After a good eleven films, we finally hit the Disney Renaissance with the one that kicked it all off. After a string of modest hits as the aforementioned The Great Mouse Detective and a retelling of Oliver Twist with Oliver & Company, Disney decided to go back to hat made them the name they were at that point: classic fairy tales. Disney jumped into the well with not a Grimm Brothers tale, but rather one by Hans Christen Anderson.The Little Mermaid also begins a transition from the Golden Age of three decades prior and into a Broadway-inspired decade of musical films which is not a bad thing.
The titular mermaid named Ariel (Jodi Benson) longs to go to the surface world by becoming human after falling in love with the handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) by saving him from a shipwreck. After finding out about her daughter’s admiration of a surface dweller, King Triton (Kenneth Mars) wrecks Ariel’s collection of the surface world which Ursula (Pat Carrol) gets wind of and makes a deal with her to turn her human. The only catch is that she gets legs, but loses her voice in return. It’s up to Ariel to marry the prince with the importance of body language and for Sebastian (Samuel Wright) to help make it so with Ursula ready to foil the plans at any minute.
My personal appreciation has grown for the film over the years, more on the animation front. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are marvelous from the spectacular party of “Under the Sea,” the villainous “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and the gorgeous somber tone of “Part of Your World.” Any of these songs can get stuck in your head for days, if not weeks. The designs of the character give an updated take on the old Disney style to fit in the modern era. Heck, they even gave Ariel’s wedding dress in the end some killer 80’s shoulder pads. Now, as for the animation, it is a world of expression and acting. This is legitimate acting drawn out before the screen especially on Ariel’s face. She’s curious about the world, she sees things and wonders and her emotion is practically on display throughout the film. They went back to using live action reference models and if you ever see a side-by-side comparison of the live footage and the animation, it is beyond remarkable how well the animators captured it all. It allows the characters to have depth and dimensions.
The only gripe I personally have is that Ariel was a bit immature, complained and yet still got her way. Now, I see that she grows in her short amount of time from the sea and the surface, but that growth in three days might be a bit too rushed. Another thing is that the third act feels like someone just told the animators to hurry up production because of how sudden it moves. It becomes madcap comedy and feels a tad out of place, but these are relatively minor complaints compared to the positive. It is a film worthy of being a part of our world.
Critic’s Quote: “There has been a notion in recent years that animated films are only for kids. But why? The artistry of animation has a clarity and a force that can appeal to everyone, if only it isn’t shackled to a dim-witted story.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, November 17, 1989
Signature Moment: Saying anything but “Part of Your World” is a crime against animation. It is simply perfect.