Here we go. How to talk about a favorite film? It’s tough. I’ll have you all know I watched it 3 times for this review . Once to enjoy, once with commentary and once to take notes. There are a lot of ways I could go with the review and even now as I am writing I’m not sure what way the words will take me but that wouldn’t be the first time in my blogging career and it won’t be the last.
Aside from being a massive hit, The Little Mermaid was important for Walt Disney for a number of reasons:
1. It marked the beginning of a yearly animation offering from Disney which to 2015 has only missed a few years. Previously a film would take 4-7, even 10 years to finish
2. It was the return of the ‘girl movie’. After Sleeping Beauty failed Disney was convinced movies for girls weren’t successful, which is why we went from 1959 to 1989 without a solo female leading character, and most of the time it was just a male lead and the female would be thrown in for the last minute as a love interest only (you all know how I hate that!). At one point Jeffrey Katzenberg was so concerned about it being a ‘girl movie’ he warned the directors Ron Clements and John Musker to not spend very much money because it was unlikely to do well at the box office. (Amazing in retrospect right?)
3. It marked the return of the broadway style Disney musical which hadn’t been seen since Cinderella. You certainly had pictures with songs, many by the Sherman Brothers but there weren’t any ballads or traditional scores like a musical.
4. Computer animation was used in a new way. Scenes like the ship scene at the beginning and the climatic battle were done using CGI, which had just been invented by Pixar. It is the last movie to use hand painted cells. But even so bubbles and other special effects were revolutionized to create the lush look of the picture.
5. It would inspire Disney to keep on progressing in their animation quality and storytelling ability. The next decade is what is known as the Disney Renaissance where we see such classics as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King and others. Really Disney would face no competition until Dreamworks had it’s first megahit with Shrek in 2001. Pretty impressive.
So that’s some of the 411 behind The Little Mermaid. Even if you are one of those poor unfortunate souls who doesn’t like this movie you can’t deny it was very important.
As we discussed in the Oliver and Company review, Disney executives had gathered animators for a brainstorming session and green-lit the ‘oliver twist dog movie’ and the ‘little mermaid’. As I said, executives were skeptical could appeal to boys limiting your audience. However, they had decided to embrace the musical and Splash had recently been a big hit in live action for the studio.
Walt Disney had actually thought about doing Little Mermaid as a package film of Hans Christen Andersen shorts. They had even commissioned some storyboards which 1989 directors Ron Clements and John Musker found and the changes they had made to the original story were largely the same as the 30s version (cool right?). In both cases the story had been softened from the book to have a happy ending.
Once they had decided on a Broadway style musical they had worked with Howard Ashman previously on Oliver and Company and he had worked with Alan Menken on Little Shop of Horrors. If you ever get a chance listen to the audio commentary on the diamond edition dvd because I was amazed at how much influence particularly Ashman had over the film. He is even credited as writing ‘additional dialogue’. I figured he was just the lyricist but evidently he would preform each of the songs in costume and insist the animators and their body doubles (Little Mermaid used human forms for the first time in many years too) mimic his acting.
Little Mermaid is also a movie that is ‘underscored’ meaning the music was written to dictate the animation, not the other way around. This also hadn’t been done in many years at Disney.
For the first time in many pictures there weren’t any celebrity voices except for Buddy Hackett who played Scuttle. Jodi Benson who voiced and sang for Ariel was a broadway performer who had worked with Ashman before. Her and Samuel Wright who plays Sebastian did not audition before the main team but sent in tapes from New York and they were so impressed they go the jobs. Kenneth Mars who plays Triton had been a working actor but not well-known and Pat Carroll was a replacement for Ursula. They originally wanted Bea Arthur from the Golden Girls.
I’ve mentioned on the blog how much I admire Walt Disney Studios risk taking. Despite initial nervousness Little Mermaid was the most expensive animated movie ever made and with the flop of the previous expensive film, the Black Cauldron, you have to admire them for taking a risk again.
The animation is so detailed. After decades of xerox films to have a million bubbles surrounding the characters under water, and the iridescent look of the light on the rocks is amazing.
Even just the movement in Ariel’s hair is incredible. There isn’t a moment under sea where it is static. It always moves and flows. No small task even today.
If you listen to the audio commentaries it becomes clear Little Mermaid was a labor of love especially for Clements, Musker, Ashman and Menken, and I for one am grateful because it meant a lot to me growing up.
The Little Mermaid was also the first movie to be released on VHS only 6 months after it’s release. At the time Disney was very nervous about doing this because it would prevent profitable re-releases which they had done of their other classics; however, it was a huge hit selling 7 million in the first month!
It also started a track record of Disney winning Oscars again (first nomination since 1977 Rescuers) with wins for best score and song (Under the Sea). They would win again in 91, 92, 94, 95, and 99. Not bad!
Ok. Enough of the delicious backstory. Let’s talk about the actual story. This is probably less interesting for some of you as most everyone knows the story of the Little Mermaid (I mean even if you don’t care for it could you get through the 90s and not see Little Mermaid?)
Let’s talk about the story by going over the songs.
We start out with Prince Eric’s boat and a sea shanty which introduces us to the myth of Triton and his ‘fathoms below’. Immediately we are immersed in the feel of the water and the melodies we will be hearing throughout the film.
Then the melody takes us to Triton’s castle and the concert. We learn Ariel is headstrong and doesn’t come to practices. We meet Sebastian and Triton and get a brief glimpse at Ariel’s sisters.
This scene is not only humorous but it tells us a lot of Triton’s relationship with Ariel. She is clearly the favorite of his girls and she isn’t there. This doesn’t just disappoint Triton but it angers him. That is a lot to learn about characters in what is essentially a comedic scene.
Then we get to see Ariel. She is searching for human treasure and is willing to face a shark for it. She goes up to the shore to find out what the items are from Skuttle. Again this is a humorous scene but it also tells us a lot about her . She is brave (perhaps carelessly so), rebellious, inquisitive and naive. These are all huge traits that makes her vulnerable later on to the manipulations of Ursula.
Triton is upset with her of course so he assigns Sebastian to take care of her. He a musician is insulted to watch over a ‘teenager’. Evidently Menken and Ashman decided on a Jamaican voice because reggae was very popular and they felt it would give a swaying feeling of the sea to Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl sung by Sebastian and I think they were right. Plus, it makes Sebastian an interesting character. Most characters with that accent are relaxed and chill but he’s high strung. It’s funny.
Sebastian follows Ariel to her secret grotto where she sings of her desire to be human, to be part of that world. Originally this song didn’t test well in focus groups but Ashman, Menken, Clements and Musker told execs neither did Over the Rainbow, so the song stayed. In the audiocommentary one of them says having Sebastian there during the song adds a level of tension and even suspense which helps tone down the cloyingness that might otherwise be there if she was unheard. I had never thought about it before but it makes sense.
I’ve heard some people object to Ariel because she is selfish and whiny. She can be selfish but where do you draw the line between knowing who you are and what you want out of life, and being selfish? She certainly does selfish things but it is from a good place. She doesn’t feel at home in her own skin literally. How many of us have felt the same? I certainly have and that’s why I related to the movie so much. I remember looking through my Mothers wallet and wishing I could be taken seriously by someone. I hated being a kid and being told what to do all the time. I wanted to try things my way and maybe that is selfish but it is also what produces great human beings.
To me her yearnings come from a deeper place than just whining and complaining and I think it is why girls related so well to Elsa in Frozen too. It’s the same kind of yearning to be who you are supposed to be but the world won’t allow it.
Getting off track…
She hears some fireworks, leaves Sebastian, and heads up to see what the noise is about. This is her first time looking at Prince Eric and she is immediately taken with him.
Eric is one of the most present Disney Princes. Evidently for some reason men are hard for the animators to draw and that is why they were avoided in films like Cinderella. (It’s strange but I’ve read that more than once). I know technically it is only a few days but for a Disney movie we get a lot of time spent between Eric and Ariel.
He actually has a fair amount of dialogue for Disney Prince. We know he is waiting for the right girl despite his adviser Grimsby’s yearnings for him to settle down. They establish quickly Ariel and Eric are a match in spirit not just appearance (which is something the instant love trope usually misses. I have no problem with instant attraction but that should just be the beginning and with Ariel and Eric it is).
An unexpected storm comes and Ariel jumps to Eric’s rescue saving him from drowning. We get a reprise of Part of Your World which is stirring and had every earnest little girl singing along!
Again, I related to this song because I felt like Ariel- a kid who wanted to break out of the kid body and be taken seriously by the world.
Her session with Eric makes her twitterpated and she flirts around the castle to the notice of her father and sisters. This stresses out Sebastian as he knows the King will be enraged if he finds out Ariel’s secret love.
So Sebastian tries to convince Ariel that she should stop wishing to be on the ground. He then sings to her the Oscar winning song Under the Sea. The animation in this song is amazing. Every fish plays a different musical instrument and they all combine together for one sound. How they recorded it I will never know but everything from tubas to steel drums make for a great song.
On the audio commentary they mentioned how the backdrops in under the sea are many colors. I guess Katzenberg was concerned they weren’t all blue but it totally works. In fact, the more creatures involved the more colors the sea is until we have seen purple, gold, green, pink and of course blue. And seriously watch the bubbles in Under the Sea. It is amazing!
Of course she doesn’t listen and leaves with Flounder before the song is even over but Triton requests Sebastians presence because he wants to know who Ariel is in love with. By a slip of the tongue Sebastian tells him Ariel is in love with a human. Of course, he is angry and worried.
Fearing for his daughter and completely incapable of communicating with her Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto and leaves her devastated.
Again think of this from her perspective- everything she knows in her heart she is to be has been destroyed and told is wrong. To me it makes perfect sense she would be vulnerable at such a moment to Ursula, the sea witch who sends her thugs Flotsam and Jetsam out to tempt her.
The eels are basically like the snake in the Eden story and Ursula is the devil. Ariel is willing to sell her soul, her voice, to the devil for a chance to be who she is supposed to be, and love who she is supposed to love. That is compelling stuff in my book!
From the moment we meet Ursula she is one of the great Disney villains. She is bitter, out for revenge, overweight octopus who covers the sea with her blackness. Pat Carroll as the voice gets the perfect balance of a truck driver with a drag queen and even the way she puts on lipstick is suspect. She is like a used car saleswoman but in Ariel’s case it is her soul and revenge on Triton Ursula must convince her to give up. Poor Unfortunate Souls is my favorite villain song ever (and only the second solo by a villain ever). Much copied but never duplicated, it has the perfect combo of gravitas, manipulation and salesmanship.
Once she is turned into a human Flounder, Sebastian and Skuttle must help her find some clothes (in a very well choreographed scene by Disney considering their heroine is without clothing! The score in this section is also brilliant highlighting every moment.
I’ve heard some people say Little Mermaid teaches a bad lesson because Ariel gets what she wants in the end despite making very poor choices. She does make mistakes and she realizes it when her father is taken down by them, but when she gets her legs Sebastian looks at Ariel and he says ‘or you could be miserable for the rest of your life’. Her father was never going to give her what she knew she needed and Ursula at least provided a chance.
Eric meets Ariel and thinks she is the one but since she can’t speak he discounts the resemblance to his rescuer. Nevertheless, she is invited to the castle and given a warm bed and place to stay. An unlikely contrivance I suppose but it works!
She is invited to dinner with Prince and Grimsby but first we get a little comic relief when Sebastian accidentally stumbles into Chef Louis kitchen, a kitchen hard at work cooking “les poissons’ or little fish. My brother took a french immersive class and a teacher used the word ‘les poissons’ and immediately a chorus of girls started singing the cooks song. It is hilarious slapstick and doesn’t have much to do with the story but I love it! It gives a break from some of the schmaltzy romance and very funny vocal performance by Rene Auberjonois.
At dinner Eric invites Ariel to get a tour of the village so the next day is spent driving around, dancing and getting to know Eric despite Ariel’s lack of a voice. Knowing their time is brief Sebastian tries to encourage the romance with the wonderful song Kiss the Girl. I thought this song was hilarious as a kid. We’ve got to create the mood after all… (The vocal by Wright is actually quite lovely)
Ursula realizes things aren’t going her way so she uses Ariel’s voice and becomes human to trick Eric into marrying her. She actually has hypnotized him with yellow eyes.
The battle between Triton and Ursula isn’t a wizard’s duel for sport. It is a battle of good vs evil, of bitterness and revenge with the fate of the sea at stake. The tension builds so well and it feels pretty desperate and that Ariel has lost her love and her father all at the same time. What can be done if even Triton is under Ursula’s control?
Another person I read said Ariel doesn’t learn anything by the end. I disagree. She does learn that chasing your dreams requires sacrifices and that love and family are precious. She learns she is where she is supposed to be. That is huge. But her father also learns. He learns HE WAS WRONG That’s why he changes her in the end. He was thwarting his daughters destiny and he made it right. So, lessons are learned and it is not a lesson that whining gets your way. At least that’s not what I have ever taken from it. It’s that we need to fight for what we are supposed to be in life and that is more important than anything else for both Eric and Ariel.
We get our happy ending!
It probably goes without saying this movie gets the highest grade from me. It has everything you want in a Disney movie. The animation is stunning in it’s detail, artistry and light. The songs run the gambit from heartfelt to hilarious. The characters are complex and relatable, even the Prince. The story teaches important lessons to girls (and boys I suppose) about finding out who you are and where you belong in life and fighting for it. It has the classic father/daughter dynamic that goes back to King Lear (and further I’m sure).
The villain is unlike any we had seen before with a villain song that has yet to be topped. The score clips along and speaks for a character who for a majority of the film cannot. The songs are all instant classics. Every choice worked and it was magic to me as an 8 year old in 1989 and it totally holds up. I saw it 3 times this weekend and could have watched it 3 more times.
Just like Frozen is doing for modern girls, Little Mermaid inspired many from my generation to be yourself and to sing your heart out. Just like girls are singing Let it go, we were singing Part of Your World. My sister and I would have competitions at night both of us claiming that we sounded the most like Ariel. (It was me all the way).
I get that it strays from the classic story, but I think if Hans Christian Andersen saw the treatment of his work he’d be thrilled (and with Frozen too!). It certainly keeps the spirit of the story without punishing Ariel for dreaming big.
I have nothing bad to say about it. I love it and can’t wait till the day I can gather my daughters (if I ever marry) and watch The Little Mermaid together and hear about all their desires, frustrations and dreams, and to sing with them!
Overall Grade A+
PS The sequels that are usually terrible by Disney aren’t half bad for Little Mermaid. There is actually a prequel and a sequel.