Little Mermaid, The (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's hard to believe that it's only been eight years since The Little Mermaid made its first appearance in movie theaters. Since the film's bow in 1989, when it introduced Disney's "new era", the studio has released six animated features (plus one leftover from the previous regime, 1990's The Rescuers Down Under). Without exception, all of them have taken their cue from The Little Mermaid: a young, individualistic protagonist proves himself/herself with the aid of a few cute sidekicks while finding time to sing several songs along the way. It's not a terribly interesting premise, but, when done well, it makes for an entertaining ninety minutes. Lately, with movies like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules, Disney has been getting stuck in a rut, and the enjoyability quotient has been in a rapid decline. The re-issue of The Little Mermaid reminds us how agreeable the animated releases were just a few years ago.

If Disney was the genial, family-friendly corporation they pretend to be, we could believe that it's just a coincidence that The Little Mermaid's re-release coincides with 20th Century Fox's big push for what could be the best non-Disney animated film ever, Anastasia. The real reason is less altruistic -- the Mouseketeers don't want any competition in this arena, and they have taken the most effective steps available to them to stifle it -- bring back one of the most beloved recent classics and hope audiences spend their dollars on The Little Mermaid rather than Anastasia.

Despite revitalizing Disney's fortunes and introducing the present wave of big-screen cartoons, The Little Mermaid was not a groundbreaking motion picture, although it was the first animated movie to so thoroughly incorporate songs into the narrative. With big production numbers like "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl", and several other hummable melodies, the film makers did their best to create the cartoon equivalent of a musical. Considering that the tunes are among the best ever penned by the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (the creators of Little Shop of Horrors, who went on to do Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin for Disney), this move turned out to be a fantastic success. And, like all musicals, much of the enjoyment comes as a result of simply enjoying the singing, rather than being carried away by the relatively uncomplicated story.

The Little Mermaid is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable, albeit with a radically changed ending. Ariel (voice of Jodi Benson) is the rebellious teenage mer-daughter of Triton, King of the Sea (Kenneth Mars). She is obsessed with the culture of those who live on land, and keeps a secret treasure trove of objects recovered from shipwrecks. One day, while swimming around with her fish pal, Flounder (Jason Marin), and her chaperone, the crab Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), Ariel comes upon a sinking ship and saves a handsome young human, who turns out to be a prince named Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), from drowning. Ariel is smitten, but when her father finds out about her excursions to the surface, he is furious. Hurt and desperate, the young mermaid falls into the trap of the sea-witch Ursula (Pat Carroll), who offers her a deal: in return for being transformed into a human, Ariel must cause Eric to fall in love with her in less than three days, otherwise her soul will belong to Ursula. To seal the bargain, Ariel gives her voice to the witch. What the mermaid doesn't know, however, is that Ursula has stacked the deck so that Ariel can't possibly emerge victorious.

The animation in The Little Mermaid isn't quite as accomplished or eye-popping as that of its successors, but it's still impressive, and hurried or unfinished cels are almost impossible to spot. What the film does expertly is to weave together music, likable protagonists, thoroughly nasty villains, and a fun plot into a cohesive whole, with a result that is nothing short of magical. And, although The Little Mermaid isn't among Disney's most "mature" animated movies, it offers enough entertainment, innocent romance, and low-key humor to keep adults involved. Children, of course, will love it.

The Little Mermaid boasts a particularly strong vocal cast, although, other than Buddy Hackett (who plays a seagull named Scuttle) and Rene Auberjonois (a French cook), there are few recognizable names. But Jodi Benson gives Ariel a clear, beautiful voice and a delightfully silvery laugh; Pat Carroll brings Ursula to life with sultry gusto; and Samuel E. Wright creates a crab with a penchant for reggae. Other voices include Christopher Daniel Barnes in the rather bland role of Eric, Jason Marin as Flounder, and Ben Wright as Grimsby, Eric's faithful manservant.

The biggest obstacle for Disney is that many children have already seen The Little Mermaid on videotape, and most kids don't care about the differences between the theatrical presentation of a movie and one in the living room. Nevertheless, for those who haven't seen the film on either the big or the small screen, or for anyone who wants a chance to view it again after an eight-year absence, it's well worth a trip to the local multiplex (and, according to the studio, this will be a limited, two-week run). For ninety minutes of pure escapism, it's difficult to beat The Little Mermaid.

Little Mermaid, The (United States, 1989)

Run Time: 1:22
U.S. Release Date: 1989-11-17
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1