Picture this scenario – it’s 1989 and you’ve heard of something called the Disney studio that was big way back in the Golden Age of Hollywood but now they mostly make OK cartoons. But all of a sudden there’s this big new film. It’s a proper fairytale complete with musical numbers, a starring princess and a charismatic villain. It’s almost like the old Disney films like Snow White, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Congratulations, you’ve just witnessed the start of the Disney Renaissance. You see, way back in the 1980s, Disney was struggling and often being outdone by its competition Don Bluth. But The Little Mermaid was a throwback to the old classic Disney films and that kickstarted a whole new trend and put Disney back on the map, as any kid who wasn’t living under a rock in the 90s would know.
Young Ariel is a sixteen-year-old mermaid princess who is, shall we say, a fish out of water. She is fascinated by the world of humans and has a whole cavern full of human junk, making regular visits to sunken ships to gather more stuff for her collection. Now this is a problem because her father King Triton hates humans and forbids Ariel from even going above the surface. Naturally being sixteen and in possession of a mermaid tail, Ariel ignores him and witnesses a storm that falls on a small ship. She saves a young prince Eric from drowning and sings to him on the beach, falling in love with him. Of course there’s a bit of a problem since she’s a mermaid and he’s a human. Lucky for her (or so she thinks) the sea witch Ursula has a potion that will make Ariel human for three days. If she can get Eric to fall in love with her and kiss her within that time, she stays human but if not...well take a look at what Ursula has in her garden.
I wasn’t actually born yet when this film first came out in cinemas though I did actually go and see it when it was rereleased back in 1997 which I thought was weird at the time because one of my friends had it on video. And I was little weirded out at myself and at how excited I was to see this film again even when I’ve seen it loads of times though I don’t have a video or DVD sadly. Anyway it’s safe to say that this film was literally the codifier for all the other Disney films released in the 90s, with the feisty rebellious heroine, talking animal sidekicks (aside from the mice in Cinderella, this was the first Disney fairytale to have the animal sidekicks all talk), show stopping musical numbers and a different type of villain. If you look at the likes of Maleficent, Lady Tremaine and the Queen, they’re all pretty intimidating and serious. Ursula on the other hand, while a little unnerving, is a bit more comedic and hams it up on a few counts which is seen in the likes of Hades, Scar, Jafar and Radcliffe. This film showed that villains could be entertaining too, and I think Ursula was the first Disney villain to get a song. Ariel is also quite different from the likes of Aurora, Snow White and Cinderella. You could call her the first Disney feminist since she’s a bit of an action girl and she saves the hero a couple of times. I had the biggest crush on Ariel when I was a kid and I still think she’s one of the hottest animated characters ever (and no I did not need American Pie to tell me that).
The animation for this film is beautiful to look at. As someone who loves the water and everything about it (except maybe the rain) I just enjoy how much detail has gone into the lighting and the movements underwater. Things such as bubbles appearing and the movements of hair and leaves are taken for granted yet they are brilliantly rendered. I’m almost annoyed that half the film took place on land so we couldn’t have seen more done with the underwater world, but I guess this was the 1980s. I liked the design of King Triton’s palace and Ursula’s lair, two contrasting places that have a really nice design. I also like the lighting effects done in Ariel’s grotto, particularly during the Part of Your World number. Special mention should go to Ariel’s hair – how 80s can you get? Even when she’s above the water it’s still perfectly in place. Not even the forces of the ocean can defeat that kind of volume.
Speaking of volume, I guess we should talk about the songs. Under The Sea is of course the film’s signature song and it is pretty catchy, managing to stay in your head for years at a time until you forget the lyrics then listen to it again and so the cycle continues. I even enjoyed playing it again in Kingdom Hearts II. Part of Your World is sung pretty well by Jodi Benson who is one of the rare people who does both the acting and the singing for her Disney Princess. Kiss The Girl I enjoyed as well though of course the backup singing was a little off-putting and I’m not even sure which animals were meant to be singing in that part. I also found Ursula’s song Poor Unfortunate Souls well written as well since it helps get across Ursula’s motivation. I know I don’t talk about score that much but I really do love the music of this film, especially the opening theme and the one that plays during the storm scene.
Speaking of the storm scene, that is definitely one of my favourite parts of the movie. Watching it as a child I was really excited and I did try to recreate that whenever I was in the pool. The above mentioned score really adds to it as well, and just the shot of Ariel being blown off the ship’s ropes always stuck out to me for some reason. Then there’s the climactic battle between Giant Ursula and everyone else, which is significantly epic and terrifying. I can see somewhere Pirates of the Caribbean got their influence for the storm in the third film (they were made by the same studio after all). And big props to Ursula for getting one of the most family unfriendly deaths in movie history. Then there’s the scene where Triton destroys all of Ariel’s human collection – for years I couldn’t watch that scene and indeed watching it back was really hard. As said above, the music is really helpful.
So there you have it; the film that started it all. We all owe the fact that Disney is once again a big household name to this film. We pretty much owe Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan to this film as well. And with Disney seemingly entering a third wave of animation with Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, maybe we’ll see something else too. Oh and a little fun fact, Ariel was modelled after Alyssa Milano who also played a mermaid in an episode of Charmed. So follow me on Twitter and I’ll see you Under the Sea.