Monday, December 17, 2012

The Little Mermaid (1989) - Disney Returns to Form

Start of the Disney Renaissance with "The Little Mermaid"

Original film poster The Little Mermaid 1989
The Little Mermaid (1989).

Animated film "The Land Before Time" did very well in the childrens' segment in 1988, and Disney Animation Studio, teamed with Amblin Entertainment, had a surprise hit in the adult market with the partially animated "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" that same year. Something seemed to be in the air, and Disney decided to capitalize on it. The studio quickly produced and released its first animated fairy tale in decades, "The Little Mermaid" (1989), directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. It proved to be more successful than originally thought. The Disney Renaissance, which continued through the end of the 1990s (and some would say to the present day), was in full swing.

DVD cover The Little Mermaid 1989

Disney's previous effort at an animated classic fairy tale had been 1959's near-disastrous "Sleeping Beauty." "The Little Mermaid" project had been sitting dormant since the 1930s, but the studio had too many projects going on in the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" days and never got around to completing this one. The tale by Danish author was perfect for animation (with a little lightening up of his dark tone), but World War II intervened, causing the studio to build up a backlog of projects like "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan" and "Lady and the Tramp." Tastes changed as the Baby Boomers matured, and after "Sleeping Beauty" the focus of the studio shifted from classics to more up-to-date efforts. In effect, the studio ran out of time to crank this one out during its golden age.

Ursula in The Little Mermaid 1989
Ursula's colors resemble those of the Evil Queen in Snow White in "The Little Mermaid," showing a certain harmony within the Disney catalog. Both characters have become huge fan favorites in the "villain" category.

The Disney Animation Studio, though, has a very long memory. When it appeared that tastes again were shifting back toward an appreciation of traditional animation, the original treatments for "The Little Mermaid" made back in the 1930s were pulled out of dusty drawers and studied by animators like the holiest scrolls.

King Triton The Little Mermaid 1989
King Triton rages against humans

Ariel (Jodi Benson, who since has gone on to roles in the "Toy Story" franchise) is a sixteen-year-old mermaid. She is obsessed with humans and collects everything she can find about them. Her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), tells her that she must never meet humans, but she can't get them out of her mind.

Ariel seated underseas The Little Mermaid 1989
Ariel is a sweet princess

Ariel and her friends, Flounder (Jason Marin) and Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), go to the surface one day and watch the birthday celebration of Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Ariel is taken with the handsome young man and falls in love with him. A storm wrecks his ship, and Ariel saves his life, singing to him. She leaves when he awakens, Eric vows to find his precious mermaid friend. Ariel also wants to be with him. Triton is furious when he finds out that she wants to be with "barbaric fish eaters," but he can't change her mind.

Ariel dreaming of life above The Little Mermaid 1989
If you think she resembles the famous "Little Mermaid" statue in Copenhagen harbor, that's not a coincidence in "The Little Mermaid."

Ariel's friends Flotsam and Jetsam (Paddi Edwards) convince Ariel to meet Ursula, the Sea Witch (Pat Carroll), to see what she can do. They strike a deal, with Ariel having three days to visit with Eric while Ursula gets her voice, to be kept in a sea shell. If Ariel can get "The kiss of true love" (yes, this film does have similarities to Snow White) during that time, she can stay with Eric, else she will revert to being a mermaid and belong to Ursula. Ariel then goes on land and searches for Eric.

Ariel rescues Eric The Little Mermaid 1989
Ariel rescuing Eric in "The Little Mermaid."

Eric and Ariel meet on a beach and he takes her to his castle. Eric quickly is taken with Ariel despite the fact that she can't speak and they almost kiss, but the moment is ruined by Flotsam and Jetsam. Ursula really wants to win the bet, so she transforms herself into a beautiful girl with Ariel's voice. Eric, naturally, assumes that she is the one who saved his life, a realization aided by a magic spell Ursula casts over him. Eric and Ursula quickly arrange to get married.

Ariel talking to fish The Little Mermaid 1989
Ariel has many underseas friends in "The Little Mermaid."

Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett) figures out what is going on and tells Ariel, who seeks out Eric. King Triton also finds out, and he disrupts the wedding via his command of the ocean. Ursula loses the seashell with Ariel's voice, and Eric realizes that he is in love with Ariel, not Ursula. Unfortunately, the realization is too late, and Ariel returns to being a mermaid in accordance with the bet.

Ariel on a rock The Little Mermaid 1989
There's that pose again in "The Little Mermaid."

Ursula claims that she won the bet, but Triton wants Ariel free. He agrees to take Ariel's place as Ursula's prisoner, while Ursula becomes the new underseas ruler. Ariel and Eric reunite on the surface, but Ursula is jealous and grows to enormous size in order to kill Ariel. Eric has to think fast, or he will lose the love of his life.

Ariel undersea in The Little Mermaid 1989
Ariel loves men - isn't that refreshing in  in "The Little Mermaid"?

A remake is often rumored, but none has yet to be made. There have, though, been a prequel, "The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginnings," and a sequel, "The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea." The original film "The Little Mermaid" was adapted for Broadway, with additional songs by composer Alan Menken. The music in "The Little Mermaid" is outstanding and Menken won an Academy Award for it with Howard Ashman. In fact, it is often said that this film "brought Broadway to animation." Disney boss Howard Katzenberg was very pleased with the film, and he quickly followed it with 1991's classic "Beauty and the Beast," which some would call the top animated film of recent times. "The Little Mermaid" is wonderful all on its own, and has many similarities to the very popular later "Finding Nemo." It is highly recommended for all ages.


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