#640) The Little Mermaid (1989)
OR “Fish Outta Water”
Directed & Written by John Musker and Ron Clements. Based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Song score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.
Class of 2022
The Plot: Ariel (voice by Jodi Benson) is a teenage mermaid with a fascination for the human world, much to the frustration of her strict father King Triton (voice by Kenneth Mars). When Ariel goes up to the surface, she is immediately smitten with the human Prince Eric (voice by Christopher Daniel Barnes). Desperate to see him again, she makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula (voice by Pat Carroll) to become human temporarily in exchange for her voice. With only three days to get Eric to fall in love with her, will Ariel live happily ever after? Or will she sacrifice her life and turn into sea foam like in the original fairy tale? Seeing as how this is the Disney version, probably not the latter.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “an animated film for the ages”, highlighting the score and the “fantastic array of voice artists”. There’s also a quote from Jodi Benson stating that she is “thrilled and honored” that “our very special film” has made the Registry.
But Does It Really?: I’ve nominated “The Little Mermaid” on my NFR ballot several times over the years, so you’ll get no argument from me. “The Little Mermaid” is the end of one era in Disney animation and the beginning of the next. “Beauty and the Beast” is still the grand-slam of Disney Renaissance musicals, but “Little Mermaid” loaded the bases. With its sweet, simple story, great performances, and catchy songs, “The Little Mermaid” brought classic Disney animation to a new generation, and has continued to endure.
Everybody Gets One: John Musker and Ron Clements met while working as animators on “The Fox and the Hound”. Through a series of shuffling following the arrival of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1984, Musker and Clements found themselves co-directing “Basil of Baker Street” (later renamed “The Great Mouse Detective”) and a creative partnership was born. During production of “Great Mouse Detective”, Clements pitched an animated “Little Mermaid” after finding a book of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales in a bookstore. Katzenberg rejected this pitch, citing similarities with “Splash” and its upcoming TV sequel “Splash, Too”, though he changed his mind the next day, with a warning that a “girl’s film” wouldn’t be a box office success.
Seriously, Oscars?: One of Disney’s biggest hits of the decade, “The Little Mermaid” was nominated for three Oscars, winning two. Alan Menken won Best Original Score, and Menken and Ashman picked up Best Song for “Under the Sea” (with “Kiss the Girl” also nominated). “The Little Mermaid” was the first Disney film since 1971’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” to win an Oscar (not counting Touchstone films “The Color of Money” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“).
- In the late 1930s, Walt Disney was in talks with Samuel Goldwyn to animate a series of shorts based on Hans Christian Andersen stories – including “The Little Mermaid”- but the project fell through (Goldwyn would eventually produce an all live-action Hans Christian Andersen film in 1952). While Clements and Musker were working on their version of “The Little Mermaid” in the ’80s, they found concept art for the ’30s version by artist Kay Nielsen, who would be posthumously credited in the final film as a Visual Development Artist. They also found transcripts of Walt’s story meetings, where he had coincidentally made the same modifications to the story as Musker and Clements had.
- “The Little Mermaid” holds the distinction as the final Disney animated film to feature hand-painted characters and backgrounds, and the last one to use xerography to transpose the artists’ drawings directly onto the cels. These techniques were replaced by the computer system CAPS, created by the relatively unknown Pixar company. This traditional hand-painted look is one of the film’s appeals for me. A viewing on an HD screen reveals the animation as not fully polished; character details disappear when they’re in the background, lip movement doesn’t fully match the dialogue, etc., but it gives the whole film a human touch. I also love that the film is still very cartoony. Disney always strives for realism, but it’s nice to see Sebastian and Flounder with bugged-out eyes and jaws dropping to the floor.
- This film’s other major contribution is the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ashman had been brought on to write a song for “Oliver & Company” and stuck around to work on “Mermaid”, enlisting the help of his “Little Shop of Horrors” co-writer Menken. Previous Disney films had their songs penned either by in-house composers or writers from Tin Pan Alley; Ashman and Menken brought a musical theater sensibility to “Little Mermaid”, imbuing each song with character and story development. This has since become the norm for animated musicals.
- I feel for Flounder in that opening sequence, I was something of a guppy myself at that age (and for several subsequent ages). Fun Fact: Flounder’s voice actor Jason Marin is also Farmer Peabody’s son in “Back to the Future” (“It’s already mutated into human form! Shoot it!”)
- Comedian Leonard “Buddy” Hackett gives an endearingly funny performance as Scuttle, the only seagull with a Brooklyn accent. This is Hackett’s second NFR appearance, and as long as I’m still cranking out posts I will lobby to a get a third Buddy Hackett film on this list.
- This movies loves sea puns: “You give them an inch, they swim all over you.” “Look what the catfish dragged in.” etc. It’s just the right amount without reaching a “Shark Tale”-level of annoyance.
- Despite Ashman and Menken’s contributions to film musicals, it takes 15 minutes before we get “Part of Your World”, the movie’s first real song (no offense to “Fathoms Below” and “Daughters of Triton”). Like “Over the Rainbow” before it, “Part of Your World” is a quintessential “I Want” song that almost got cut before cooler heads prevailed. Shoutout to Jodi Benson, singing her heart out with the perfect balance of teenage yearning and Broadway belting.
- As great as “Part of Your World” is, it’s the reprise that features arguably the film’s most iconic shot of the waves splashing against the rock Ariel is leaning on as she hits the climactic final note. Not since “Vertigo” has there been such perfectly timed waves. Plus, it’s a fun nod to the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen honoring Hans Christian Andersen.
- There really isn’t a weak link in this voice cast. In addition to everyone mentioned so far, you got Samuel E. Wright bringing a fun little character arc to Sebastian the crab, and old pros like Kenneth Mars, Ben Wright, and René Auberjonois giving fully committed performances. Plus, this is a reminder that Christopher Daniel Barnes (the voice of Prince Eric) would go on to play Greg Brady in the ’90s “Brady Bunch” movies. Groovy.
- “Under the Sea” is the most fun number in the movie, with maybe the flimsiest connection to the story (Sebastian sings it to distract Ariel from thinking about Eric? Good luck with that.) While we’re on the subject: Am I allowed to still sing this song? It’s hard not to sing along without emulating Sebastian’s Trinidadian accent, and surely that doesn’t fly nowadays. Side note: Also making their only NFR appearance during this number: The Incredible Mr. Limpet!
- It was not until researching this post that I learned Ursula’s collection of souls are supposed to be polyps, which longtime readers may remember have quite an interesting sex life.
- And now the Pat Carroll gush-fest portion of this post. Ms. Carroll only has a handful of films on the resume (she was primarily a TV and theater performer), but boy does she make this one count. Original choices Bea Arthur and Elaine Stritch would have been great, but I suspect their inherent wryness wouldn’t measure up to the glorified camp Carroll brings to the part (she described her performance as a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and Maurice Evans). Shoutout to Ursula’s supervising animator Ruben Aquino, matching Carroll’s vocal performance with some knockout animation, as well as Divine, John Waters’ muse who served as inspiration for Ursula’s look and movement.
- “Oh, Prince Eric’s very popular, Ed. They think he’s a righteous dude.“
- “Kiss the Girl” enters the “Summer Lovin’” realm of catchy songs with questionable lyrics. In recent years “Kiss the Girl” has sparked conversations about non-verbal consent (as has the film’s whole storyline about a woman changing herself to attract a man). Sure there’s a part of me that wants to just say “it’s a fairy tale” and shrug it off, but that’s admittedly a privileged opinion for me to have. I don’t have kids, but I recognize the importance of parents talking to their kids about the media they consume and the influence it may have, especially if that media is a nostalgic part of their own childhood that may not hold up as well as they remember it.
- Wow, Ursula just called Ariel “the little tramp!” and I don’t think she means Chaplin. Yeah, definitely talk to your kids before letting them see this movie.
- It’s his knee. Moving on.
- The film’s finale is not without its issues. For starters, I’m always put off by things that become bigger than they should (be it Mega-Ursula or the career of Pete Davidson). But my main beef with the finale is that aside from a brief moment where Ariel saves Eric, Ariel is pretty passive during all of this. It’s Eric that kills the villain and saves the day while Ariel just flops around. No wonder the ride at California Adventure skips through this part.
- “The Little Mermaid” premiered in November 1989, and was an immediate hit. Critics hailed it as a return to form for Disney, and the film quickly became the highest-grossing animated film of all time. The success of “The Little Mermaid” launched what became known as The Disney Renaissance, and the many Disney animated musicals of the ’90s that still live rent-free in your head.
- John Musker & Ron Clements’ follow-up film was another hit of the Disney Renaissance: “Aladdin”. Subsequent Musker/Clements collaborations were “Hercules”, “Treasure Planet” (a passion project for Clements), “The Princess and the Frog”, and “Moana”.
- When you’re as big a hit as “The Little Mermaid”, there’s no escaping the Disney Synergy Machine. In addition to the countless toys and merch spawned by the film, “The Little Mermaid” received a Saturday morning TV series, a direct-to-video sequel, a direct-to-video prequel, a Broadway stage adaptation, and several theme park attractions.
- Disney’s latest trend of live-action remakes continues with a “Little Mermaid” rehash coming out later this month. Look, we all know it’s not going to be as good as the original (it’s 52 minutes longer for god sake!) but can we all agree here and now to leave Halle Bailey alone? She is clearly a very talented individual, and any problems you may have with the movie aren’t going to be her fault. So do us all a favor: take your dog-whistle racism and fuck off.
Further Viewing: I’m always fascinated by adaptations of fairy tales that predate the Disney version. “The Little Mermaid” has a few that skew closer to the original fairy tale, and I’m partial to two TV adaptations: A 1961 episode of “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” and a 1987 episode of “Faerie Tale Theatre” starring Pam Dawber!
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