The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid (1989)

Genre: Fairy Tale and Musical Running Time: 83 min.

Release Date: November 17th, 1989 MPAA Rating: G

Director: John Musker, Ron Clements Actors: Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Buddy Hackett

 


 

A

truly fantastic feat of creativity – with Academy Award-worthy songs and characters that melt the heart – “The Little Mermaid” is unquestionably one of the best films Disney has ever released, kickstarting their “renaissance” period in the late ‘80s, which would breathe new life (and profitability) into their traditional animation slate. Comparable to the poignancy and appeal of the great animated works of the ‘30s and ‘40s, this astounding achievement defies categorization as a mere feature-length cartoon – it’s also a perfect piece of cinema, offering up the same resonance as live-action dramas and comedies of the era. Brilliantly adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen tale, but boosted by family-friendly values and lightheartedness to counter the bleakness of the source material, the film’s attention to storytelling and technical qualities prove that even decades after its theatrical release, “The Little Mermaid” is timeless.

Ariel (Jodi Benson), a young mermaid who dreams of life above the ocean, chances upon a ship caught in a harrowing lightning storm, managing to save Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) from drowning in the tempestuous sea. Warned repeatedly by her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), not to interfere with the barbaric fish-eating humans, Ariel still can’t stop daydreaming about the handsome prince, whom she placed ashore without being seen. Tempted by the banished sorceress (and octopus hybrid) Ursula (Pat Carroll), who has been biding her time for an opportunity to usurp Triton’s throne, Ariel trades her euphonious voice for the chance to become human for three days. If she can get Eric to kiss her by the sunset of the third day, she will keep her new, awkward legs – but if she fails, she’ll return to her mermaid form and forever be Ursula’s slave. Despite the conflicts amassing against the naively enthusiastic girl, her fish friends Flounder (Jason Marin) and Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) are never far away – and true love has a way of prevailing.

Though it adopts some notable voice talents to craft unique personalities (Rene Auberjonois as a maniacal chef is terribly amusing), it still wisely avoids the household-name stars that would overtake the imaginativeness of other contemporary projects (“Oliver & Company” suffered for this reason, among others); the characters here never feel as if someone other than the ones designed specifically onscreen. This lends to a greater gravity to the perspective – a primarily female-oriented narrative that harks back to the influential heroines of “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” here handling its adolescent romance with humor and emotion on a universal level that can captivate fans of all ages and genders (not unlike the achievements of Pixar’s initial run of 3D works). Adding to that are Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s catchy, original songs and music, with monumental tunes like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” (“Part of Your World” nearly got cut, despite it being arguably the best of the lot); even when it comes to the villainess’ song, there’s not a single underwhelming piece.

Also of note is the higher production value, which is evident in the utilization of brief sequences of computer effects that would replace the hand-painted cel method, combining superbly with visual concepts that consistently surpass the competition in attractiveness, detail, and sharpness (alluring character designs have always placed Disney above other animation studios – which often focus on extreme stylization or rougher compositions for uniqueness – and “The Little Mermaid” is no exception). Ursula’s tentacles writhe with convincing exactness and Ariel’s hair floats with the utmost realism – the anthropomorphized movements reveal the popularization (or, at least, the recognition) of recording live actors for motion reference materials. It all culminates in a flawless blend of technical prowess, heart-wrenching drama, witty dialogue, and magnetizing songs – none of which was overlooked by audiences and reviewers alike – generating commercial and critical acclaim, as well as other media derivations, from a sequel to a stage musical to theme park rides.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10

 

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