Personal Overview: this was the film that really created Disney animation as we now see it. It resurrected the department and was responsible for what is referred to as the ‘Renaissance’. It made Princesses a viable market and proved that even if a story is cute and animated it can still live on in the memory and be translated into other mediums. One critic called it Broadway brought to cartoons, and although it was later performed as a musical, it wasn’t the first Disney cartoon to explore that market, although I do think it made the company realize the possibilities.
Walt Disney had ideas centred around Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale as far back as the 1930’s, but for one reason or another it kept getting put on hold and never appeared until 1989. In some ways I think that was a blessing, because they needed the technological advances as well as the more relaxed and open minded social viewpoints of the 1980’s to include some of the better concepts and jokes in the film.
I really didn’t know much about the story, in fact I only really became acquainted with it properly a few years ago when Jim Hines used it as the basis of the story for one of his Princess novels and then again later when it was used in Once Upon a Time to introduce the character of Ariel into the show.
Jeffrey Katzenberg (head of Disney at the time) warned his staff that since the film had a limited audience (young girls) that it may actually make less at the box office than Oliver and Company, which had been the company’s biggest animated box office success in a decade (colour me surprised there!), he did however get more enthusiastic as the film neared completion and was confident it would go on to be a ‘blockbuster’.
I’d never actually seen it before. I knew the story and most of the characters because I caught a few episodes of an animated series that used to screen on TV.
Maybe I’m turning into a grumpy old man, but at times Ariel’s behaviour did frustrate me. It was almost like if my Dad Trition tells me not to do something I’m going to go and do just that because he clearly doesn’t know anything, although he did cross a line when he trashed her collection. It is a lot of fun despite that and Ariel’s cluelessness about the land above the water is always amusing to watch. I also must confess I felt for Sebastian, the poor crab really does have a thankless task trying to chaperone the spirited Ariel.
Hero/es: Ariel is the focus of it, so she definitely qualifies, but I think you also have to include Prince Eric, Sebastian and even Flounder in the list. Maybe especially Flounder because he has to overcome his natural timidity to help his best friend Ariel out on more than one occasion.
Villain/s: definitely Ursula. I already knew about her because she was featured as one of the villains in a light show that was part of the nightly fireworks display at Disneyland when I went there on holiday once. She’d also been in the Once Upon a Time episodes that featured Ariel. It really doesn’t surprise that they based her appearance on female impersonator Divine, because it’s fairly obvious. Her eels Flotsam and Jetsam are suitably creepy and dangerous as well, they put me in mind of Roscoe and DeSoto from Oliver and Company and later Pain and Panic, Hades henchdemons in Hercules.
Cuteness Factor: the whole undersea setting has a cute feeling to it a lot of the time. Flounder is undeniably the cute sidekick and even Ariel’s habit of mistakenly using a fork to comb her hair because the eccentric seagull Scuttle has told her that it’s a human haircare item called a dingleproop is cute.
Animation: remember how I wondered what all the money spent on The Black Cauldron was used on? Well The Little Mermaid was also an expensive film by animation standards in the late 1980’s, but you can see where it went here. It’s bright and vibrant, it’s crisp and clear. It looks like you want a cartoon to look. The undersea sequences are particularly brilliant and showcase the talent used to create them. Interestingly enough both Ariel’s body type and personality were based on Alyssa Milano who was then starring in Who’s the Boss?
Final Words: I really didn’t know how I was going to react to this one. I knew I owed it a debt for what it did to the animation studio at Disney, because without it’s impact I doubt we’d still be seeing the films we’re getting today, but I didn’t have a huge connection with the story. I actually loved it, even if the character of Ariel can bug me at times. I also doubt that without The Little Mermaid if we’d have the thriving Disney Princess franchise now, although that wasn’t officially launched until the late 1990’s.