The Little Mermaid - Aquatic Nostalgia
After years of releasing mediocre animated feature films that became major box office bombs and critical failures, Walt Disney Animation Studios made a major comeback in the fall of 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid. In an attempt to recover from the rather lackluster critical and commercial performances of The Black Cauldron (1985) and Oliver & Company (1988), Walt Disney Pictures returned to their roots by revisiting what made them famous: making classic and charming animated fairy tales that come to life onscreen, going back to the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Unsurprisingly, The Little Mermaid was an enormous gamble. Mermaid was Disney's first fairy tale film in thirty years, after Sleeping Beauty. As if that wasn't enough pressure, Disney hadn't had a major critical and commercial success since The Rescuers in 1977. Prior to The Little Mermaid, audiences, who felt Disney had since lost its "magic", were beginning to lose faith in the studio. Fortunately, to the pleasant surprises of many, The Little Mermaid was a huge success (beating rival Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven), earning $211 million since its 1989 release, and currently having a score of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating very positive reviews.
Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and featuring the voice talents of Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Kenneth Mars, and Buddy Hacket, The Little Mermaid is credited with saving Disney in the 1980s (similar to what Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty did in the '50s), and pioneering a new era known as the Disney Renaissance, in which Disney managed to produce some of the most beautiful and timeless films in animation history, including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).
Although The Little Mermaid is, in fact, a fairy tale that follows a classic fairy tale-esque format, it differs from earlier fairy tales due to the fact that the heroine, Princess Ariel, is Disney's first rebellious princess (who just happens to be a ginger).
In The Little Mermaid, a headstrong and adventurous sixteen-year-old mermaid princess named Ariel (Benson) is dissatisfied with her life under the sea, and dreams of becoming part of the human world. This is, however, only a minor obession until Ariel sees and rescues the handsome Prince Eric (Barnes) from drowning, with whom she falls madly in love with. Ariel's love for Eric further intensifies her desire to become human, but contact with the human world is strictly forbidden by her father, King Triton (Mars). This drives Ariel to see Ursula the sea witch (Carroll), with whom she makes a deal that would allow her to be human for three days in return for her voice. In order to remain human, a mute Ariel must, in three days, get Prince Eric to fall in love with and kiss her. If she doesn't, she will turn back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula forever.
Now it's no mystery why The Little Mermaid is one of Disney's most popular and treasured animated films. Its combination of adventure, coming-of-age and romance, lively and comedic yet meaningful and believable characters, and rebellious, non-conforming heroine marked a turning point for Disney, in which they toyed with tradition, while not completely eliminating classi fairy tale elements (true love, happily ever after). Musker and Clements did, however, Disney-fy the film by replacing the original not-so-happy Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale ending with a more enjoyable, child-friendly one that would not leave young viewers internally scarred. I fell in love with Mermaid the very first time I saw it, and I still think it is one of Disney's highest points in animation.
8.5/10 - a well-written, charming and compelling storyline with a light feminist theme. The plot could have used a few more thought and revision to induce a smoother flow, but Disney was going through a hard time at the time, so I'm very much pleased with the finished product. In disagreement with many film and literary historians, making the ending happier was the perfect choice.
9.5/10 - all the main characters are well-written and developed, but there are so many extras who appear once and then disappear for the rest of the film. Major points for introducing us to Disney's first rebellious heroine in the form of Ariel, and starting a new era of independent non-damsels, including Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Rapunzel. Ursula is also one of my favourite Disney villains.
9.5/10 - most of the characters were well-casted. I do wish, however, that Christopher Daniel Barnes as Eric sounded a bit more believable. Jodi Benson as Ariel, Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, and Pat Carroll as Ursula are each perfectly casted.
9/10 - The Little Mermaid pioneered the Broadway style musical format that inspired Beauty and the Beast. Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman served as the perfect songwriting team, and the Academy Award-winning "Under the Sea" is brilliant; the Calypso-flavoured song (along with my personal favourite, "Kiss the Girl",) is fantastic, and "Part of Your World" is gorgeous. The orchestral score is also very well-composed, thanks to Menken. I only wish that Ariel had more than one song.
The Little Mermaid is very well-deserving of a solid and acclaimable 91%.
In conclusion, The Little Mermaid is an Oscar-winning masterpiece. Without a doubt, the worldwide success of The Little Mermaid, the film that saved Disney, is the undeniable reason why we have Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Toy Story, and all our other favourite animated films. The Little Mermaid is the perfect reminder of the struggles Disney has gone through to become the most successful animation studio around. Some of the younger Disney fans might be more familiar with Pixar or other computer-animated films, but they need to understand that there is more to animation than just stunning visuals. If they need a reminder of classic and prime Disney animation and story-telling, they should definitely watch The Little Mermaid.