Cinematic Flashback: The Little Mermaid (1989) Review
Now, here’s the deal. I will make you a potion that will turn you into a human for three days. Got that? Three days. Now listen, this is important. Before the sun sets on the third day, you’ve got to get dear ol’ princey to fall in love with you. That is, he’s got to kiss you. Not just any kiss, the kiss of true love. If he does kiss you before the sun sets on the third day, you’ll remain human, permanently. But if he doesn’t, you’ll turn back into a mermaid, and you belong to me…. as Jason’s Movie Blog goes back “under the sea” for a cinematic flashback of Disney’s 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid.
THE LITTLE MERMAID
“Love has no boundaries”
Director: John Musker and Ron Clements
Writer: John Musker and Ron Clements
Starring: Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Kenneth Mars, and Christopher Daniel Barnes
Run Time: 83 Minutes
Release Date: November 17th, 1989
Deep underneath the seas and far from the world of humans and the surface world, the Kingdom of Atlantis thrives with its Mer-people inhabitants living in harmony with their surrounds, especially under the ruler and protection of the beloved King Triton (Kenneth Mars). One of Triton’s daughters, Princess Ariel (Jodi Benson) is unhappy with her life as a mermaid and dreams of living a life on the surface realm with humans. This action displeases her father, who forbids all contact with the world above and the human objects that fall into the sea, which Ariel secretly collects in her own private grotto. When Ariel saves the handsome and daring Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) from drowning in a storm, she is determined to find a way to be with her prince charming. To achieve this particular action, Ariel strikes a deal with Ursula (Pat Carroll), a ruthless sea witch, for the young princess to become human for three days in an attempt to gain Eric’s love. With the help of her friends, the red Caribbean crab Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), the yellow tropical fish Flounder (Jason Marin), and the seagull Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), Ariel aims to make contact with the young Prince for true love’s kiss, unaware that it is all part of an Ursula’s plan to overthrow Triton and rule the seas.
I remember that I loved watching The Little Mermaid a lot when I was younger, especially during my childhood. I didn’t get the chance to see it in theaters when it originally came out, but I remember viewing it many, many times during my childhood as various places (i.e. my grandparents, school, babysitters, etc.) on a VHS tape. It was definitely a great animated flick that had plenty of humor and heart within its story, which is thanks to the characters that populate it, the voice behind them, and the musical songs that are scattered throughout. The Little Mermaid, after all, was considered to be the first of the “big four” animated Disney films of its decade long renaissance, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I wasn’t the biggest fan of its DTV sequels releases, so my interest sort of waned with many of the “franchise” built legacy that the original film had to offer. Thus, with the new live-action remake feature film coming out in 2023, I decided to revisit the beloved 1989 animated classic to see if it has truly “stood the test of time”. So….without further ado….let’s take a look back at Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, whose would go on to direct such other memorable hits from Disney such as Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana. Based on the classic fairy tale story by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson, Musker and Clements used that particular narrative to frame the animated film around and sort of revitalize the “Disney” brand name with this cartoon motion picture. Of course, the result speaks for itself, with The Little Mermaid rejuvenating Disney and the animated portion of Disney’s theatrical releases and is the suppose of “harbinger” for an era of rebirth and celebration of the studio’s memorable hits. Thus, the importance of its key elements, including animation, side characters, princesses, true love, and (of course) music, are heavily implied in the feature.
Musker and Clements choose to utilize some of the broader strokes of Anderson’s narrative for the film and, while some pursuits of the source material might cry foul in its translation, I believe that the story still retains some of the core fundamentals within the narratives. Plus, I felt that the script for The Little Mermaid was easily accessible for all ages and, while a few scenes and sequences are little bit scary for the movie being rated G, it’s still a kid-friendly / family movie night…even in comparison to today’s world. Plus, I always felt the some of the elements that the script utilizes some of the value that Disney started to implicate within its animated features, including the isolation of longing for a better life, the transition of growing up from childhood to adulthood, and the search for true love….regardless of who or what the person is (something that is still felt in the current landscape). Besides those motifs, The Little Mermaid still carries traditional humor and visual action spectacle that an animated film promotes, which still makes the feature quite engaging from start to finish and never feels dull.
I also definitely have to mention the feature’s music, with The Little Mermaid having the “gold standard” for Disney’s renaissance influence within their musical numbers. While this practice was not uncommon for Disney’s animated film prior to the release of the film, it certainly was presented with a larger emphasis on both storytelling moments (i.e. the impact of the scene) and on the characters themselves (i.e. understanding human emotions). Written and composed by Alan Menken, the songs in the movie are incredibly powerful and are lyrical intriguing, which helps both the story being told and the characters. From the powerful song of “Part of Your World” to the jovial celebration of “Under the Sea” to the hauntingly mesmerizing “Poor Unfortunate Soul” to the lyrical love ballad “Kiss the Girl”, the songs in The Little Mermaid hit every single note blissfully correct and makes for some fun and moving pieces of songs to help project storytelling beats.
From its visual presentation, The Little Mermaid was definitely one of the better animated films of that era, especially since it started the renaissance age for Disney’s animated features. The overall art style for the movie was (and still is) incredible and epic in their own right, with vibrant colors that “pop” off screen and fluid animation presentation. Plus, the wide range of character designs were amazing, especially in how they were able to make the “flowing movement” of hair moving under the water effect. Yes, it’s quite a simple technique nowadays, but it was super innovative during the late 80s in the animated world. Plus, the design efforts in making several character such as Ursula were truly amazing to see. She was formidable and frightening at the same time…..just from her appearance and bodily movement. Colorful, stunning, and beautiful, the animation and visual flair that The Little Mermaid was truly one of kind and deliver on gorgeous animated film that certainly made Disney stand on from its composition, kicking starting off a decade long standards for the studio.
There wasn’t much that I didn’t like about the movie as it really told a lot within its relatively short runtime of 83 minutes. Perhaps, if I did have some minor nitpicks there were a few scenes that I felt like were a little bit pointless and / or ran too long than intended. The scene with Sebastian escaping the clutches of Eric’s Chef (Chef Louis) sort of went on a tangent a bit too long and was merely there for an animated gag (and not much to the plot) and the latter being the scene with the storm attack on Eric’s ship, which (again) felt longer than it needed to be. In addition, I felt that the movie could’ve been longer in a few key areas, with the most notable being Ariel’s time as a human and how she spends time with Eric. What’s shown suffices the runtime, but Musker and Clements could’ve expanded upon this portion of the movie and showcases more of their romantic bonding togethers as well as a few sight gags here and there.
The voice talents for The Little Mermaid were spot on and solid across the board, especially since (during this time particular time period) animated voice talents weren’t always the “huge” success that they are today. In truth, most of these voice talents were unknowns, yet the made their mark on this particular cartoon motion picture with vocal gusto and memorable performances. No one best suits this than actress Jodi Benson, who provided the voice for the film’s protagonist Ariel. She absolutely nails the performance with so much energy and emotion within the role that it still stands out after so many years. The curious nature of the character is felt within Benson’s vocals as well as her frustration of dreaming of a better life and youthful naivety makes the character of Ariel indeed a great protagonist, one that certainly speaks to Disney’s style of on-going princess archetypes and wonderful female lead character to root for throughout the film’s entire narrative. Plus, it helped that Benson provided not only the voice for Ariel, but also her singing voice, with her rendition of “Part of Your World” being the absolute best!
Behind Benson, actress Pat Carroll was phenomenal in voicing the film’s main antagonist character of Ursula. As stated above, the character of Ursula was terrifically designed and Musker and Clements did a great job in “updating” the role of the “sea witch” character in the Little Mermaid narrative. Carroll herself was fantastic and brought the deep and sultry sounding voice to Ursula, which made her definitely one of the top tier Disney villains. Unlike today’s Disney villains of late, which are mostly presented as somewhat “misunderstood” and / or semi-evil, Ursula was wicked, deceitful, and ruthless on her mission to seize power and the movie clearly shows that. Plus, who could forget Carroll sings “Poor Unfortunate Soul”, which (again) is one of my personal favorite Disney villain songs. In the end, Ursula, much like Gaston, Jafar, and Scar, was a memorable Disney villain and a terrific baddie that you love to hate.
Additionally, Kenneth Mars was perfect as the protective yet commanding sounding voice as Ariel’s father King Triton, Buddy Hackett was quite humorous as the wisecracking / know-it-all of human objects seagull named Scuttle, and Jason Marin was endearing as the loveable fish friend to Ariel named Flounder. Other voice talents such as Christopher Daniel Barnes as Prince Eric, Jason Marin as Flounder, Ben Wright as Eric’s loyal servant Grimsby, René Auberjonois as the castle’s chef Louis, and Paddi Edwards as Ursula’s two pet eels Flotsam and Jetsam, which helps bolster a lot of film’s other characters and proved to be quite effective in their respective roles.
The legacy of The Little Mermaid stands on its own merits and is credited for bringing the “House of Mouse” life back into style / art of Disney animated films after several previous struggling endeavors. Thus, began the Disney’s Renaissance era, with other notable films such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, and Tarzan just to name a few that followed the similar path that this movie followed in animation, storytelling, characters, and musical numbers. The Little Mermaid went on to win two Academy Awards for both Best Original Score and Best Original Score for “Under the Sea”. In addition, the film’s overwhelming success led to a large franchise tag for Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which included two direct-to-video sequels (The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea in 2000 and The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning in 2008), an animated TV series titled The Little Mermaid (1992-1994), which ran for three seasons / 31 episodes), and a stage musical that premiered on Broadway back in 2008.
Overall, Disney’s The Little Mermaid embraced what the studio has become to known and love, with the age of rebirth in its signature style of animation, music, characters, and repurposing old fairy tale-esque narratives into memorable cartoon motion pictures. This particular film, based on Hans Christian Anderson may upset longtime fans of the original source material, but the end result is something that has literally stood the test of time amongst animated endeavors over the course of over three decades. From it art style of character animation, to its unforgettable musical songs, to its classic (and iconic) characters (as well as the voice talent behind them), makes Disney’s Little Mermaid a timeless animated masterpiece that makes you believe in following one’s dreams, showcases the power of love, and will make anyone want to be…well….part of your world.
Cinematic Flashback Score: 4.7 Out of 5
FUN FACT: Ariel’s rendition of “Part of Your World” set a precedent for subsequent Disney animated musicals where the protagonist would vocalize his or her desires early in the film. The song was referred to by Howard Ashman as the “I Want” song. See also “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast (1991), “One Jump Ahead” in Aladdin (1992), “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” in The Lion King (1994), “Just Around the Riverbend” in Pocahontas (1995), “Out There” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), “Go The Distance” in Hercules (1997), “Reflection” in Mulan (1998), “Strangers Like Me” in Tarzan (1999), “I’m Still Here” in Treasure Planet, “Almost There” in The Princess and the Frog (2009), “When Will My Life Begin?” in Tangled (2010), “For the First Time in Forever” in Frozen (2013) and “How Far I’ll Go” in Moana (2016).