Movie and DVD Review: The Little Mermaid

Movie and DVD Review: The Little Mermaid

by Scott Holleran

ph-little-mermaidWalt Disney Pictures’ 1989 adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, is a brilliantly animated musical about the glory of becoming human. Colorful animation, wonderful songs and unspoiled heroism make this a great movie. Flowing with good characters and values, The Little Mermaid is one of Disney’s best pictures.

The enchanting story begins at sea, where red-haired Ariel, a 16-year-old mermaid who longs to have legs, fins around with a cute little fish named Flounder, riding the undercurrents, laughing at danger and exploring anything related to those creatures with—what’s the word?—feet. Ariel, who sings like an angel, worships manmade things, yearning to read, to know, to dance the night away.

An overprotective father, godlike King Triton, who rules the underwater world and forbids his talented daughter from rising to the surface, thwarts her journey. Triton assigns fussy crab Sebastian as her bodyguard. But, when Ariel spots the shape of a ship moving above her, she defies her father in an instant, swimming to investigate and gazing upon handsome Prince Eric. It is love at first sight.

A sudden storm rips the young aristocrat from the ship, and Ariel dives to rescue him, resting his limp body on a sandy beach, stroking his face in awe of a real man. In song, she vows to herself: “I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know something’s starting right now…”

That something is her determination to be part of man’s world, to paraphrase the movie’s triumphant tune, and hearing Jodi Benson’s Ariel belt it out takes one’s breath away. That moment—with due respect to “Under the Sea”, “Kiss the Girl” and other fine numbers—captures the buoyant idealism that drives this mythical tale and sets it sailing. Like her voice, Ariel’s desire—that she knows how to want—is sure, smooth and strong.

Like many teenagers, Ariel is too strong for her own good, and she is drawn into the lair of Ursula the witch, a man-hating sea beast who preys upon innocents by robbing them of their virtue. Ursula grants Ariel’s wish for legs—under a false pretense that may enslave Ariel and destroy Triton’s kingdom. It is a race against time, with Ariel’s friends— Sebastian, Flounder and a dim seagull named Scuttle (Buddy Hackett)—rallying to her side.

Awash in aquamarine with vibrantly handpainted sequences and bursting with Howard Ashman’s and Alan Menken’s delightful tunes, The Little Mermaid is, frankly, perfect. Each expression, note and detail serves the simple story and its romantic theme. No superfluous joke-telling here.

Every positive character is heroic—a rare achievement, even in 1989—with each of Ariel’s allies physically acting to advance his values. While Ariel plunges to save Eric, Eric enters an inferno to spare his loyal sheepdog, Max—Max bites Ursula—Flounder hits with his fins—Sebastian strikes back—and everyone from Scuttle to King Triton strives to be his best. Of course, Prince Eric slays the picture’s deadliest monster, in a scene reminiscent of dragon slayer Prince Philip in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Ursula, a demonic hag who lives through the misery of others, is an imposing villain, and her signature song, “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” remains a campy take on her parasitic psychology. Though known for a terrific score, the script by Roger Allers and co-directors John Musker and Roger Clements, is flawless. From Eric’s acceptance of a female at the reins to Triton’s realization that fathering means letting go, it is filled with subtle insights. It celebrates the virtue of independence.

On one level, this is a boy-meets-girl musical cartoon and nothing more. But there is real artistry here for those able to imagine an inviting, wonderful world of color, music and action, with strong characters and a radical theme—that personal happiness comes first—stylized in a fairy tale ending with the human, for once, as the ideal.

DVD Notes

You will not be sorry to have bought the two-disc Platinum Edition DVD for The Little Mermaid before it goes back in the vault for several years. It is an excellent value.

Roy Disney, Leonard Maltin, Jeffrey Katzenberg (a top Disney exec when it was made) and cast and crew participate in the exquisite Treasures Untold: The Making of The Little Mermaid. This full-length documentary comprehensively covers a picture that revived Disney’s animation after Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and the cultural abyss of the late Sixties and Seventies.

The five-part documentary is not fragmented in that zero attention span style prevalent on most DVDs; it is clear and focused. By the mid-point “Broadway Comes to Burbank,” the viewer is entirely engrossed in the development of The Little Mermaid. Expertly edited and directed—not dumbed down—this is a respectful companion piece befitting a legendary studio.

See Mr. Ashman, who died of complications from Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), coaching Jodi Benson (with Eighties hair) and in rehearsals—then see the scene he was describing in final form. This method connects the creator to his work as a whole. As Peter Schneider, a Disney executive at the time, says of the Disney philosophy: “you believe in creative people and leave them alone.” They did and it shows.

The only off note is the inclusion of neurotic writer Nora Ephron, who doesn’t belong here, but the presence of people like the underrated Pat Carroll, who voiced Ursula in those husky tones—the squid character was based on the drag queen Divine—makes such distractions easy to overlook. Other highlights: Disney’s Dick Cook getting credit for far-sighted merchandise marketing, Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, and Katzenberg nixing “Part of Your World.” It was believed the movie would appeal only to girls and make less money than the presumably boy-oriented Oliver and Company. Then as now, the bean counters were wrong—it was a hit.

Extras include an animated short by Roger Allers, The Little Match Girl, based on another Hans Christian Andersen story, which parents should screen before allowing children to watch. The tale of a peasant girl selling matches to survive a harsh Russian winter is sadly moving, though Allers, who changed the setting to pre-Soviet Russia, actually taps the essence of a child’s life under communism. The six-minute piece is set to music, performed by the Emerson String Quartet, from composer Alexander Borodin; String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (Third Movement: Noturno (Andante).

DVD bits include a piece on writer Andersen’s tragic life, commentaries, song selection (handy for repeat kid viewings), games, alternate drawings, reels and demos, galleries and the fun fact that Ursula was originally conceived as King Triton’s sister.

A favorite are features about the apparently abandoned plans for a Little Mermaid attraction at Disneyland, which should have been green-lighted five minutes ago—it is an ingenious application of Disney storytelling to Disneyland’s theatrical experience. A computer simulation of what Disney Imagineers envisioned is among the DVD’s best assets.

Article originally posted on Box Office Mojo, 2005