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1989 the little mermaid
The Little Mermaid
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For kids like me, growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Disney’s output of animated feature films was an uneven mix of their timeless classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty (all re-released into theaters every seven years or so), and their contemporary pictures, which ranged in quality from charming but forgettable fare like The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, and The Great Mouse Detective, to ill-conceived misfires like The Black Cauldron, to absolute dog shit like Oliver & Company

Walt Disney died five years before I was born, and I came of age when Walt Disney Productions was in the hands of his son-in-law Ron Miller, a former professional football player who became president of the company in 1978. During this era, before the lucrative innovation of Home Video, the studio was hemorrhaging money from the expensive process of hand-drawn animated features and had largely shifted its focus to the production of cheap, live-action family pictures (most of them pretty bad, though I have a major soft spot for a good number of these movies—and, since Miller died this year, I plan to do an extensive R.I.P. tribute marathon of films made under his regime sometime in 2020).

I had started college in New York when The Little Mermaid was released in theaters around Thanksgiving. I was back in Boston for the holiday and my buddy Nick and I caught it at the old Copley Mall multiplex—where every cinema was so small and narrow it was like paying full price to watch a movie on a plane. We expected very little from this mermaid, but we had seen everything else that was playing. I knew nothing about the film other than the generic-looking poster hanging in the lobby and what I vaguely remembered of the Hans Christian Andersen story. The last Disney movie I’d seen—apart from the many mid-budget, R-rated comedies the studio made in the ‘80s under its Touchstone Pictures label (another Ron Miller initiative) was the aforementioned Oliver & Company. That ’88 release was a hastily produced riff on Oliver Twist with cats and dogs as the protagonists. It featured god-awful pop songs performed by rockers like Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Bette Midler, and Ruth Pointer, and it showcased the shoddiest animation in Disney history. Oliver & Company premiered on the same day as The Land Before Time, the third feature from Don Bluth—a former Disney animator who broke away from the studio during the Miller era to start his own animation company dedicated to reviving the classical style pioneered by Walt. While Miller & Co were experimenting with early CGI, color Xeroxing processes, and other cost-saving techniques, Bluth was building a traditional animation studio that cared about things like how raindrops look when they fall on puddles and the different types of shadows characters would cast depending on the time of day a scene was set. Even when he teamed up with Steven Spielberg, Bluth never had the kind of story or music talent Disney had, but his The Land Before Time still outshone and out-performed the joyless Oliver & Company. 

So, when I sat down to watch The Little Mermaid my expectations were low—always the best way to discover a great movie. By the end of its 83 minutes, I had experienced a Grinch-like transformation—layer-upon-layer of my eighteen-year-old cynicism peeled away. The picture was so profoundly entertaining, the characters were so delightful, the songs were so beautifully constructed, and the animation was back up to the high standards of the later films of the studio’s classic era (such as Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book). Directors Ron Clements and John Musker were veterans of the “new class” of Disney animators who joined the studio in the ‘70s and worked under the fabled “Nine Old Men,” the remaining core team of artists originally hired by Walt. Clements and Musker had risen through the ranks when others, like Bluth, Tim Burton, and John Lassiter had either quit the studio or been fired.

When Walt’s nephew, the hapless-seeming Roy Disney, ousted Miller from the company and lured in the corporate dream team of Frank Wells from Warner Brothers and Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg from Paramount to take over the running of Disney, the idea was to shake up the floundering enterprise and get it back on track. Roy believed his uncle’s company was too focused on its less-than-successful theme park expansions, racy television shows like The Golden Girls, and mindless merchandising, and it needed to get back to the business of making movies. Roy resigned from the board of directors, but soon returned to the studio to oversee the animation staff. But all the new bosses still viewed that branch as a loss-leader at best. Animation was something the new studio heads had to produce because of the company's legacy, not because they had faith in the product or placed much value on the art. All the animators were kicked off of the main studio lot and sequestered in a bunch of run-down buildings in a low-rent part of LA. They kept plugging away on various projects in various stages of development and production, but most feared their job would be the next to be cut. One event that seemed like a real low point was when Katzenberg called everyone left in the much reduced, deeply demoralized department in for a "gong show” session where each creative was asked to rapidly present five new ideas to be accepted or rejected. Clements pitched an old-fashioned adaptation of The Little Mermaid and a space-age version of Treasure Island. Both were initially gonged by Katzenberg, but both eventually got made.

Luckily, The Little Mermaid came first. It not only resuscitated the Disney animation department, it returned it to the powerhouse of family entertainment it had been in the past and still is today. The movie was revolutionary because it was a successful return to something great instead of a failed attempt to push the envelope. Rather than try to be hip with lame pop songs and celebrity voice casting—and rather than try to reinvent the wheel with new technologies—Clements and Musker created an unabashed, old-school, hand-drawn, fairy tale princess movie (the first one of these Disney had made in thirty years!) infused with youthful energy and a slightly more modern sensibility. Thus the film felt fresh and original without shamelessly kowtowing to current trends or fashion. 

The key factor in The Little Mermaid’s success, as well as the spectacularly prosperous and acclaimed ten-year period known as “The Disney Renaissance,” which followed its release, was the hiring of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The songwriting duo were the creators of the hit off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors, which was based on the no-budget Roger Corman picture from 1960. Little Shop revolutionized theatrical musicals at a time when they were stagnating under the weight of uninspired revivals and empty spectacles by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not only did Little Shop coax Broadway towards a less ostentatious, more contemporary orientation for musicals, it encouraged writers and producers to cast a wider net when selecting source material. At the time, the idea of basing a hit musical on an obscure twenty-five-year-old Z-grade movie seemed laughable, whereas today it’s common practice. In Little Shop, Menken and Ashman blended 1960s schlock cinema with 1950s rock and doo-wop and incorporated them into a Broadway structure to create a winning stylistic hybrid. Moreover, they were both ardent devotees of the school of thought that the songs in musicals should always move the narrative forward, and Ashman was convinced that animated films and stage musicals were not only closely related but could profoundly inform each other.

When Ashman and Menken were brought to Disney, they took a look at the treatment for The Little Mermaid and quickly created song after song; each one enhancing the story while simultaneously standing on its own as a delightful, catchy, funny or emotional number. It's difficult now, when the musical structure perfected on this picture has become such a standard formula, to remember how innovative this all felt at the time. But the way each song in this movie serves as both a foundational narrative element and a fabulous decorative piece was groundbreaking. Of course, Ashman and Menken didn’t invent the blueprint they built their musicals on. Concepts like the first act “I Wish” number were only then starting to be formalized, but nearly every great musical has some kind of a song where the main character states the desire that’s swelling within themselves that then drives the plot forward—from The Wizard of Oz’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” to My Fair Lady’s “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" to the multi-protagonist Prologue of Into the Woods. In Disney's first feature, Snow White, this song is literally called “I’m Wishing."

But I don’t believe there is a single musical that more perfectly integrates and transcends the functional nature of these by-the-numbers numbers into true storytelling magic more than The Little Mermaid. Granted, I’m not a big musical-theater person, but the fact that The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” can penetrate the semi-curmudgeon-like exterior of someone like me says a lot about its power. And “Part of Your World” isn’t even the best number in this miraculous group of tunes. There is the Oscar winning "Under The Sea,” a set piece that establishes the tone for the picture and announces to the viewer that this is not some half-assed, kiddy movie; “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” which introduces the sumptuously villainous antagonist Ursula the Sea Witch; "Les Poissons,” a minor ditty that injects the second act with a needed burst of humor and inspiration right when it’s needed, and "Kiss the Girl,” a hilarious romantic number that sets up, teases, and delays the film's most critical narrative beat. These songs, even outside the context of the story, are all better than any tune in any Disney picture (or any kids movie) of the previous 20 years (which was my entire lifetime at that point).

If you listen to the demos for these songs recorded by Ashman and Menken, as I have, you’ll find them far more exhilarating and passionately delivered than the typical rough drafts composers and lyricists usually churn out. These fellas knew what they were doing. They understood the potential power of combining their understanding of contemporary musical theater with the then-dormant capacity of Disney animation to reach into the popular consciousness. And Ashman was far more hands-on as a writer and producer when it came to guiding the vocal performances of his songs than the movie’s directors were. He argued with the filmmakers and the new Disney brass (hardly known for being pushovers) about the smallest of decisions; and he usually won out because he was usually right. He fought tooth and nail when it came to casting and recording. Jodi Benson, who plays the title character Ariel, credits Ashman for the subtleties of her vocal performance—which pulls back and even whispers at moments where most singers with her training would be belting out every line as if trying to reach some imagined back row of a third balcony. 

Unlike modern animated movies, and many of the pre-Mermaid Disney features of the late ‘80s, the casting of this picture does not rely on celebrity clout. Ursula The Sea Witch, the most marvelous character in the film, and one of the three greatest villains in the entire Disney canon, isn't played by a female equivalent of James Earl Jones but by Pat Carroll—the diminutive character actress and singer best known as a staple of ’60s and ‘70s variety shows and for the short-lived syndicated Suzanne Somers sitcom She's the Sheriff. As drawn by lead animator Ruben A. Aquino, Ursula's design was inspired as much by Divine, the iconic three hundred pound drag queen star of John Waters’ midnight-movie classics, as by squid, octopi, and other slippery sea creatures. The filmmakers considered Bea Arthur, Joan Collins, and Elaine Stritch to voice this crucial role. Stritch was, in fact, hired and might have been excellent in the part, but she and Ashman clashed when it came to her delivery of the signature song. In a pivotal decision, Stritch was fired and replaced with Caroll, which enabled Ursula to have a voice unlike any that’s been heard before or since. Carroll worked to deepen her usually high-pitched vocal instrument for this performance in an attempt to sound Shakespearian. Thus her canny, confident, comedically self-aware yet delightfully frightening delivery of lines like, “Life’s full of tough choices innit,” combined with the fluid way the character's corpulent body floats through her underwater environments, cements Ursula in the annals of cinema. She is every bit as iconic as the Wicked Queen of Snow White or Maleficent the Mistress of All Evil in Sleeping Beauty, or, for that matter, even the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

As for the little mermaid herself, Ariel represented a minor but important leap forward in Disney's depiction of female characters. Rather than a passive protagonist who waits around for a prince, or a fairy Godmother, or some magical fantasy to decide her fate, she is a self-reliant, rebellious spirit who acts of her own volition and follows her own desires. This may seem a negligible breakthrough, not only by the standards of today but also of 1989, as Ariel is also a female character who sacrifices her identity to pursue a generically hunky prince she barely knows. Moreover, she physically typifies the male-gaze ideal of young womanhood with her hourglass figure, skimpy seashell bra, big babydoll eyes, and huge head of flowing hair. Indeed, Ariel seems deliberately designed to be the sexiest animated character in the entire Disney cannon, but she’s also the most headstrong and individualistic princess they’ve created who doesn’t ever feel even remotely concocted by a bunch of well-meaning people trying to manufacture some kind of role model. Ariel is fun and relatable, regardless of one’s age or sex. 

I can’t defend all aspects of this movie the way I’ll unwaveringly stick up for its sometimes-defamed heroine. The climax of The Little Mermaid relegates Ariel to a mere damsel in distress while the handsome prince Eric battles the evil sea witch. It is an exciting ending, but one that would unquestionably be much better if the film’s main character took control and vanquished her enemy on her own terms instead of letting the prince do it. It would be another thirty years before Moana, the movie in which Disney Animation finally gave us a female protagonist who does this in a way that feels authentic and satisfying.

The Little Mermaid has some other, more harmless, shortcomings that, for me, add to its charm rather than diminish it. For example, Ariel has one too many animal sidekicks. There is Sebastian, the court composer crab who serves as her father, King Triton’s, most loyal subject and assures her that the life she was born into is the best possible life she can hope for; Scuttle, the dimwitted seagull who shares her interest in the human world beyond the sea; and Flounder, her best-friend-fish who accompanies her everywhere and serves no narrative function whatsoever. Flounder doesn’t even make an especially good plush toy for the all-important Disney merchandising department. And Sebastian’s Jamaican “yes-mon” submissiveness smacks of colonial, racist depictions of domestic servants, no matter how talented he might be.

But I’ll go to bat for Sebastian. His song, “Under The Sea,” is simply one of the best in the vast and impressive Disney songbook, and the vibrant way this set piece is animated qualifies it as possibly the best-staged musical number in any Disney film outside of Fantasia. The character was developed in the original treatment as an English-butler-like lobster named Clarence—yawn! Ashman proposed changing Clarence to a Jamaican Rastafarian crab so that he and Menken could write a more distinctive and memorable song. Actor and singer Samuel E. Wright was cast in the role of Sebastian after a yearlong search failed to turn up anyone who could make the character more than a caricature. Wright’s inability to do a Jamaican accent led him to play the part with a distinctive Trinidadian brogue. When he read for the duo he performed their song and dialogue as if auditioning for a play with a fully physical performance. This enchanted the songwriters, who sent a video of his audition over to the animators to use for inspiration.

Hell, I’ll even stick up for Flounder and the few poor choices in climax, because they epitomize a time when animated movies were not quite as workshopped and polished to “perfection” as they are today. As much as I enjoy Frozen and Moana—which, in some ways, are better films—they possess the breathless, over-processed quality found in nearly all of mainstream contemporary animated cinema. Whereas The Little Mermaid was produced at the end of a lengthy period when the corporate juggernaut that birthed the movie seemed incapable of recapturing the magic of its legacy. While the film’s immediate successor Beauty and the Beast is a more prestigious picture; The Lion King, the last release of the so-called Disney Renaissance, was far more profitable, and the recent releases from Disney Animation Studios and the non-musical Disney/Pixar collaborations are more progressive and innovative in their subject matter, The Little Mermaid remains a singular achievement that I find endlessly re-watchable. It may be flawed, but its weaknesses are perfectly in line with its themes. Its imperfections make the film feel all the more “human.

NOTE: This is one of my 100 favorite films. An expanded version of this essay, paired with another favorite Disney film Cinedrella will soon be listed here: http://www.film5000.com/my-100-favorite-films

Twitter Capsule:
Disney animation comes roaring back to relevance with this enchanting and funny adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, enlivened my incredible songs from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Produced by John Musker and Howard Ashman

Written by John Musker and Ron Clements
Based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen

With: Jodi Benson, Rene Auberjonois, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Paddi Edwards, Buddy Hackett, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, Edie McClurg, Will Ryan, Ben Wright, Samuel E. Wright, Nancy Cartwright, and Tim Curry

Editing: Mark A. Hester
Music: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken

Runtime: 83 min
Release Date: 17 November 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1