Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 17 November 1989
What is there to say?
After two decades (or so) of decline in both quality and popularity, this one film completely revitalized Disney's feature animation business and firmly re-established it as the leading producer of such films. Despite recent attempts by other studios to change this, Disney remains at the top of the heap today. And it can all be traced back to a little mermaid named Ariel.
The lessons learned from the making of The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company (coming after the disappointing The Black Cauldron) were fully realized in this film. It successfully combined story, characterization, music, humor, and drama. It was successful like no other Disney animated feature since probably Cinderella in 1950. It broke a box-office record (set just a year earlier by Oliver and Company) for highest gross by an animated film in initial release. It finally brought Oscars back to Disney's display case after a long absence.
It was, simply, a runaway success.
The story, everyone knows. Ariel is a sixteen-year-old mermaid, the youngest daughter of King Triton. Her singing voice is the most beautiful in the sea. But her mind is elsewhere; it's above the surface, where she longs to experience things like dancing, fire, and just walking in the sunlight. One day, she lays eyes upon the human Prince Eric and falls immediately in love. Her father, knowing how prejudiced humans can be, forbids her to go to the surface, but she does anyway.
After saving Eric from a shipwreck, he -- in a daze -- falls in love with her beautiful voice, although she doesn't realize. She returns to the ocean in tears, but is made an offer by the Sea Witch Ursula. Ursula, claiming to want to help this "poor, unfortunate soul," merely wants to get her hands on Triton's powerful trident. To this end, she offers to turn Ariel human. The catch: she must give up her voice, yet still get Eric to kiss her within three days.
Ariel, the charmer that she is, manages to almost satisfy the witch's requirements, after several misadventures on her new legs. So Ursula steps in, using her powers of transformation and enchantment -- plus Ariel's purloined voice -- to steal Eric from her...
The film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who had previously created The Great Mouse Detective (and thus setting the stage for Disney's transformation even while The Black Cauldron was being made). They had a strong and clear vision for this film, and they can take much of the credit for its success.
Mermaid is a full-blown musical, on a scale larger than anything since The Jungle Book. For this film's music, Disney turned to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The duo had worked together in the past -- most notably on the off-Broadway dark comedy Little Shop of Horrors -- and they worked together very well, producing for this film some of the best music to come out of the Disney studios in a long time. Because the music is such an integral part of the film, it's worth a closer look:
"Under The Sea" is a full-out Broadway-style production number, an excellent and very catchy bit of Caribbean-style music. The animators went all-out, too, supporting the music with colorful visuals, full of details and activity. "Kiss The Girl" uses similar rhythms, but slows the pace down to a cool Carabbean groove.
"Poor Unfortunate Souls" was a bit unusual at the time, as it gave the villan a showcase tune (although Ratigan had gotten one earlier in The Great Mouse Detective). And it's a good one, full of Urusla's barely-concealed true intentions, laying just far enough under the surface that the love-blind Ariel can't see them.
"Les Poissons" is often overlooked, due to its short length, but it's an excellent example of Menken and Ashman's collaborations. It's sung by the French chef Louis as he prepares a seafood dinner -- in which he hopes to include Ariel's friend, the crab Sebastian. Its lyrics are clearly reminiscient of the dark humor contained in nearly every one of the duo's songs for Little Shop. And furthermore, considering that the voice of Louis was performed by Rene Auberjonois, the song becomes just that much funnier when you imagine Auberjonois as Odo singing it.
Speaking of voices, several famous ones contributed to this film. In addition to Auberjonois (who at the time was known mostly for his work in "Benson"), we have Pat Carroll as Ursula, and comedian Buddy Hackett as Ariels' dimwitted seagull friend. That's it for major voices, but IMDb lists such names as Mark Hamill, Tim Curry, Nancy Cartwright, Gerrit Graham, and Edie McClurg as providing additional voices.
Mermaid, finally, after a long drought by Disney animated features, garnered three Academy Award nominations, winning two (Best Music, Original Score (Alan Menken) and Best Music, Song for "Under The Sea"). The third nomination was for "Kiss the Girl," but of course, it was beaten out by "Under The Sea." The film also won Golden Globes, and even a Grammy for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television (whew!).
The Little Mermaid has spawned a TV series (taking place before the film) and a direct-to-video sequel, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea. In the sequel, Ariel and Eric's daughter, Melody, reverses her mother's desires -- she's a human who dreams of spending all her time underwater.
A success by just about any measure, The Little Mermaid stands, even now, as a symbol of the wonderful entertainment Disney could produce. While its two predecessors were good films, it wasn't until Mermaid that Disney found just the right combination of elements -- and just the right amount of "Disney magic" -- to revitalize the medium of the animated motion picture.
And yet, despite the huge success of this film -- which remains beloved today by many who saw it as children in 1989 -- the best was yet to come. But first, a bit of a non sequitur for Disney... a sequel?
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory. Thanks to MilTan for a correction.