by Mark Greig
The 1980s was not a good time for Walt Disney Animated Studios.
After the colossal box office failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney’s entire animation department was on life support. The moderate box office takings of The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company kept everyone employed, but it was no secret that the executives were starting to think that animated films were no longer a viable investment. Then The Little Mermaid happened. Thanks to a strong heroine, a fantastic villain, gorgeous animation and a terrific selection of memorable songs, The Little Mermaid became Disney’s most successful film in over a decade and firmly re-established the studio as a major player and shaped the direction of the studio’s animated output for the next decade, kick starting what has now become known as the Disney Renaissance.
The Little Mermaid follows the tried and tested Disney formula of taking a classic story, in this case Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale, stripping away all the really dark subject matter so it is suitable for family audiences, adding some comedy animal sidekicks of varying degrees of tolerance and finally throwing in some catchy songs you will be sick of hearing a month later (said he who is still singing along to 'Under the Sea' 25 years later). With the exception of The Rescuers Down Under (a non-musical sequel) and Pocahontas (based, very loosely, on true events), all the films from the renaissance era followed this winning formula.
A lot of the success of The Little Mermaid can be attributed to the work of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ashman became involved with the development of the film in 1987 after being brought in to write lyrics for Oliver and Company. Not long after Ashman joined the project the decision was made to turn The Little Mermaid into a Broadway-style musical with Ashman writing the songs with his regular song-writing partner Menken, who also composed the film's score. I could ramble on all day about how good these songs are. Not since The Jungle Book has a Disney movie had such a terrific selection of memorable tunes. As I already stated, I never get tired of hearing ‘Under the Sea’ and will proudly admit to singing along to ‘Part of that World’ on more than one occasion.
The Little Mermaid marked a shift in how Disney portrayed its heroines and villains. Ariel was the first of a new generation of Disney princesses, princesses who didn't feel like supporting characters in their own movie, princesses who weren't often overshadowed by the charming villains, princesses who were adventurous and sang empowering Broadway numbers about their yearning to be where the people are, to explore that shore up above or words to that effect.
Ariel herself is shown to be curious about the forbidden human world and willing to risk her fins to collect all sorts of dinglehoppers, snarfblatts and thingamabobs (FYI, she's got twenty). Her decision to become human is motivated just as much by her desire to rebel against her overprotective father as it is to be with Eric. The strained relationship between Ariel and her father is the emotional core of the movie. It has a lot more depth to it than the lifeless love story between Ariel and boring Mel Gibson look-a-like Prince Eric.
The Little Mermaid wouldn't be a Disney movie if it didn't have a boo hiss villain and this has one of the very best in Pat Carroll's wonderful Ursula. The renaissance era was also something of a golden age for Disney villains, giving us baddies who were scary, funny and unafraid to burst into song. Ursula was one of the first Disney villains to get their very own musical number (‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’). From this point on almost all Disney villains would get a chance to show off their pipes.
Flotsam and Jetsam
--Like most films from this period, The Little Mermaid was followed up by several forgettable straight to video sequels and a spin-off television series.
--It is frustrating seeing Ariel, the central character of entire film, get shoved to the sidelines for the final battle so the handsome prince can do all the action hero stuff and save the day. Along with Ariel and Eric’s lacklustre romance, the showdown with Ursula is one of the weaker aspects of the film.
--The shot of the newly human Ariel bursting out of the water is one of the most gorgeous pieces of animation I have ever seen. Even in the age of Finding Nemo, the film’s animation holds up well.
--Ariel's body type and personality were based on Alyssa Milano.
Sebastian: "Hm. Teenagers. They think they know everything. You give them an inch, they swim all over you."
Ursula: "Come in. Come in, my child. We mustn't lurk in doorways. It's rude. One might question your upbringing."
Sebastian: "Are you sure about this?"
Scuttle: "Have I ever been wrong? I mean when it's important!"
Sebastian: "Ariel, listen to me. The human world is a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there."
Ariel: "If I become human, I'll never be with my father or sisters again."
Ursula: "That's right. But you'll have your man. Life's full of tough choices, isn't it?"
Ariel: "But without my voice, how can I."
Ursula: "You'll have your looks. Your pretty face and don't underestimate the importance of body language."
Four out of four dinglehoppers, snarfblatts and thingamabobs.