The Great Disney Blogathon: The Little Mermaid (1989)
|February 13, 2017||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
In the annals of Disney, three princesses stand tall as complete and utter paradigm-shifters for the company: Snow White, who launched the whole concept of full-length animated features; Cinderella, who saved the studio from bankruptcy after World War II and enabled it to venture into fields like television and theme parks; and Ariel, who re-established Disney as the animation studio par excellence in the modern era. The Little Mermaid kicked off a sequence of astoundingly good films from Disney when the world was wondering if the House of Mouse’s best days were behind them, and since then, even with a rocky period in the 2000s and the ascendency of Dreamworks, no one has really been able to threaten Disney’s status as the world’s premiere animation studio. Even Pixar’s astonishingly consistent quality was more underdoggy than anything else before Disney outright bought them, the work of an auteur-esque studio that would never topple Disney from its sizable perch. Disney’s been king of the mountain since 1937 at least, but since 1989, that throne’s never been more secure.
I’m pretty sure The Little Mermaid was the first movie I saw in theaters. I was five and a big scaredy cat, so the minute the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” sequence started, I freaked out and had to be taken out of the theater. My stepmother didn’t want to leave, so my father and I waited in the hall until the movie was over, with him peeking through the little porthole window in the door every few minutes to see what was happening. I remember him lifting me up to see “how pretty” Ariel was in the pink dress she wears during her first dinner with Eric. (It’s possibly the worst dress in Disney history, but I was five and it was the eighties. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.)
I only saw half the movie that time, but it didn’t matter. Ariel was a mermaid and a princess and she had pretty hair and there was music and adventure and kissing…! I loved it then, and I loved it when I watched it over and over again on VHS until I’d committed the entire thing to memory, and I love it now.
The fact of the matter is that The Little Mermaid is a masterpiece. It’s easy to forget that now, 27 years later and with it firmly enshrined in the often-derided canon of the Princess Collection. And to be honest, these days it can look a little rough around the edges at times, a little muddy, even compared to the visual splendor of Beauty and the Beast just three years later.1 But The Little Mermaid is a visually stunning work of art with a clean and compelling story, enduring characters, and a gorgeous score loaded with showstoppers.
The Little Mermaid pivots around three major characters, and the movie lives and dies on those three great performances. Flounder is cute and Scuttle is entertaining (Eric, sadly, is a big hunk of nothing, but as I’ll argue later, that actually works in the movie’s favor), but the three central figures of The Little Mermaid are, of course, Ariel, Ursula, and Sebastian.
Ariel is utterly charming, and remains one of the most popular princesses nearly three decades – and an additional 10 princesses – later. Though he’d worked on several Disney movies before this one, it was with his work on Ariel that Glen Keane began his legacy of animating some of the most beloved and striking characters ever to grace the screen (see also: the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and his design and supervisory and design work on Tangled). There’s something captivating about a Keane character, something about the intensity of the eyes and the limitless energy bound up in his figures. (Also: that hair. You can always tell a Keane character by how lovingly rendered their hair is. No wonder he produced Tangled!) Ariel is always in motion, the quick darting movements of a fish and the ebullience of a teenage girl in love, her glorious hair and fin constantly stirred by the water (another animation landmark, and a triumph). As perfect as her spunky, Jodi Benson-supplied voice is, she loses nothing of her personality or verve when she trades her voice for legs; she owns the screen even when she can’t own the speakers.2
Ariel has come under fire since her creation, as most of the Disney Princesses have, for being anti-feminist. It’s true that, though plucky, she’s not a fighter – with the exception of Belle, she’s the last princess who would probably never even consider throwing a punch, and Belle tends to get excused from not being a physical threat because she’s clearly the brains of the Princess outfit. Ariel does confront Ursula physically to save Eric’s life, pulling her hair and causing her to blast Flotsam and Jetsam with the trident, but it’s Eric who actually kills Ursula. In recent years, though, I think we’ve started to move away from the reductive use of physical strength as the only measure of character strength, which I’m glad of. I like a brawler as much as the next gal – Merida’s another one of my faves – but if you evaluate Ariel through the lens of narrative, it’s clear that she drives the story more than any other character, as befits the protagonist. It’s Ariel’s obsession with humans that leads her to rescue Eric, Ariel’s decision to make a deal with the sea witch, and the instant she realizes that Ursula’s tricked them, she leaps into the sea to save Eric. Not all of her choices are smart ones, but they’re all active ones, and they all move the story forward. No bland and passive Everygirl here!
The other critique leveled at Ariel is that she gives up her voice for a man. It’s such a common refrain it’s become a meme, like accusing Belle of being a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, or throwing around the phrase “Cinderella Syndrome.” You can argue that the optics are bad, I guess, but what all of those criticisms fail to recognize is that all three heroines I referred to – Ariel, Belle, Cinderella – begin the movie with a dream that has nothing to do with the prince they will eventually meet. Cinderella doesn’t tell us hers, but considering that she’s basically a slave in an abusive household, I think we can make some educated guesses. Belle wants adventure. Ariel, of course, wants “to explore that world up above,” and she gets to. She doesn’t trade her voice for Eric – she trades her voice for a chance to join the human world she’s been obsessed with forever. The dream is just embodied in Eric. All of these movies present a heroine with a dream who achieves that dream, and also gets a prince thrown in as a means to that end/bonus prize.
After all, Aladdin, say, doesn’t start his movie in love with Jasmine. He starts it dreaming of material comforts and for people to appreciate his inherent value as a person, and he gets both of those things in addition to and via Jasmine. I’m not sure why it’s okay for a hero to get everything he ever dreamed of and also a love interest as a reward, but when a heroine does, it’s suddenly anti-feminist. And while Jasmine is a well-rounded and compelling character in her own right (and another fave), I think it works in The Little Mermaid’s favor that Eric is so bland. He never really replaces Ariel’s general love of the surface world, and he certainly never challenges her for the viewer’s attention. It leaves The Little Mermaid as Ariel’s Bildungsroman rather than a romance.
Then there’s Sebastian, a consummate scene-stealer. I would say he gets the best songs in the movie, but honestly they’re all winners. He has a wonderful blend of pomposity and heart, and his voice, provided by Samuel E. Wright and chosen for the amusing incongruity of hearing that big bass voice – and, according to Wright, a Trinidadian accent, not a Jamaican one as is usually assumed – come out of that tiny body, is perfect. My main criticism, which isn’t Sebastian’s fault, is that Disney was still relying on black voices for humor while remaining over a decade away from portraying black faces in any significant roles.
Finally, Ursula is one of Disney’s best and most entertaining villains. She does, however, fall into what was at the time an arguably new trend for Disney of threateningly queer villains – I mean come on, she was explicitly modeled after Divine! (I say arguably because The Great Mouse Detective’s Ratigan is the first of a long line of very flamboyantly queer villains; however, I think you can make a case for the threatening queerness of the many spinster and widow villainesses who preceded the modern era: the Wicked Queen, Lady Tremaine, definitely Maleficent and Cruella, and even Aunt Sara in Lady and the Tramp and the elephants in Dumbo. The repeated use of mature single women as villains makes it pretty obvious that a powerful woman who doesn’t need a man is terrifying to the patriarchy. In this case, these women are less performing queerness and more refusing to perform heterosexuality – and in the rigidly heteronormative world of early Disney and mid-century America, that’s threateningly queer in and of itself.) As with Sebastian, I’m torn, because Ursula is such a fantastic and watchable character – my favorite Disney villain, in fact – but she slots into a really troubling pattern around villains in general. As with black characters, Disney’s got a lot of work to do to balance out their presentation of queer characters.
Now let’s talk about the music. The Little Mermaid was the start of Disney’s enduring relationship with composer Alan Menken, who at the time was part of a writing duo with lyricist Howard Ashman, and would remain so until Ashman’s death from HIV-related complications in 1991. Their greatest success up until then had been the off-Broadway musical (and later film adaptation) Little Shop of Horrors; Menken and Ashman would go on to write Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (though Ashman died before it was completed), and Menken worked with other lyricists on Hercules and Tangled, Disney’s underrated live action gem of a musical Newsies, and the too-good-for-this-world musical sitcom Galavant, among many other triumphs.
Hiring them was a decision that harkened back to Disney’s use of Broadway songwriters for Cinderella, and it worked: The Little Mermaid was the first Disney movie since The Jungle Book to really thrill people with its music. Menken has an unparalleled ability to combine the storytelling capacity of classic Broadway/Tin Pan Alley musical structure with a contemporary – but not pandering – energy, so that it only feels like a pastiche when he wants it to feel like one; he also tends to borrow generously from musical styles of a particular time and place to set a mood. In Little Shop and Hercules it’s doo-wop; in Beauty and the Beast it’s classical; here it’s the calypso rhythm of Sebastian’s songs and the rousing shanty “Mysterious Fathoms Below” that are the auditory equivalent of sea spray.3 He’s worked with numerous lyricists but none as skilled or as clever as Ashman, who could load a catalog song with a laundry list of intricately-rhymed puns to rival Cole Porter. Pay close attention to his brilliance the next time you hear “Under the Sea,” which even references Porter in one of its cleverest lines: “When the sardine begins the beguine it’s music to me.” I mean! That is flawless.4 But he wasn’t just a show off; he knew how to give you lyrics so pure and simple they cut straight to the heart of a character, and when Ariel sings “Where would we walk, where would we run/ If we could stay all day in the sun?” the simplicity of this monosyllabic couplet expresses utter yearning in a way no witty wordplay ever could.
Speaking of “Part of Your World”…Menken and Ashman self-mockingly nicknamed it “Somewhere That’s Wet” because they considered it so similar to their earlier “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop, but let me tell you something: if you were a five-year-old girl in 1989, it is the most beautiful song ever written, and definitely the best one to include the word “thingamabobs.” Its closest comparison is “Let It Go” in terms of instantly capturing the hearts and minds of the world’s little girls (though it’s far superior to “Let It Go” – YEAH, I SAID IT). We didn’t have the ability to pull it up on YouTube before the movie was even out in theaters back then, but I don’t know any girl my age who didn’t clock many hours in any pool or ocean she had access to thrusting her chest out of the water like a drunken show jumper and hollering “Part of your…WOOORLD!” It is a perfect, perfect song, and I’m sure the completely plastered girl who burst into my karaoke room one New Year’s Eve to sing it with me at the top of our lungs would agree.
Perfect music, enduring characters, a seamless plot, and stunning animation. The Little Mermaid is my favorite Disney movie, and that of many other people as well, and it has 100% earned its spot as not only a beloved element of the Disney canon, but a crucial artistic and financial lynchpin of Disney history. Not bad for a fish tale, huh?
(And yes, that castle turret totally looks like a penis on the original VHS cover.)
- This is in part due to the fact that it was the last Disney feature film to use certain techniques like traditional hand-painted cels and the multiplane camera. It’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t look more dated when compared to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. ↩
- Two fun facts about Ariel: one, her design was partially inspired by a then-teenaged Alyssa Milano, and the movement of her hair underwater by footage of Sally Ride in space. Two, the specific cel paint used for her tail was created for this movie and added to the Disney paint library under the name “Ariel” (though as noted, this was the last film to use traditional cel painting). ↩
- Ashman, who was a co-producer on the movie, was actually the one who suggested changing Sebastian from his original concept as a more typical English butler-type named Clarence to West Indian, and using that to inspire the movie’s musical palette. ↩
- Also Porterian: his bilingual playfulness in “Les Poissons.” ↩