Many factors contributed to the period of economic and creative bonanza Disney enjoyed throughout the nineties that we call the “Disney Renaissance.” One of them was the blockbuster success of Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the summer of 1988. You’re probably familiar with that brilliant movie, its fantastic sense of humor and its deep reverence for the theatrical cartoons of the 30s and 40s. Thanks in large part to the involvement of excutive producer Steven Speilberg, Roger Rabbit (which produced by Disney, but animated in Britain by a different group of animators) brought massive success back to cartoon characters on the big screen. Animation was suddenly a much more interesting medium than it had been in close to thirty years. It was the perfect moment for Disney to blow everyone away with a fantastic animated film, and that is precisely what they did on November 14 1989, when they released The Little Mermaid.
Now, no matter how successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit would have been, or how much time and money Peter Schneider, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg invested in bringing the studio to a point in which it could produce a new movie every year, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about any kind of DIsney Renaissance if The Little Mermaid wasn’t such a great film. I talked last week about how Oliver & Company feels in many ways like a quality movie that’s lacking a well-crafted story to tell. The animators had been training to make great looking movies for a long time now, what was lacking was a story worth telling. Not to undervalue the visual elements of the film –because it is a beautiful movie to look at thanks to so many aspects I will talk about later- but the screenplay for The Little Mermaid is so above and beyond anything the studio had done since World War II.
Somewhat ironically, in order to become a studio that made movies the “kids of today” wanted to watch, Disney looked to its past. For much of the 80s it seemed like they wanted to make different, edgier movies like The Black Cauldron or The Great Mouse Detective. It was returning to the Fairy Tale Musical formula that would bring them back to the top. And with a relatively obscure fairy tale at that. We know immediately know what people are talking about when someone says “the little mermaid”, but back in the late eighties, the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale wasn’t as much part of the public consciousness. At least not as much as other princesses like Snow White, Cinderella or even Rapunzel would have been. No matter the obscurity of the subject, there is no apparent reason why this movie shouldn’t work as well as Snow White did. The stories share a lot of similarities, including a young girl looking for love and fighting an evil witch.
Of course, The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs have a lot of similarities in spirit. The execution of the films has, however, its fare share of differences. And understandably so. The Little Mermaid had the task of making a movie about a princess in a much more cynical cinematic landscape than that of 1937, with children that had been familiar with the Disney formula since they were born. And even more familiar with cartoons in general thanks to saturday morning television. The Little Mermaid wisely takes its cues from a stage musicals. After all, the men in charge of the music for the film -composed Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman- came from Broadway, where they had enjoyed success with their musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. The Broadway Musical was also, unlike the Disney musical, an art form that had not receded, but evolved in the 70s and 80s. It’s easy to see how The Little Mermaid doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure, but the two-act you would see in a Musical. It’s easy to see when the curtain would drop separating act one from act two as well as other structural elements. But the movie is better for it.
This is the moment in which I sadly have to point out that The Little Mermaid is not a perfect movie. There are actually few Disney movies I would call perfect and while The Little Mermaid comes really close, there are still a few minor problems in the film’s second half. That shouldn’t detract from the greatness of the movie. Actually, even if the movie as a whole isn’t perfect, its first half is. Within ten minutes of movie, we have already met all of the major players and gotten the gist of what they’re all about. We meet Prince Eric and see how he’s having difficulties finding a girl he could fall in love with. We meet King Triton and royal-composer-jamaican-crab Sebastian. We get a small glimpse of the evil sea witch Ursula. And, most importantly, we meet our heroine: Ariel.
Ariel is the first modern Disney Princess and one of the best characters in the company’s entire history. What makes Ariel so great is how real she feels. We sympathize with her because her quest rings true. She’s a teenage girl who just wants to be with the guy she likes and feels like one. The discussions she has with her father and her thrill for adventure and emotion are aspects of her personality that late 20th century girls can identify with much more than the singing housewife style of previous princesses. And if all these aspects that make Ariel feel human isn’t enough, then there’s this:
With every viewing of the film, I become more convinced that The Little Mermaid features the best songs of any Disney film, and chief among them is “Part of Your World”. As Howard Ashman points out in Waking Sleeping Beauty (Don Hahn’s documentary about Walt Disney Animation in the 80s and 90s), “Part of Your World” is pretty much your prototypical “I Want” song; a number early in the movie (or Broadway show) in which the heroine sings about her deepest desires and the audience ends up falling in love with her. For my money, “Part of Your World” is the best “I Want” song ever. I’m sorry if that sounds hyperbolic, but Alan Menken’s music, Ashman’s lyrics and Jodi Benson’s performance are just brilliant. Not to mention the amazing work done by the animating team. The background and effects artists that worked on that gorgeous lightning and animating the bubbles. And, of course, Ariel’s supervising animator, Glen Keane who animates the hell out of Ariel throughout the film and especially in this sequence. And the way her hair moves! And her face!
“Part of Your World” is such a beautiful piece of animation, I can’t possibly think who wouldn’t fall for it when it comes up in the movie. Unfortunately, not every cell in The Little Mermaid is as beautifully animated as that sequence. Wide shots featuring more than one character usually have Ariel looking slightly funky, with weird body proportions. This is sometimes distracting, as in the reprise of “Part of Your World”, after Ariel saves Prince Eric from his sinking ship. The close-up on Ariel’s face as she sings leaning on a rock by the shore is some of the best animation I’ve ever seen, but the moment is sadly followed by a clunky wide shot showing the waves splashing behind her. For the most part, though, the animation is very well done and considering the heights the best moments take us to, I can live with a couple so-so shots.
Especially considering the great work done in the script. Did I mention how tight the script is? Absolutely everything in the first half of the movie flows perfectly in a beautiful cause-and-effect narrative. From Ariel missing the concert to snoop around a sunk ship, to her arguing with her father to her rescue of Prince Eric, everything makes sense and builds on narrative momentum in a way that very few Disney movies (which up to this point tend to be highly episodical) had done before. This narrative leads us to the Ariel going to see Ursula, the evil Sea Witch who wants Triton’s throne.
Since we’ve come to this point, let’s talk about Ursula, who is definitely somewhere at the top in Disney’s numerous list of villains. She has all the powers of an evil sorceress like Maleficent (or Snow White’s Evil Queen), while featuring the larger-than-life personality and humor of Cruela de Vil and Madame Medusa. A decadent diva pushed to the sidelines of the Sea Kingdom. As voiced by Pat Carroll, she even gets some hints of drag queen camp, especially since she is one of the few villains up to this point to have the luxury of singing her own song (something that almost never happened before the 80s, but with a diva as big as Ursula, how could the filmmakers resist?). “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, in which Ariel agrees to Ursula’s pact of turning her into a human in exchange of her voice, is also a clear example of Menken and Ashman’s musical genius. I’m going to start sounding like a broken record, but again, this is probably the best song ever given to a Disney villain.
Once we hit the second act and Ariel is on land, The Little Mermaid‘s few problems start to show. As animated by Glen Keane, mute Ariel is kind of irresistibly adorable, but having a silent heroine is not the most dynamic of choices. As a conesequence, the narrative turns much more episodic. Most the episodes are quite enjoyable. Chef Louie’s “Les Poissions” is a pretty funny song, as is Sebastian trying to run from him (although the fact that Ariel is leaving the sea for a culture that eats fish has always bothered me). Another great episode is the lovely rendition of “Kiss the Girl“, another wonderful song in another lovely sequence. As amusing as these moments are, though, the momentum that drove the story forward so perfectly up to this point isn’t quite there anymore.
Things don’t get better when Ursula realises she has to do something so that Ariel doesn’t get Prince Eric before her spell runs out. She disguises herself as Vanessa, and using Ariel’s voice, convinces Eric to marry her. It’s a development that comes into the narrative very abruptly and makes Eric look like somewhat of a dick, considering he seemed very fond of Ariel and decided to marry this other woman less than twelve hours after meeting her. The final confrontation at Eric and Vanessa’s wedding doesn’t play out in any illogical way. Even though it involves Ariel turning back into a mermaid, King Triton losing his powers, Ursula becoming a giant monster and Eric changing his wedding clothes to drive his ship and kill the evil witch, the way things progress does make sense. All of it, though, happens really quickly and with so many characters suddenly losing and gaining action it’s hard to care too much. Not to mention that Ariel, after being a silent character for so long, loses even more protagonism in these final moments. Most of the action is driven by Ursula, Triton and Eric. Ariel sadly becomes a supporting player in her own story. Also, I don’t quite get how Eric’s ship could destroy Ursula’s magic.
It may sound like I’m down on this second half, but I really love the film. Even with all these flaws, it runs through at a smooth and incredibly entertaining pace. I also find it very rich thematically. A common critique of The Little Mermaid is that Ariel’s ark comes down to her abandoning her family and her life in order to chase a boy. But even if that is technically true, I have always read Ariel’s journey as one of self discovery and identity. Ariel was born a mermaid, but she identifies with the wonder of human life and Eric. It is a little reductive and childish that the relationship is based on love at first sight, but we’re talking about a Disney Fairy Tale here. The Little Mermaid’s message of not being afraid to change in order to pursue who you feel you have to be is not one that comes along very often in movies aimed at children. By all means, I think this is a LGBT film disguised as nothing more than a fairy tale fantasy. Just think of it; the “over-the-rainbow” style singing and dreaming, the dad who doesn’t understand, not to mention all the flashy song and dance numbers. The power of it’s telling is what makes the movie resonate all these years later. The Little Mermaid is a superbly made film with a message that’s more relevant now than ever before.
Next Week: The only sequel in the entirety of the Disney Canon? Well, kind of, but yes. It’s The Rescuers Down Under.