Beast destroys The Little Mermaid in this category, but it is the clear victor.
And last but not least, we get to the final and the most important category. The story, and the morals behind it.
The Little Mermaid is the story of a mermaid who wants to live a human life, and ends up falling in love with a human prince. Her father, King Trident, doesn’t trust the human world and doesn’t want to let her go. He makes the mistake of destroying her collection, which ends up pushing her away and making a deal with a sea witch. He eventually learns to do so. There’s also a power struggle between King Trident and Ursula, the sea witch. The three plots mesh together by the end of the movie, giving us one of the more epic climaxes in any of these movies so far. The main romance feels a bit shallow, and that’s what weakens the story the most, but both of the subplots are very interesting. The main moral is for parents learning to let their children go. It’s certainly a better moral than Ariel allowing her obsession to rule her life, despite risking becoming Ursula’s eternal slave as part of their deal.
Beauty and the Beast is about a woman who falls in love with a cursed prince who’s a monster on the outside, but is a gentleman on the inside. It takes a while for her to warm up to him, and she only does so once the beast starts acting nicer. The moral is about not judging a book by its cover, and it does so with two perfectly contrasting examples. The beast, while ill-tempered, is a gentleman on the inside, while Gaston is a very attractive man who’s a bit of a monster.
While both movies have potentially good lessons behind their stories, Beauty and the Beast doesn’t have the same kind of significant flaws that The Little Mermaid does. Instead of a shallow romance, you’ve got a very well developed one. It’s not without flaws mind you – the beast is a way too harsh toward Belle’s father when they first meet. The Little Mermaid’s sub-plots are more interesting than the main plot, while Beauty and the Beast remains focused on its strongest story elements from start to finish. Its lesson is also more universal. That’s why it features the better story.
As a whole, I think Beauty and the Beast is the better movie, even if The Little Mermaid does beat it in a few categories. There’s a reason it remains the only non-Pixar animated movie ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. I wouldn’t say I love either of these movies, but I can certainly see why a lot of people do. After all, they were the first two massive successes in the Disney Renaissance. With all this said, whichever of these two movies you prefer, you’re not wrong.