Original Release: November 19, 1989
Runtime: 83 Minutes
Directed By: Ron Clements and John Musker
Look at this blog. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete? Oh? You say it’s not because I am only halfway through the Disney vault films? Hmm, I suppose we better get to work then. While Disney heads often say that Oliver and Company marked the end of the dark ages for Disney, many historians will tell you that The Little Mermaid was the beginning of the Disney renaissance. A time when Disney films exploded out of the gates, becoming instant classics. A reinvention of the classical musical on screen. A time of lions and greek heroes, warriors and street rats. It all starts here with a little girl named Ariel, who dreamed of something more. While I think that Ariel’s tale is highly flawed and her character someone I would never want children to aspire to, this film gets it incredibly right in just about every category.
Based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, Disney’s roots in wanting to make this film date back to the 1930’s when Walt planned to have a package film featuring several different Anderson stories. This, sadly, was not meant to be. In 1985, Ron Clements came upon the story and fell in love. He pitched it at a meeting and even though Jeffrey Katzenberg was hesitant at first, he finally green-lit the project. Clements and Musker who worked on the film were surprised that they often made similar changes to the original story as Walt had made in the 30’s.
Money was thrown towards Mermaid the likes of which hadn’t been seen in quite sometime at Disney. It was the first time in years that live actors had been shot for reference for the project. Many of the characters were based on real people, including Ursula who was actually based on the drag queen, Divine. Many big name actors even auditioned for the film, including Jim Carey, Bill Maher and Michael Richards.
The animation itself was a massive undertaking. More work was put into special effects than had been done since Fantasia. A rough estimate says that over a million bubbles were drawn for the film. In fact, so many bubbles were needed that the animation of them was outsourced to a company in China. The Little Mermaid was also the last film to use traditional cel technology as our next film would make the full transfer to digital animation. However, several scenes used the new CAPS system, developed by Pixar, in order to test it out for future use.
One of the best parts of this film is easily the music which was composed by Broadway legend, Alan Menken. Many historians believe this film was what finally perfected the Broadway musical in film form. One of my personal favorite songs from the film, Part of Your World, was nearly cut by Katzenberg due to an early version not testing well with children. By the way, “Not testing well with children” means they got bored and started hitting each other instead of watching the film. Musker and Clements resisted the cut, and later reshowed the scene with a fully colored version and the kids were far more amused. The kids just wanted a more final product! Give them what they want!!! Jeffery Katzenberg, who I’m sorry to say, the more I learn about, the less I like, also believed that Mermaid wouldn’t make very much money because it was a ‘girl’s film.’ By the time it was almost done, however, he started thinking that it might actually be a blockbuster hit. While it didn’t quite hit his high expectations, the film did very well with boys and girls alike.
The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, a girl who just wants to be one of the humans. She’s curious and doesn’t like to follow rules and this often leads her into trouble. Her father, King Triton, is the definition of over protective and lashes out when his daughter doesn’t behave. Of course this pushes her right into the arms of Ursula, a sea witch who likes to make deals and then cheat people to get what she wants. She takes Ariel’s voice in exchange for Ariel gaining legs and gives her three days to go get that human boy, Prince Eric, to fall in love with her. Ariel goes along her way with her friend Flounder, a sheepish fish, and Sebastian, a musical Jamaican crab, who try to help her get what she wants.
Aesthetically and stylistically, this film is brilliant. The animation is superb and some of the best we’ve seen so far. The music is catchy and fast and I never once felt bored by the film which is saying something because after watching this many Disney films every single week for four months and counting, you begin to feel your mind go a bit. The setting of being underwater feels totally new and refreshing and the visual chemistry of every scene wows in some way or another. It all seems well and great…BUT…
I’d like to take this moment to apologize to everyone who loves Ariel. I know this is many folks favorite film but I would be fooling myself if I din’t offer my complaints, because hidden in this film is problem so big and glaring that I simply can’t ignore it. Ariel is easily one of my least favorite protagonists so far. Let me explain before you grab the pitchfork and rally the townsfolk into a chorus of “Kill the Beast!” In typical story structure, a protagonist is meant to start out quite flawed. I’ve talked about this before. They are flawed because when they finally come to fight their own villain, they must overcome this weakness or character flaw in order to achieve their purpose and defeat the bad guy. Through learning, strength and adversity, the character grows and ultimately wins. Pinocchio is a perfect example of this.
Ariel is not. Ultimately, Ariel starts off a spoiled girl who can’t seem to listen to her father and in the end, she gets what she wants, having learned nothing. She is not the one who bests Ursula or even saves her father. This is left to Prince Eric and seems to be a good reminder that young girls better find a man, because otherwise they are out of luck. We have to remember that she is 16 so yes, her emotions might be a bit volatile, but that’s why her father is there to put his foot down. “I love him!” she exclaims about a boy who she hasn’t even officially met. That’s like your daughter proclaiming she loves Justin Beiber. This does not mean you should let her run off with him, even if she gives up a leg to be with him. This is what we would call the act of a crazy person.
I like that Ariel is very sweet and adorable and her innocence is something quite endearing about her. Yet, it borders on ineptness. Really? She can’t figure out what a fork is for? Her father walks around with a friggin’ trident!! As much as I want to like Ariel, I constantly run into issues with her. I don’t mind that she runs off with a boy, leaving her old life behind. This is something many of us adults do at some point BUT I do mind that she does all of this for a boy she barely knows and doesn’t even take the time to consult with or even say farewell to her loved ones. Selfish.
I do, however, adore the other characters in the film. I think Sebastian is hilarious and his bits of being chased around by the chef are absolutely hysterical. I also think that Sebastian is the first time in this project that I’ve laughed out loud at a character’s facial expressions. He just has so much character about him that I can’t help but love him. Flounder, while not as much a part of the story is also quite lovable. I like that this film made me laugh so often. The scene in which all the sea creatures crash Eric and Ursula’s wedding is one of the funniest things to be in a Disney film yet. We were rolling with laughter at the sight of it.
Ursula is a terrific villain. She’s imposing, her lair is awesome and her lackeys, Flotsam and Jetsam are plenty evil enough as well. I like that Ursula is so flamboyant. She was animated by the same gentleman who did Ratigan from The Rescuers and it shows. She’s all about the showmanship and the dance. Being evil isn’t good enough, no she has to do it with flair. I really appreciate that we have a bit of backstory as to why she’s after Ariel. Knowing that she was exiled from the kingdom by Triton really gives her a good reason to be evil, as opposed to many Disney villains early on who were evil simply because they were evil.
Oh, controversy. I think this wouldn’t be Vault Disney if we didn’t talk about it. I mean, we have to talk about it right? Upon the release of the VHS version of the film, controversial in itself as it came out far sooner than most Disney films and it was believed that money might be lost on re-releases by doing so, two things were noticed. The first was on the cover. One of the spires of the kingdom appeared to be a body part, belonging to a man, and not particularly great for the eyes of children. This same body part was seen in the film as the priest who attempts to marry Eric and Ursula appears to be a tad too excited about the ceremony. Because of these two boo boos, added in by an animator trying to pull a little prank, the film was recalled and Disney was even taken to court, though the suit was quickly dropped. I know it’s kind of awful to say as many of my readers have small children and would not want these things being seen, but let’s just be honest. It’s kind of funny. I also appreciate the subtlety. Here’s the thing, only adults would notice these two infractions as kids would not even be looking for it. Allow yourself a giggle, I know you want to. Alright, let’s move on.
Is The Little Mermaid the pinnacle of Disney films? Not quite. But is it a film that reinvigorates this project and Disney as a whole at the time? Most definitely. It succeeds in many areas where the past few films had failed and is definitely one of the best looking and sounding films to date. Do I want my future daughter to grow up to be like Ariel? Please God no, but I do recognize that she represents a 16 year old quite well, even if I think she gets what she’s after with far too much ease, rarely having to face consequences or work for it. The Little Mermaid is the start of a new generation and the Disney films which I myself grew up. It’s all up hill from here and the next decade is going to be anything but boring.
Next Up: The Rescuers: Down Under
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!