It All Started With…A Fish: The Little Mermaid and Disney’s Renaissance

By Brandie Ashe

In 1989, the Walt Disney animation studios dipped back into the fairy tale well–one they’d largely avoided, with varying success, since the release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959–and adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 spiritual tale of a lovelorn mermaid into a brightly-colored musical feast.

It was, in many ways, a gamble for the studio. The previous decade had not been an auspicious one for Disney: their 1980s output was generally lackluster, and Disney faced some stiff competition from former Disney animator Don Bluth’s eponymous studio, which began cranking out hits like An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988). The glory days of Disney seemed long behind them. But upon its release in the fall of 1989, The Little Mermaid was a smash hit, and it soon set the stage for a popular resurgence of Disney animation that would take the studio into the new century.

This fish tale is a familiar one: Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson), a beautiful sixteen-year-old mermaid, longs to leave her watery home and live among the humans. She is fascinated by these strange creatures, going so far as to hoard a collection of human objects in a nearby cavern, away from the prying eyes of her stern but worried father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars). One stormy night, she rescues a human, Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), after a hurricane wrecks his ship, and she falls in love. Eric, too, falls for the maiden with the lovely voice who disappears before he can get her name. When Triton discovers Ariel’s fascination with the human man, he forbids her to ever see Eric again. But Ariel is coerced into making a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula (Pat Carroll), exchanging her remarkable voice for legs. Ursula grants Ariel three days in which to make Eric fall in love with her, all the while plotting ways to prevent that very thing from happening. Accompanied by her friends Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright), Flounder (Jason Marin), and Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett), Ariel must somehow make Eric realize that she is his mysterious savior–and one true love–before it’s too late.

The Andersen story had been kicking around the Disney lot since Walt had been in charge, but plans for an adaptation had been put on hold at the onset of World War II, and the film never came together during his lifetime. Director Ron Clements expressed interest in once again trying to adapt the fairy tale in the mid-80s, but getting the movie underway was slow-going, as the studio was more concerned with the ongoing development of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). But when celebrated songwriter Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken got involved, The Little Mermaid began to fully take shape.

little mermaid

The collaboration between Ashman and Menken helped turn Mermaid from a straightforward animated fairy tale into a Broadway-style musical. Thus the soundtrack became the backbone of the film, driving much of the action and keeping the story moving at a brisk pace. [Incidentally, the story was turned into an actual Broadway musical in 2007, which ran for almost two years.] Ashman and Menken’s Broadway-influenced intentions for the film extended to the casting of the roles: Benson, Carroll, and Wright–on whom the performance of the major musical numbers predominantly relied–all had experience in musical theater. The well-crafted songs, including “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” have since become some of the most memorable and beloved tunes from the Disney catalog.

While the film remains an appealing entry in the Disney animated canon, it admittedly continues the studio’s tradition of highlighting … well, let’s call them less-than-proactive female characters. Though the titular mermaid exhibits some enterprising behavior throughout the film, the fact remains that Ariel is kind of a feminist’s worst nightmare. She gives up her voice–indeed, the essence of herself, as we are told time and again that her voice is the loveliest in all the undersea realm–for the off-chance that Eric will:

A.) Remember her, even though he was out of it when she saved his life; and

B.) Be so enthralled by her alluring appearance (and her sexy “body language,” as Ursula so hilariously proposes) that he will not question her inability to talk or her lack of identification, breeding, or background (he is, after all, royalty) and will fall to his knees in a fit of lust love.

In the end, Ariel abandons her family and everything and everyone she’s ever known to join the human world–as there is zero question of Eric giving up his throne and joining her down below instead (and don’t think he couldn’t, because MAGIC, y’all). Not exactly a feminist poster child, that Ariel.

Still, despite the sometimes uneasy implications of Ariel’s sacrifices, the film has much to recommend it. Beyond the catchy tunes, the voiceover work is stupendous, with Benson and Carroll making the biggest impressions. Carroll in particular is wonderfully wicked as Ursula, with a scratchy cackle and deliciously eerie smoothness that really brings the sea witch to life, making Ursula the most effective Disney villain since her evil  “soul sister” Maleficent. Indeed, Ursula’s towering transformation at the end of the film even brings to mind images of Maleficent’s terrifying dragon form in the earlier Sleeping Beauty.

little mermaid diamond edition

Mermaid, the last Disney film to utilize traditional hand-drawn cel animation, boasts some of the most gorgeous work ever produced by the Disney animators, with entrancing underwater shots and effective character designs. The new Diamond Edition Blu-ray release of the film highlights the spectacular animation beautifully, with the brilliantly-rendered colors virtually popping from the screen, particularly in those underwater scenes. The new digital restoration of the film means that Mermaid has never looked better, and indeed, the Blu-ray is a wonder to behold. The Diamond Edition also includes a number of extras, including deleted scenes, music videos and sing-a-longs for the kids, and other featurettes. (Note: the included DVD version of the film lacks most of the special features from the Blu-ray disc.) If you’re a fan of this beloved animated classic, this is the definitive version to own … well, at least until Disney plucks it out of the “Vault” and remasters it once again in a few years.

The Little Mermaid is an indisputable turning point in the history of Disney animation. The film was a worldwide smash, both critically and commercially. It won two Academy Awards, for Best Score and Best Song (“Under the Sea”), beginning a tradition of Disney dominance in those categories that would last through the mid-1990s. And, perhaps most notably of all, The Little Mermaid ushered in the period known colloquially as the “Disney Renaissance,” marked by a string of successful, musically-rich blockbusters throughout the next decade that represented a true return to form for the animation giant.

About Brandie Ashe 65 Articles
Brandie Ashe is a freelance writer and editor from Alabama. She is the co-founder of and head writer for the film blog True Classics, a site dedicated to the Golden Age of Hollywood film and animation. Brandie will never outgrow her love for cartoons, both old and new. Her passion for Cary Grant is absolute and damn near legendary. If she were a character in the Harry Potter series, Brandie's patronus would be Robert Osborne.

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