What a difference a new creative team can make. There’s no way to overstate how important Howard Ashman was to Disney and this movie. With him also came Alan Menken, and the two of them reinvented the Disney musical and brought the animation studio back into the limelight, turning the company back into the powerhouse it was before the days of Don Bluth and other rivals.
From the very opening, even before the credits begin, it’s clear that this is not the same style of animation that we’ve become used to. There’s atmosphere and crisp, fluid character movements. Even the music hearkens to a Broadway opening number, rather than a simple little intro theme or ballad. It evokes an epic musical, something grand and of a scale achievable through animation. Gone are the simplistic and rough sketchy backgrounds, the recycled cels, all the little tricks that helped the company save a few bucks. Now we are treated to something beautiful and entertaining.
The story is an adaptation of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, and marks this as a return to the old style of Disney fairy tales (the first one since “Sleeping Beauty”). A return to form is an excellent way to describe the execution of the movie, in more ways than simply the subject matter. The character designs are more reminiscent of the wide eyed classic cartoons of the ‘40s, but given life in a modern style of animation. It’s an obvious shift back to the good old days in an attempt to recapture some of the classic Disney magic. It works to an amazing degree.
Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the youngest of King Triton’s daughters, one who’s obsessed with mankind and their way of life. This is frowned upon by her father, who hates humans for their fish eating ways (though it begs the question as to what the mermaids eat, if not fish). After falling in love with the dopey Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), Ariel makes a deal with Ursula the Sea Witch (Pat Carrol) to become a human, ignorant of the witch’s true motives for helping her.
There’s so much good about this movie it’s hard to know where to begin. I find myself in the opposite mindset as to when I watched “The Black Cauldron”. Firstly, there’s the music. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s brilliant score and songs are a huge part of what makes “The Little Mermaid” so great. For decades Disney struggled to bring musical numbers back into their films, with each movie having maybe one or two memorable songs (sometimes none), but here it’s hard to choose even one as a favorite, for all of them are instant classics. There’s Ariel’s heartfelt monologue, “Part of Your World”, then there’s the show stopping “Under the Sea”, the romantic “Kiss the Girl”, and even the wonderfully devious “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. There’s no shortage of iconic tunes in this, and together they form a medley that would be perfectly at home on a Broadway stage. Everything about them from the trigger into music and the showy style seem taken in the classic musical fashion, and it’s a tremendous improvement making it the best Disney music since “The Jungle Book”.
Then there are the characters. They’re all visually charming in the old Disney style, but given far more depth and character than any before. Ariel is the first Princess to take a far more active role in the story, actually driving the plot forward rather than serving in a simple reactionary function like so many previous Princesses. Her selfishness and naiveté nearly bring about the ruin of the entire world, but all the actions were her doing, not some outside force. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t also learn from her mistakes or at least redeem them in the end, but the happy ending is hardly ruined by this.
Ursula, the villain, is another classic Disney villain to remember. She’s got the same self indulgent evilness not seen since Cruella de Vil. The rest of the cast is equally colorful and memorable, from her strict but loving father (Kenneth Mars), her cowardly friend Flounder (Jason Marin), the idiotic but lovable Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), and best of all, Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright). I need to single Sebastian out for a second, because this character stands out as one of the signature Disney side characters, taking a firm place besides other classics like Jiminy Cricket. Aside from being the catalyst for two of the strongest musical numbers, he’s given the most personality, some of the funniest lines and gags, and serves as Ariel’s conscious and the voice of reason. There’s almost no movie without this character.
After Walt Disney’s death, the animation studio lost its footing, stumbling around trying anything to stay afloat with minor hits and strange choices. They would not be the same following the critical and commercial success of “The Little Mermaid”, and it’s well deserved. There’s an undeniable feeling of love and care that went into making it and it’s head and shoulders above the past several decades of movies that the studio put out.