We’re officially at the end of the 1980s! The Little Mermaid ushered in a string of hits, both commercially and critically, that would spark off the Disney Renaissance. From here on in, the studio was taken seriously, eventually working their way into the Academy Awards. The Little Mermaid is probably my favorite Disney movie. It’s the first one I saw, and the one I’m still able to quote incessantly, which is not to say that’s the story is perfect. The original story is downright depressing, and I won’t be inventing the wheel with my opinions against it, but seriously…the story is misogynist and a taste creepy. Regardless of all that, though, I adore this film. The perfect vocal cast, the introduction of catchy, Broadway-esque songs, and a love story supplemented by beautiful Disney animation. The Little Mermaid is a classic in my house, and always will be.
Ariel (voiced by Jodie Benson) is a teenage mermaid who dreams of going to the surface to become “part of that world.” When she gives up her voice to the sea-witch Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll) in exchange for legs, the little mermaid has a short amount of time to make a human fall in love with her.
The Little Mermaid was a huge blockbuster for Disney, grossing over $200 million dollars at the time. It also ushered in a new model of home entertainment, getting released on video eight months after its release in theaters. It also introduced the composing team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who would create some of the most enduring songs between this and Beauty and the Beast.
Based on the premise alone, my main issue against The Little Mermaid is apparent. The theme involves a young girl (remember, Ariel is only 16, so not an adult) giving up her voice for a man she just met. Furthermore, the movie shows that you don’t have to be an eloquent speaker so long as you have a good body and pretty face. Ursula’s song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” does detail all this, and the fact that the villain is stating it should imply that it’s wrong, but the movie never contradicts that. Even at story’s end when the couple are reunited, there’s no discussions between them or anything else to make Prince Eric love Ariel on a more than superficial level.
With that out-of-the-way, allow me to gush sycophantically about this movie! I remember seeing this at the age of five, and after that I became a Little Mermaid addict – complete with bed sheets and wallpaper. The underwater world of the movie is filled with a monarchy free-floating (pun intended) world of beauty. The animation here has never looked lovelier, and while I know people say the ballroom scene is the best example of Disney animation, I’d argue that the underwater sequences are just as spectacular. The trickiest thing was getting Ariel’s hair to flow, and it’s entirely natural; a testament to the fantastic usage for the CAPS system that Disney was employing.
The songs, voice cast, and pacing all work to the story’s advantage. There’s never a moment that feels like filler, and all the songs are fantastic and catchy. Composers Menken and Ashman were geniuses at creating big, show-stopping numbers, and it all started here. “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Part of Your World,” and “Kiss the Girl” are inventive compositions with distinct shifts in tone and direction. The first, sung by the gravelly voice Pat Carroll, is a strong burlesque number that isn’t sung but growled. The character of Ursula was modeled on drag-queen Divine, and Pat Carroll imbues the character with a flamboyant, boozy demeanor that makes you fear her as you laugh at her. Jodie Benson has such a sweet voice and makes “Part of Your World” not a teen’s angsty lament, but a soulful yearning for freedom. Benson is one of my heroes and she even when she’s petulant (as all 16-year-olds are), she’s fierce. Samuel E. Wright also have a great calypso-tinged voice that he lends to “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea.” The sheer amount of songs that people are aware of, I think, makes this a more popular movie (musically) than Beauty and the Beast or Lion King.
I love this movie, unconditionally and despite its flawed story. I grew up with Jodie Benson, Pat Carroll, and others telling me of a magical world under the sea, and I’m not ashamed to admit it; I still want to be part of that world!
NEXT WEEK: With the close of another decade I’ll be taking a week off. I’ll return May 18th, kicking off the 1990s with the first Disney sequel: The Rescuers Down Under!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.