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First of all, SURPRISE! We had said in our Oliver and Company post that we were going to review Who Framed Roger Rabbit next … However, we were so thrilled to have finally reached this film that we really wanted to get our thoughts out here. Don’t worry there will be a review of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the future. Secondly, we (again!) apologise for this mad delay between posts and all we can say is … life happens. One of us went to visit family straight after finishing Oliver and Company, then we both went away to our families for Christmas. Plus in between all that – jobs, projects, eating, sleeping, etc. But we must implore that we love writing this blog – it’s such a fantastic journey for the two of us watching these films and getting the chance to explore them – we wish we could just write all the time! But alas. Hopefully the wait will have been worthwhile as we basically have here below a short ‘book’ for you. Thank you for your patience (throughout our blogging history!), we love reading your lovely comments, and we hope that you enjoy this one.
The Little Mermaid – the beginning of Disney animation’s Renaissance Era, and the era that took place in our lifetimes … this is a big one for us! So where are we at Disney now? Basil the Great Mouse Detective had been a critical success, Oliver and Company turned out to be a big financial hit and Who Framed Roger Rabbit a major financial and critical triumph. However when The Little Mermaid first went into development, these films had not been released yet – the Disney animators were still in the deepest, darkest frame of mind – The Black Cauldron was an expensive flop, management had changed dramatically, they were facing the troubling experience of being shafted out of Burbank and into Glendale, and animation was hanging by a thread. Change needed to happen …
Ron Clements initially pitched the film after coming across Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid at a bookshop and finding it to be a very cinematic story. Before pitching the idea, he wondered why Disney had not attempted Hans Christian Andersen’s story before, only to find out later that they had done. It was in development during the late 1930s and early 1940s as a short that likely would have been part of lo-and-behold … a package film.
It could have been part of the Pit of Despair era
However the planned package film would have been a series of Hans Christian Andersen shorts, and major developments took place on The Little Mermaid short. Storyboards, watercolour and charcoal drawings, script and story planing sessions with Walt, all took place. It was shelved due to the impact of the USA joining WWII, and remained in the archives until the 1980s. However when Ron Clements pitched it, The Little Mermaid was ‘gonged’ at the infamous gong show meetings, as it was considered to be too close to Splash and Splash 2 was in development. However a few days later, Jeffrey Katzenberg said that he and Michael Eisner had changed their minds and that they would love to put it into development. Splash 2 was never made (sorry Splash fans). After being such a successful writing partnership for Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Ron Clements teamed up with John Musker to write the script for The Little Mermaid and later they were assigned as directors. Then Howard Ashman and Alan Menken came on board, and a brilliant creative quartet was formed.
Peter Schneider had worked with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken on their off-Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors (a very cartoony musical – practically like a live action cartoon) and producer of the film version, David Geffen, highly recommend Howard Ashman to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Howard Ashman was given options of what projects he could pursue, and he chose The Little Mermaid: the only animated film in the list of choice projects. He was incredibly excited about the idea of working in animation, and embraced the possibilities that animation offers to storytelling through music. Howard Ashman not only wrote the lyrics but he co-produced the film with John Musker, and had a major impact on the production process and final film. Roy E. Disney referred to Howard Ashman as ‘another Walt’ to the new generation of animators and staff at Disney – there are almost no words to describe what he did for Disney at this point and for the future of animation and musical theatre. We recommend that you watch Howard Ashman’s lecture to the animators from 1987 … it is marvellous. We could spend our whole review quoting from it (but it would take a long time … and our reviews are long enough!).
This creative quartet wanted to make an animated film that could sit on the shelf with the ‘classics’ and the effort that would go into the process of making this film was phenomenal. Howard Ashman in his lecture emphasised that there is a very strong connection and application between musical theatre and animation, and that if you look back at the timeline of Disney’s films, its connection (musically speaking) to what was going on in theatre at the time were similar and would overlap. But at this stage in the 1980s, we have not had a ‘musical’ in the traditional sense at Disney since The Jungle Book (more than five songs that are not ‘performances’ or a ‘voice from the heavens’ within the film) – basically since the days of Walt, and even musical films were in a difficult spot at this point. Howard Ashman pointed out that audiences do find it hard to accept live action musicals, because ultimately they expect more realism from live action. Audiences are more willing to suspend their disbelief in the theatre, and Howard believed that animation has a similar impact – audiences know that there are actors in front of them performing and audiences know that what they are seeing on screen are drawings – the animated musical must return! Disney had an enthusiastic team who are determined to reignite the fire of the animated musical. Were they successful?
Original Trailer Time!
- For the first time ever, Original Trailer Man’s opening salvo makes sense and is actually well-phrased (what is this madness?!)
- Arial’s aria is hauntingly in sync with the logo
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Bambi, and Sleeping Beauty are perceived as Disney’s only classics … hmm wonder why The Black Cauldron never makes it into these throw-backs?
- ‘Exploring the mysteries of her strange new world’ … first of all you were doing so well, and second of all … what???
- ‘Fantastic adventure above the waves’: a ship blowing up … must be for the alleged ‘boys’ in the audience according to ‘market research’
- Trailer stop giving away the FARM! Seriously, there are so many spoilers here! So much content squashed into a short period of time
- Apparently Chef Louis lives under the sea – what a twist!
The last time that the canon featured a princess as the protagonist was thirty years ago with Aurora in Sleeping Beauty – it has certainly been a long time coming! However there is a strange reversal in thought when it comes to Ariel. Many have criticised the first trio of Disney Princesses, Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, for being passive, dull and thus not good role models for girls. In our reviews, we disagreed with this school of thought, admiring Snow White for her kindness and resilience in spite of her troubled life, and Cinderella for her maturity and level-headedness in response to her despicable step-family, meaning that when we see Snow White poisoned and Cinderella break down, it is heart-breaking to watch. Aurora is a trickier one as her role is much smaller than Snow White and Cinderella, with the three fairies (her guardians) as the true leads, but she is still a pawn in a horrible game. In fact, so far Disney princesses have fallen into two categories: either the unfortunate young women who suffer at the hands of family abuse (Snow White and Cinderella), or the privileged young women who become pawns in games that are much bigger than them (Aurora and Ariel).
When The Little Mermaid came out, critics praised Ariel for being different from previous Disney princesses because she is active and when she wants something she doesn’t wait for it but goes out and gets it. These are also admirable traits for a leading character. It seems as if viewers complain when female protagonists are ‘passive’ and also when they are ‘active’, when they are ‘kind’ and when they are ‘rebellious’. If protagonists are female, from critical point of view, they are always under scrutiny. It is annoying. Why can’t a character just be what it is … a character?! Characters who have virtues and vices, positive and negative qualities, etc.
So … who is Ariel, what is she? Ariel is a teenage mermaid with a secret desire and curiosity for objects from the human world, and a yearning to be part of it. She saves a human prince from drowning, falls in love with him, and after a major argument with her father, King Triton, over her controversial desires, she strikes a deal with Sea Witch Ursula, to become human. The generational conflict between her and her father sparks an interesting and identifiable dynamic. She is more willing to see the good in the humanity, while he insists that they are their enemy – the open-minded younger generation in conflict with the conservative ‘set in their ways’ older generation. Ariel’s curiosity is a virtue and a flaw – her fatal flaw and yet ultimately the making of her.
‘What’s a fire and why does it – what’s the word? Burn?!’
You had to ask didn’t you?
Ariel, as a character, has received a lot of criticism, primarily on account of being interpreted by many as an anti-feminist character. The ‘selling’ of her voice can be interpreted as the silencing of women – the chaste, silent, obedient model. But bear in mind, it is the villain who takes her voice away – a female villain at that, who is bombastic and not at all quiet – Ursula does not believe what she is preaching – she is spinning a line. In terms of Ariel’s voice, it revolves around the idea of sacrifice – to give up something so precious in order to experience her dream – it is a huge deal for her. When she loses her voice and gains legs, she is no demure figure, she is very expressive and active. From the perspective of others, she is eccentric as she combs her hair with a fork and blasts a pipe, completely lacking in ‘ladylike’ grace. Eric takes her on a tour of the kingdom and as opposed to being lead by him, Ariel is eagerly leading Eric around, excited by all of the wonders around her. In fact, she is so excited at being able to fulfil her dream of experiencing the human world that she seems to forget that she must kiss Eric or everything will go awry. It goes to show that her dream of experience comes before her desire for Eric.
Besides, what is wrong with Ariel wanting to become a human woman? She is fascinated by the human world and we discover this from the first few minutes of her character’s introduction; she is a collector with a desire for knowledge. She does not sell her voice and gain legs and a vagina for a man. Ariel has been dreaming of life up above for a long time, long before meeting Eric (her collection must have taken years to build!) – it’s not as if she was singing about how spectacular it is being a mermaid, and then suddenly she meets Eric and BOOM she wants to get some cool legs to wrap around him. No. She dreams of being part of that world before meeting Eric. She is fascinated first by objects and customs, then by the beauty of man. It is only when she gets a crush on a young prince that the lyric changes from part of that world to your world. The idea of not only experiencing the world that she yearns for, but sharing it with someone, is even more exciting.
‘Maybe if you had someone to share it with … someone you love’
Even after she has developed a crush on Eric, these shots alone reveal that her temptation to do the deal with Ursula is because she wants to be human, and not ‘get her man’:
Look how anxious she looks about the ‘true love’ clause … it’s something that she is less sure about at this point
Ariel’s desire to experience the world is what draws us to her character. However, we must also point out: since when has falling in love become ‘anti-feminist’? We are feminists and we would say that love is a wonderful thing! Do you hate Bernard for falling in love with Bianca? Or Bambi with Faline? Besides, Ariel and Eric risk their lives for each other. Ariel saves Eric from drowning, Eric saves Ariel from giant drag-queen sea monster who is trying to kill her, and in between they protect each other from dangerous situations. Why is this not acknowledged more? They are a co-dependent partnership.
Furthermore their relationship is very sweet and, despite the magical elements, there is a lot of familiarity in the way in which they respond to each other – for example, the animators capture the moment when you’re attracted to someone very well:
(Special Note from Melissa: If this film had been made today, it is less likely that Ariel and Eric would get married. Would they be together? Yes. On the other hand, it does work as it means the two kingdoms have been united by love. However for me, the ideal happy ending would be that after the wedding, she and Eric go travelling and see the world together, as that was Ariel’s dream to begin with … well they do sail away on a ship – I can imagine that’s what they do afterwards!)
And not this
(Special Note from David: Why is there even an assumption that they do get married straight away? Ever heard of a little thing called ‘passage of time’? It happens in films … a lot)
(Special Note from Melissa: One jump ahead of the plotline / One swing ahead of the tale / Sometimes audiences DON’T THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX!)
Writer, Graham Linehan made a comment [we’re paraphrasing here] that for a long time in television comedy, female characters were not allowed to be the butt of the jokes as often as male characters – more often than not, female characters would only be given ‘reacting’ material, rolling their eyes or sighing at the men and their comedy antics – not allowed to be goofballs themselves– ‘I make a special effort to write comically interesting female characters. I never want women in my shows to just be commenting on how silly the men are being. They also have to have negative characteristics to make it funny’. Ariel is a goofball – she creates some of the funniest scenes in the film, and it is so refreshing! And as Linehan said, characters have to have negative characteristics to be amusing.
Ariel is criticised for being bratty and being stupid choices. Yes – she does behave like a brat and she does make stupid choices – we are not going to argue with that point. In fact, we were mightily miffed that she doesn’t turn up to her own performance, embarrassing and letting everyone down – not cool.
(Special Note from Both: For us as performers, this ticked us off even more than her putting the ocean in jeopardy … we have priorities!)
However, she is very young and is still learning. 16 is a tough age – we’ve been there!
‘Ohhhhhh I want to go to the surface!’
Watching this film, we were suddenly reminded of Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister in a family of five daughters. Because Pride and Prejudice is angled more from Elizabeth’s (the second eldest) point of view, readers are more prone to dislike Lydia. Lydia, spoiled and selfish, runs away with a man who has no intention of marrying her (and an imprudent match besides!); it causes a major scandal and nearly ruins her family’s reputation. Luckily for Ariel, Eric is no Mr. Wickham and is actually a decent fellow. Although in Triton’s eyes, Eric and Ariel would make a very imprudent match indeed! Being underdeveloped characters, it is easy to imagine Ariel’s sisters as the other Bennet sisters and impose their personalities on to them.
‘O! Thoughtless, thoughtless Ariel!’
Akin to the Bennets, it is the youngest sister who marries before them all at 16. It must be why Triton was so keen on the news that Ariel was in love.
‘Finally! One of my daughters will be married!’
We are not convinced by Triton’s merry mood – what father would be this happy? Happy that is until he finds out that it is a human ‘scoundrel’.
(Special Note from Melissa: But don’t worry Triton, eldest sister Attina will soon marry a wealthy, kind-hearted merman named Bingley, and 2nd sister Alana an even wealthier, brooding merman named Darcy)
It really puts that lake scene in a new light … another story for another day … ‘I wanna be where the mermaids are’
Speaking of Ariel’s sisters, do Disney princesses not tend to have female confidantes (at least up to this point in the canon)? Ariel’s friend is a boy (Flounder), she seeks advice from a male kook (Scuttle) and her chaperone is male (Sebastian), and yet she has no engagement with her six sisters. There could have been a great opportunity for a ‘sisters bonding’ scene when they realise that Ariel is in love – perhaps in the vein of West Side Story’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ scene. Her sisters are named Attina, Alana (initially misheard by David as Banana), Aquata, Adrina, Arista, Aquata and Adela (the wickedly talented one).
If Ariel were here, they would make up all the colours of the rainbow … bravo Ariel
(Special Note from Melissa: I’m from now on insisting that the family name for Triton and his daughters is Dazeem … oh dear the sisters are so inconsequential that we’re talking about them in Protagonist rather than Supporting Cast … by the way ‘great father who loved us and named us well’ ??? It is as if Triton looked through a Babies Names book and got bored so he would never get any further than the As … every time)
All of the sisters’ names have significant definitions, and the name, Ariel, originates from Hebrew meaning ‘lion of God’. We really noted comparison between Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and our protagonist in The Little Mermaid. Shakespeare’s Ariel is an air spirit who desires liberty from his/her authoritarian master, as Disney’s Ariel desires freedom from the chains of her own fins and ultimately from her father’s rule. The Shakespeare connection is possibly not a coincidence – after all the name is a creation of the filmmakers – Hans Christian Andersen did not give his protagonist a name.
(Later: No, apparently it was a coincidence … they may have actually been more inspired by Footloose than Shakespeare)
Ariel is prone to rash and hot-headed decisions. She may be a bit of a Lydia – spoiled, self-centred, impulsive, and thoughtless, but she also has an element of Lizzy about her – stubborn, unconventional, energetic and playful. It means that Ariel is a well-rounded character, complete with virtues and flaws. Her actions make sense for who her character is – she is privileged yet restless, she has a dream that she knows cannot happen, and she is vulnerable when manipulated by an older and wiser villain. Ariel, as you often can be as a teenager, does not realise that her actions will have such an effect. She believes that she is adult enough to make her own decisions and mistakes. We imagine that she had no idea that if she had failed in her deal that her father would take her place.
(Special Note from Melissa: It reminds me of something that my Mum says – for the most part, a child will never love their parent as much as the parent loves their child. This makes complete sense in The Little Mermaid. As an adolescent, you don’t realise how much your parents will come through for you when you are in trouble, or how others can be impacted by your actions. Ariel probably thought that no one else would have to get involved)
Ariel is not a perfect protagonist – her inadvisable actions stem from foolishness, rebellion, and the follies of youth, but she is also driven by passion, energy and zest for life – that is what makes her a role model in a more positive way. But regardless of that isn’t it more important to have a character who feels real rather than a picture perfect role model for children? We do not see Ariel as an anti-feminist character – we see her as a character. She does suffer and her foolish actions can teach children about gullibility, trust and ultimately stranger danger. Her actions do result in suffering – it is the consequence of being manipulated and getting screwed over. The film teaches an important lesson: don’t sign contracts. Or at least read the small print. Or give it a few days to think it over. Otherwise, it’s a bad idea.
Imperfect – yes. Interesting – also yes. Some have argued that Ariel didn’t learn anything from her experience. We disagree – she has gone on a massive journey. Words do not need to be said. A telling moment in her character is when Eric is washed up on the beach for a second time, and on this occasion, Ariel does not go to his side. She sits on a rock, distancing herself, grieving for her lost freedom, love and guilty for her actions, and it is such a melancholic image – it is very similar to the ending of The Fox and the Hound at this point. However when Triton gives her legs (and a glittery 1980s dress), her father is not giving her a prize for her foolishly stupid actions and bad behaviour. Triton realises that all this needn’t have happened had he been more understanding in the first place and communicated with his daughter. He knows that he has played a part in this calamity too. Triton letting her go also resonates profoundly with audiences – suddenly it becomes so identifiable – every parent has to let their child go.
Lastly, Glen Keane and Mark Henn’s animation for Ariel is some of the best character animation that we have seen so far, particularly during the Part of Your World scene and when she is unable to express herself vocally. However, Jodi Benson’s voice work also contributes to the character’s appeal, bringing passion, strength and sincerity to her performance.
Oh yes, one more point … What did Ariel do on that third day??? Seriously, she wakes up, sees Eric saying that he wishes to marry Vanessa at sunset, runs away, and then BAM … cutaway and it’s nearly sunset. What did she do all day? Is this a plothole?
(Special Note from David: As far as I can judge, there are only three possible options: 1. Upon noticing that Eric was going to marry someone else, she went to her room and cried all day. 2. Knowing she had only one day left to be a human, she painted the town red and boogied the day away. 3. Starred in a midquel)
(Special Note from Melissa: Or she slept in, late into the afternoon … because she’s a numpty)
‘Wha- wha- what time is it?’
‘Three o’clock in the afternoon, your highness’
‘Oh, thank God for that, I thought I’d overslept’
Ursula is so terrifying that most characters do not speak her name: the Sea Witch, the Demon, the Monster, etc. Modelled on drag queen Divine, voiced by Pat Carroll and animated by Ruben Aquino, Ursula is one hell of a villain. She is fabulous dahling – an old school diva with pizazz.
(Special Note from Melissa: Ursula makes putting on lipstick seem like the best thing ever)
The script had been written with Bea Arthur in mind, but her agent turned the role down. However initially Elaine Stritch was cast as Ursula but her style of working clashed with Howard Ashman’s so she left the project and was replaced by Pat Carroll. Carroll has terrific inflections – she is eating those lines. She asked Howard to deliver Ursula’s lines because he had fantastic inflections, deliveries and ad-libs for the character, and when she asked if she could borrow from him – he said ‘I was hoping you would’.
Oh Howard, you scamp!
This inflection came straight from Howard Ashman (we’ll come back to this in Music)
It is impossible not to consider Little Shop of Horrors when thinking of The Little Mermaid – after all, Ursula and Audrey II are both tentacled sassy villains who manipulate the vulnerable protagonist that dreams of something more, by bribing them with the object of their affection under the motivation of a world dominating scheme.
Her squid/drag design is very inventive – animator, Matt O’ Callaghan apparently came up with the squid idea after many different sea creatures had been tried and tested by different animators. The animators thought that the fatter designs always looked more interesting than skinny ones. Ursula is hilarious and yet she is incredibly threatening. She is an intelligent villain, using weakness, espionage and vulnerability to manipulate and exploit her victims.
(Special Note from Melissa: Regina George from Mean Girls must have taken a leaf out of her book – tactical, slow manipulation – the fighting has to be sly in ‘girl world’ and she is one sly fighter. Clever villains can be only vanquished (according to Disney … and Tina Fey) through moves that don’t give the villain time to think their way out of it)
Whether it be impaled by a ship
Stabbed by a magic sword
Or hit by a bus
A word of advice to Disney villains: Do not make yourself huge. It only makes things worse:
The gigantic Ursula was not actually the original ending. In the original ending, closer to Sleeping Beauty, Eric throws the trident and stabs her – hoisted by her own petard. However this was changed on account of a note from Jeffrey Katzenberg – ‘Can you make it more Die Hard?’ So instead Eric steers the ship and stabs her in the belly. Eric has gone a step above Prince Phillip – no magic helping him out!
In the original script, Ursula is Triton’s sister, which can be interpreted as an interesting jewel of subtext. Was Ursula originally a mermaid, but was punished for her crimes by banishment and being transformed into an ugly squid? How Greek. After all, she says that she used to live in the palace. If so what did she do?
If they are brother and sister, this shot is rather … suggestive
Ursula is a master manipulator as she brilliantly exploits Ariel. She knows that this will work because a parent will sacrifice themselves for a child – as she describes it, she is ‘the key to Triton’s undoing’. Ursula is completely right and she succeeds. She exploits Ariel by getting her on her side – by being ‘nice’ to her she is perceived as the magical benefactor, which is perfectly timed after the huge row between Ariel and Triton – see how her minions immediately swoop in – Ursula likely witnessed the whole event. The fact that Ariel falls in love with a human boy is the icing on the cake for Ursula – ‘It’s too easy!’
Ursula’s ‘little garden’ of former mermen and mermaids offers horrific implications and grotesque imagery:
Yikes! Worse than the fate of the Pleasure Island boys?
How did ‘Beanpole and Fatass’ not pay the price? Discuss
Alongside her garden of horrors, she has two minions called Flotsam and Jetsam – eels with slippery voices and a glowing eye each, through which Ursula is able to observe and carry out her evil plans.
‘Do you know what those are Highness?’
They are very reminiscent of the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.
Hilariously enough Ursula accidentally blasts them to bits:
Ursula ironically is the main female influence in Ariel’s life during the film, despite her having six sisters. She does spout anti-feminist advice to Ariel with absolute panache:
Bear in mind, again, it is the villain saying these lines. It seems odd that she is taken so seriously by viewers – we’re not supposed to agree with her! She takes Ariel’s voice because she knows through espionage that Eric remembers the voice of the woman who saved him – her face was a blur as he was just regaining consciousness. It is delightfully scheming. She also has collateral – she can use it herself. However she didn’t think Ariel would get even close to kissing Eric due to the voice obstacle – it is a flaw in her otherwise clever plan.
Conveniently also a case of rage against a red-headed teenager
In desperate measures, she transforms herself into a human woman called Vanessa, and uses Ariel’s own voice against her – a vicious and sinister plan, especially as she possesses Eric into forgetting Ariel and marrying Vanessa. Even when that plan is foiled as the enchantment is broken at the wedding and Ariel regains her voice, the sun goes down and all hell breaks loose.
She is the master of timing
Is it us or is this image hilariously animated despite it being a frightening scene?
Ultimately Ursula succeeds in her plan and achieves her goal – she wants power (symbolised through the crown and the trident) and she gets it. She just did not anticipate getting stabbed by a ship – she underestimated the young man – in a way Ursula is sexist towards men – after all she tells Ariel that men are only interested in one thing … and in this case she was wrong.
“Drop … your … trident”
Overall, Ursula is a brilliant villain – one of the best and most sinister villains that we have seen so far in The Disney Odyssey – she is theatrical, conniving, sultry, witty and vicious – a blend of old Hollywood, musical theatre, German cabaret and campy drag rolled into one entertaining nightmare of an antagonist – a villain who adores being the villain.
To quote Vincent Price’s Ratigan, she is ‘wicked, so delightfully wicked’.
Sebastian is an excellent supporting character. The court composer and curmudgeon with a heart of gold, originally he was pitched as English, old-fashioned and stuffy with the name Clarence (we wonder if they were influenced by It’s a Wonderful Life?). It is only because Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wanted to incorporate reggae, calypso and ska influences into the music that Sebastian became Caribbean (specifically Trinidadian, according to Samuel E. Wright, because he couldn’t do a Jamaican accent), old-fashioned and stuffy – bravo to fighting stereotypes! It is as if they put Baloo and Bagheera into a blender full of sea water – ‘the entertainer’ and ‘the stick in the mud’.
(Special Note from Melissa: Another name from The Tempest! Even if the name Ariel was a Footloose coincidence, The Tempest is still an obvious choice as inspiration for The Little Mermaid – shipwrecks, tempests, liberty, young love, etc… Ferdinand and Eric are similar, Ariel is a cross between Miranda and Ariel, Ursula has a touch of Caliban and Antonio, while Triton is a blend of Prospero and Alonso – the list could go on!)
Sebastian plays a prominent role in the plot’s motion. Initially sent by Triton to keep an eye on Ariel and make sure she stays out of trouble, he discovers to his horror that she has a controversial hobby with controversial desires, saves a human from drowning and then falls in love with him – all under his watch.
Despite being stuffy, Sebastian knows how to put on a good show, with two very entertaining persuasion songs – although ironically both songs fail in their purpose.
The emotional centre of Sebastian and his connection to Triton and Ariel makes him go beyond being an average sidekick. Sebastian even has his own subplot in which he has to encounter a villain of his own – a manic French chef determined to cook him.
He is a multi-dimensional supporting character reminiscent of Shakespearean roles like Pisanio and Tranio (the reluctant, hard-working servant who comes through for the young lead) with an impactful and heart-warming arc of his own. Howard Ashman wrote the sweet turning-point speech that Sebastian delivers to Ariel when he finally decides to help and support her, knowing that if he does not, she will be unhappy. He is also funny, entertaining and engaging, aided by Samuel E. Wright’s excellent performance as a neurotic crab – you really feel his panic, exasperation and glee rolled into Sebastian’s character. Interestingly enough, Wright would love to improvise and yet he was told to stop improvising in the recording booth – ‘Sam you can’t do that. This is not Robin Williams!’ A year later, he was asked to come back and ad-lib again – he was now allowed to ‘go nuts’ in the booth.
Shortly thereafter Robin Williams would be cast in Aladdin – what irony.
Flounder plays the part of the supportive best friend – a nervous counterpart to Ariel’s rebelliousness, showing the male in a double act as cowardly figure who needs to be rescued (but he does later return the favour in the climax). Flounder is Michael Cera before there ever was a Michael Cera – non-threatening, caring and awkward. He is so awkward that he is lousy at telling the truth – you’d think it would be the other way around!
He fades more into the background as the film progresses, since Sebastian becomes Ariel’s chaperone, which makes sense considering that Flounder is water-bound.
Get him back in the water QUICK!
We love Scuttle (voiced by Buddy Hackett) – he never overstays his welcome, he is genuinely funny and likeable, and he plays a significant role in the film’s climax. To be honest, all of the supporting characters play significant roles in the film’s climax! No one is wasted.
Here’s looking at you Einstein
We love that Scuttle’s misinformation actually comes to fruition in really amusing visual gags. His shtick as he explains what the fork (dinglehopper) and pipe (snarfblatt) are for is hilarious, especially the ‘humans would stare at each other all day … got very boring’ line.
However the film-makers make the smart decision and get Scuttle, Flounder and Sebastian (the comic relief) out of the way during very serious moments, such as the two storms.
“See you when the weather clears up and the dramatic scene is over”
Despite being a ‘mythical’ royal figure, Triton is actually one of the most realistic parents in the canon so far. It is the first time that we have explored this type of parent in The Disney Odyssey. Triton has to reprimand Ariel on several occasions. As a child, you would see him as more of an antagonist, but as you get older, you start to see more from his point of view. He is clearly a father trying to protect his daughter from harm – from the dangers of the human world. Although Triton should really keep his grammar in check when trying to make a point to his daughter.
We never find out why Triton has such animosity towards humans (we have not reached the ‘We must explain everything’ era in Disney yet … plus we know that it is explained in the non-canon third film). Of course it can translate into other forms of prejudice too – allegories for the clash between religions, nationalities, races, etc… He is a single father and judging by this film alone (again the third film isn’t canon) we do not know what happened to Ariel’s mother. Is he a widower? Do his daughters all have different mothers? Was he abandoned? Regardless of that, being Ariel’s only parent, he would likely feel even more protective.
However he is not just an angry, overprotective father. We are privileged to see what Triton is like when Ariel is not around. When she is first in trouble for not showing up to the concert, he berates her and as soon as she storms off, he asks Sebastian if he was too hard on her. When he destroys her grotto, it reminded us of the stepsisters ripping up Cinderella’s dress, but coming from a very different place emotionally. Both are horrific scenes, but the stepsisters’ actions come from such a negative place, while Triton in a rage sees her actions as the last straw: ‘So help me, Ariel, I am going to get through to you; and if this is the only way, so be it!’ It is a huge mistake, and he knows it as soon as he has done it. Seeing red, he perceives this as the only way to keep her from harm, and essentially to make her ‘normal’. It is an emotionally abusive and painful scene that immediately makes hoarders and collectors begin to hyperventilate. The shot of a conflicted Triton looking guilty as he leaves while his daughter sobs makes the scene really resonate – Andreas Deja was the supervising animator and he makes such fantastic choices for what could easily have been a stock overprotective parent.
We do not see Triton again until much later when he sends a search party out again to find his daughter. The image of him alone on the throne and full of regret as he asks ‘What have I done?’ is deeply poignant, raw and hard to watch – like a Lear who has lost his Cordelia. He feels the guilt and regret that the last time he saw his youngest child was on such poor terms in an unpleasant, aggressive and violent scene.
His voice actor, Kenneth Mars does a really wonderful job in his performance. He was not the original choice for Triton – Patrick Stewart was asked and had to turn it down due to conflicts in scheduling with Star Trek.
Unfortunately these were the only vocal performances that Patrick Stewart would give in Disney animated films
When he sacrifices himself for Ariel, it is such a moving moment in a wild climax. Later on at the film’s end, it is even more touching when he lets her go in a beautiful scene written by Howard Ashman.
(Special Note from Melissa: Every time I watch these scenes I am a big crying blubbering mess!)
Triton does have an arc, as he overcomes his personal prejudices, and more importantly, that he has learned that he must let his daughter go – that is the real heart of the film as opposed to the prejudice angle. Ariel and Eric as a couple have broken boundaries, changing Triton’s views on the human world, and breaking the barrier between the two worlds. Triton loves Ariel more than he loves his kingdom – even placing the kingdom in danger to save her from a ruined life, and later lets her leave their world, to embark upon a new one that she loves.
(Special Note from David: The reason Triton is such a stern authoritarian is that he has previously had bad experiences of people not respecting his authority …)
Eric is often considered by many to be a dream prince – he has a dog (whom he risks his life for), is a musician, wants to meet the ‘right’ girl, knows how to sail (being the Prince of a coastal town, he certainly knows his way around a ship), and ultimately defeats the villain in the name of true love … by stabbing her with a ship.
Never knew you had it in you Eric
(Special Note from Melissa: Plus … he’s so pretty)
(Special Note from Melissa: So pretty I want to cry)
Eric, voiced by sixteen-year-old Christopher Daniel Barnes (who had an incredibly mature voice for his age!), speaks the first line in the film, as he declares his delight at being at sea. He is likeable and like Ariel, has an adventurous spirit and is willing to put his life on the line for others. Eric is the ideal youthful Shakespearean-like lead. The name, Eric, is Old Norse meaning ‘one, alone, ruler, prince, powerful, rich’. It is a common name in Scandinavia and the name of a long line of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish royals – how fitting. Eric is a romantic and is the first Disney prince to have a detailed storyline and an arc. Something that the Nine Old Men and Company would dread and avoid at all costs. Well done. Finally! They wanted him to not be the clichéd, buttoned up prince character that we’ve seen before, but instead be someone who is much more down-to-earth, like ‘one of the guys’, and was allegedly even inspired by Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.
Sounds about right for the romantic lead
Ariel’s rescue of Eric is such a magically-infused moment – she is a mermaid after all! Eric is grateful to the mysterious woman with the enchantingly beautiful voice who saved his life, and is not at all macho about it – his lack of shallowness is revealed further in his not being fond of the statue made in his honour. He obsesses over the woman who saved his life to the extent that it nearly makes him miss his chance of happiness.
His disappointment that Ariel is mute, and clearly ‘Couldn’t be who [he] thought’ is so insensitive – learn to be aware of your surroundings – she can still hear and see you!
‘Dude she’s right there’
Like Ariel, Eric too is stubborn, and in his case is determined to find ‘the one’ – perhaps he is a little closer than Ariel to previous Disney princesses and princes.
‘Someday my princess will come!’
But he becomes smitten with Ariel through her energy, eccentricities and her excitement. During their boat date, he holds back from kissing her, partly from shyness, but mainly from not wanting to betray feelings for the girl who saved him from drowning. They do come very close to kissing. Ursula did not bank on Eric falling for a voiceless Ariel, but he does. Eric, a dreamer, makes the decision (with some guidance from Grimsby) to embrace the ‘real’ girl right before him and leave the fantasy behind – and he throws the flute into the sea.
Then Billy Zane comes back to life and hypnotises Old Rose into marrying him … HA!
Eric is ready to commit to the eccentric, sweet woman that he has come to know and love. It is a brilliant scene – haunting, evocative, beautiful and ultimately chilling as he becomes enchanted by Ursula/Vanessa – a love-in-idleness-like enchantment, except unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are no comic implications, but tragedy alone.
Except for this bit – he is hilarious during the wedding, when he doesn’t even move or blink during the wedding chaos.
He’s like this cat
The only way it could have been any worse would be if Ursula had pulled him down to a watery death in the sea akin to mythological sirens.
Eric never had to get involved in the climax, but he does. He accepts that Ariel is a mermaid and swims down to her, throwing … something … at Ursula.
Seriously what is that?
He does not want to lose Ariel, and ultimately he kills the villain, saving the ‘mer’ civilisation from tyranny, and thus uniting the two kingdoms together. As we said before, both Ariel and Eric rescue each other during the film – it is not a one-way street. Their relationship is a sweet one and it does grow over the three days that they share together – an old Hollywood style young romance.
Grimsby is Eric’s own equivalent of a Sebastian figure – a stuffy ‘crabby’ chaperone/mentor – trying to keep Eric’s feet on the ground, like Sebastian attempts with Ariel. He is a comic role who gets a few very amusing moments, and yet simultaneously he delivers one of the film’s most meaningful lines.
‘Eric, if I may say, far better than any dream girl is one of flesh and blood. One warm, and caring, and right before your eyes’
Although Grimsby you were rather quick to accept it when the ‘dream girl’ finally does show up, completely disregarding what you said before:
‘Ha! Forget what I said last night Eric! I just went a bit mad’
Grimsby is voiced by Ben Wright, who had previously voiced Roger in One Hundred and One Dalmatians nearly thirty years ago at that point. Funnily enough, when he was cast to play Grimsby, no one was aware that he had voiced a Disney character before! Sadly Ben Wright died before the film was even released – it was his final role.
Artwork and Imagery
The Little Mermaid is Disney’s last full length animated feature film to not be digital. It is the final film to use hand-painted cels, optical effects and analogue camera – using over one million drawings. After that, The Rescuers Down Under would be the first Disney animated film to fully embrace the CAPS system; therefore it is the last chance before 100% digital for the animators to be completely hands on. However that does not mean that there are no CAPS or CGI shots – the penultimate shot of the rainbow framed ship is CAPS made, and a staircase, carriage and ships are CGI-based. The film highlights the creativity and inventiveness of animation. It is something that has been missing for a long time at Disney – corners have not been cut! The musical sequences look brilliant, varying from gorgeously intimate solo numbers to Busby-Berkeley-esque chorus numbers, especially next to something as soulless as Oliver and Company.
Here are some particularly stunning looking shots:
More money and resources were dedicated to The Little Mermaid than any other Disney animated film in decades, mainly due to the success of Basil, Oliver and Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The underwater setting of The Little Mermaid required the most special effects animation since Fantasia nearly fifty years ago and you can really see the impact. The water sequences look so impressive – fluid and seamless. Approximately over a million bubbles were drawn, meaning that the bubble effects had to be created in a separate institution at Pacific Rim Productions in China. Animator, Kay Nielsen’s story sketches from the 1930s (when they were developing The Little Mermaid as a short) were brought out for inspiration and he even receives a credit in The Little Mermaid (check out these sketches – Nielsen’s artwork is beautiful). Consequently the storm sequence is incredibly striking and a real throwback to Disney’s artwork in the Golden Age.
See how fantastically animated the voice stealing moment is – Howard Ashman personally directed Ariel’s live action model in how to portray a ‘voice’ being pulled from her throat:
The film is clearly a result of old and new styles blending beautifully together. Ben Wright, as Roger and Grimsby, bookends the Ub Iwerks Xerography era, from One Hundred and One Dalmatians to The Little Mermaid.
The character animation is at as high a standard (and likely even higher!) than Basil the Great Mouse Detective. Glen Keane and Mark Henn in particular have triumphed, with such wonderful and realistic animation for Ariel. It is the tiniest details that make this film stand out and reveal that the younger animators know what they’re doing: Triton’s guilt after destroying Ariel’s collection, Sebastian’s world-weary expressions, Ariel having to communicate without words, Eric’s possession scene, Ariel’s heartbreak, Ursula’s … just everything Ursula does! There is always something to watch in this film – not a single frame is wasted. Sexual tension and chemistry has not been more intensely (and genuinely) shown in a Disney film as between Ariel and Eric:
Aside from the talent of the animators, one of the reasons why the character animation had made such a leap in quality is that for the first time in many years, extensive live action reference had been used to assist the animators. Even Kathryn Beaumont (Alice and Wendy’s voice actress) was called upon by the team to offer advice about live action reference as the young animators were not as familiar with this procedure. Sherri Stoner, a Groundlings performer with a flair for improvisation, was cast as Ariel’s live action performer, and she brought a lot of her own personal ‘isms’ to the Ariel which ended up in the final film. These personal ‘isms’ brought by all of the live action performers are likely what makes the film feel so honest and relatable.
Alongside Stoner’s performance, Ariel’s design was also inspired by Alyssa Milano and astronaut Sally Ride for her underwater hair. Speaking of hair … Ariel’s hair became a huge debate. Should it be blonde? Brown? Red? Black? Jeffrey Katzenberg shot everyone down with, ‘Everybody knows that mermaids are blonde’ …
However in the end, Katzenberg did not get his way, because they did not want Ariel to look too similar to Daryl Hannah in Splash. As Roger Allers pointed out in an interview, ‘yellow’ underwater in the dark does not look great, while dark red looks striking, particular in juxtaposition to green. Instead, they decided on a fiery red for the passionate Ariel, coupling it with the complementary green of her fish tail. Ariel’s pink dress when she is on land is a combination of the three previous Disney princesses’ outfits. Snow White’s puffy sleeves with diamond patterns, Cinderella’s full skirt, and Aurora’s off-shoulder and slim arms, and of course the … pink colour …
‘Make it blue’
Ariel’s wedding dress certainly made us remember what era we were in …
‘Good heavens child!’
The designs of both Triton’s and Eric’s palaces are a step in a new direction for Disney. Eric’s is very Mediterranean, while Triton’s is gorgeously fantastical in its appearance. The film is also loaded with iconic imagery, which we feel has been lacking for a long time in the canon.
Oh welcome back you glorious, glorious music!
Alan Menken had never done a film score before and was apparently very nervous about it. Howard Ashman felt that it was important that the songs be integrated into the score and thus persuaded Menken to do it, especially as he had not done the score for the film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors, and regretted it because most of the score were his melodies, and the score ended up getting a Golden Globe (and frustratingly enough because of that technicality, it was not his to receive). We are glad that he took the plunge (following an audition) because the score is glorious. It is the most detailed and character theme-centric score since Mary Poppins and the most detailed of all animated films so far – the effort of the score is mind-blowing. The animators recall the exciting feeling that they felt hearing music being created in Ashman and Menken’s room at the studio going up and down the corridors and they knew that this was a project that they wanted to be involved it felt like the old days at Disney.
Something that we realised from buying the Legacy edition of The Little Mermaid soundtrack is that there is nearly always music underscoring the action and dialogue in the film – the soundtrack is over 80 minutes long. While listening to the soundtrack you feel like you are watching the film – except … you’re feeling the film through the music rather than seeing it – the emotions really come through and it was easy to know what was going on – the music speaks for the characters – it could easily play over muted dialogue and it would still work beautifully. There’s a clear distinction between land and sea themes, and classical themes transcend through the score. The music encapsulates adventure, romance, comedy, dreaming, threat and horror. The main titles are strikingly emotional and hauntingly beautiful, completely characterising what The Little Mermaid is all about – it moves you to tears – and that is bookended with the ‘Happy Ending’ which feels like a real homage to the classic Disney fairy tale films, solidifying itself as a classic among them, complete with a Disney chorus.
(Special Note from David: Naturally!)
Offering us some Deja-vu from the Golden and Pit of Despair eras (Peter and the Wolf and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), every character has a dominant instrument – Ariel the flute, Triton the French Horn, Scuttle the clarinet, Eric the Oboe and Ursula … well … she has them all dahling. Each character has a leit-motif that is distinctive like the way in which the Sherman Brothers did in Poppins. The use of the leit-motifs are so impressive in choices that they make, particularly in significant moments, and especially revolving around the Part of Your World theme. Of course, this is Ariel’s theme, and it is the heart and centre of the score, but the way in which it gets used or manipulated by other characters can vary from melancholic, to tragic, to absolutely horrific and sinister. After being rescued by Ariel, Eric keeps playing the melody on his flute to reflect that he can’t get over her, and when Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto, a horrible, distorted version of the tune is playing in the underscore. But the most painful instance is Ursula using Ariel’s ‘voice’ through the Part of Your World melody to steal her identity and hypnotise Eric. When she is transforming into Vanessa, Part of Your World plays but with a typically Ursula-like brass instrument, and of course, the haunting use of Ariel’s aria on the beach. It’s just … evil. She has quite literally stolen her voice. It gets even worse when the wedding boat sets sail and the organ is playing the ‘Tour of the Kingdom’ music from their date, which can be described as Eric and Ariel’s ‘song’ – their ‘song’ is now being used as Eric and Vanessa’s wedding march.
The songs inform the viewer, define character and push the narrative forward. Menken and Ashman’s songs have such a rare combination of wit, sharpness, hilarity, and campiness and at the same time, genuine emotion and tenderness. We haven’t had such fun and intelligent songs since The Jungle Book. Their songs never feel forced – it is as if they just popped up into being, and yet when you hear the demos, it is wonderful to experience how the process of how these songs came to be through such creativity and hard work. Their knowledge of theatre and storytelling shines through so much in the songs and the score that it moves us. At last – such a wonderful double act.
Fathoms Below is a sea shanty sung by the sailors on Eric’s ship – a nautical ditty that has shades of an upbeat version of the opening of Les Miserables. Although not likely to be anyone’s favourite number from the film, it immediately sets the tone for The Little Mermaid and offers exposition without going too much in detail (a deleted scene reveals much more exposition and is consequently less mysterious). It establishes the divide between worlds – between the human characters and the (perceived to be) mythical mer-people. It is a grand opening that feels exciting and epic – the grandest since The Journey.
The Daughters of Triton is all the sisters really get to do in this film … other than complain about Ariel being in the … bathroom(?) for too long. It feels very like a beauty queen or débutante number (which makes sense as Howard Ashman’s latest show Smile had been about beauty queens), as they all introduce themselves, saving Ariel for last in the ‘shocking’ reveal that she is not there.
(Special Note from Both: We are seething … Ariel … why???)
In a rather Goneril and Regan move, the sisters are all schmoozing about how wonderful their father is, while Ariel pulls a worse one than Cordelia by … not turning up at all.
Good job idiot
Although touchingly enough, Daughters of Triton can be heard in the underscore when Triton lets Ariel go – it genuinely surprised us.
Part of Your World is a whole story in itself. Initially, Ariel’s number was going to focus on her romantic interest, as a love song to a human statue, but Howard Ashman, when meeting with John Musker and Ron Clements for the first time, advised that it may be better to angle Ariel’s ballad from the point-of-view of her desire to be part of the human world. He had the idea behind Part of Your World very early on, even during that discussion. When the song was written, Clements and Musker suggested uses of nonsensical expressions like ‘gadgets’, ‘gizmos’ ‘whosits’ and ‘whatsits’ instead of referring to physical things, as Ariel has had information from Scuttle, an unreliable source. The song was jokingly referred to by Ashman and Menken as Somewhere That’s Dry, punning on their ballad from Little Shop called Somewhere That’s Green – in both songs, both leading ladies long for something more, and the melody phrase ‘part of your world’ is rather similar to ‘somewhere that’s green’.
Howard Ashman was determined that Ariel must have a number, as there is always that moment in a Broadway musical when the leading lady must sit down and tell the audience what she wants, and that is when we fall in love with the character. They succeeded – this is the song that makes us fall in love with Ariel, because we understand her heart’s desire, as if we had read her diary or opened a window to her soul – which is the essence of the ‘I Want Song’ in theatre. The song is the heart and centre of the film that has absolutely cemented itself as the film’s signature number and as a classic in the canon. As we said before, the theme is heard repeatedly throughout the underscore, and works beautifully.
Jodi Benson recorded the song in dim lighting to evoke the feeling of being underwater, and Howard Ashman stayed with her during the process, directing her and coaching her to bring out the very best in her performance . He would play other characters while she was recording dialogue too. It was after hearing Jodi Benson’s performance that Glen Keane felt determined to not only animate Ariel, but to animate the Part of Your World sequence, which is one of the film’s major highlights. However trouble was afoot after the infamous screening for school children. The film was still rough, and these kids nearly ruined The Little Mermaid because they got squirmy during Part of Your World, and one kid dropped his popcorn. This caused Jeffrey Katzenberg to insist that they remove it from the picture entirely, to which Howard Ashman responded ‘over my dead body’. He, Menken, Musker and Clements argued and pleaded, but it was Glen Keane who managed to save the life of this song, by arguing that he should not let some hyperactive kids influence a decision like this, to which Katzenberg responded that it wasn’t just that, it was that the song was ‘boring’. Keane managed to persuade Katzenberg to keep it at least until the next preview when it would be shown fully animated. The number was incredibly well received at an adult screening, even moving some spectators to tears. Katzenberg later admitted that he felt embarrassed that he ever considered cutting it, as he could not imagine the film without it. It has become Disney’s Over the Rainbow, the classic song and heart and soul of the film that was nearly cut due to fears of slowing down the picture and being dull to children … thank God they survived.
However as much as this is a wonderful song … we rolled about laughing on Ariel’s ‘end scene’ gesture:
(Breathe) End scene
Under the Sea is the film’s big hit (and the big award-winner too) – a Cole Porter/Busby-Berkeley-esque song complete with wordplay, wit, puns and a super-fun bassline. It is a really fun number that makes you want to get up and dance with its infectiously catchy melody and eclectic variety of instruments. The calypso influences musically make it stand out from anything else in the canon – Samuel E. Wright performs this song brilliantly with delightful energy and wonderful little touches thrown in throughout.
Poor Unfortunate Souls really may be the best villain song we have had so far in the canon. What an inspired number! It pushes the story forward in leaps and bounds, offers delicious characterisation and is wickedly hilarious, sexy and frightening all at once. It is the show’s most theatrical number, pumping out a cabaret vibe that exudes sleaze, wit and danger. It builds, builds and keeps on building to this phenomenal climax – it is as if Ursula is the feverish conductor of a ballet or opera that begins on the quiet and just explodes into chaos – the spell moment feels very Fantasia-like. Pat Carroll was not the first choice for Ursula and these are moments when you are so glad that things don’t work out with what is originally planned in casting, because she is perfect in the role. However we will point out that if Pat Carroll had not played the role, there is only one other person who could have played Ursula, and that is Howard Ashman. Even Pat Carroll admits that she was initially intimidated, and asked Howard if he would sing the song for her first before she recorded the number, and it suddenly clicked when she heard and saw him perform:
“I said, ‘I got you, Howard. I know exactly what you want.’ He gave me that performance! Come on, I’m honest enough to say that. I got the whole attitude from him … and his shoulders would twitch in a certain way, and his eyes would go a certain way … I got more about that character from Howard singing that song than from anything else.”
Have a listen here:
There is also a reprise of Poor Unfortunate Souls, sung by Jodi Benson who is playing Ursula at that point in the film. She is having a fabulous time Ethel Merman-ing her way through the song, particularly on her pronunciation of the word ‘mermaid’ – hilarious and yet incredibly sinister as Ursula uses Ariel’s stolen voice to sing about her plan to destroy her life. Word of advice to Ursula though, did you ever read Rumplestiltskin? NEVER SING ABOUT YOUR SCHEME!
Les Poissons is the anti-Maurice Chevalier number – an over-the-top character number for a French chef determined to cook Sebastian (much to his horror! His reactions are hilariously animated), as he’s such a ‘succulent crab’. Like Fathoms Below, it is not likely to be anyone’s favourite (just because of the competition!), but that doesn’t mean that it is not of a high standard. It is a filler number, but René Auberjonois puts in so much vocal effort and energy into his performance – the constant backing and forthing from twinkle-toed delight to sadistic maniacal glee makes it go beyond sub-par filler. The beginning of the song feels like a precursor to Be Our Guest – actually the anti-Be Our Guest! Also from Ashman and Menken’s previous music, it is a successor to Dentist from Little Shop of Horrors. The delightful French instrumentation in contrast to hilariously gruesome lyrics is fantastic. Apparently they didn’t want to use the can-can, but felt that in the end it was the only piece of music that really worked in this context.
And that can work brilliantly
Kiss the Girl is the most pop-like song in the score, and yet still feels like a timeless, theatrical number, with (again) some Berkeley flourishes – but overall it is a sensual serenade. Instead of Sebastian having to persuade Ariel like in Under the Sea, he now has to convince Eric to kiss Ariel in order to save her from a doomed life. The two separate worlds have collided, as Sebastian and his animal friends strive to get the human prince together with their mermaid princess – such a huge moment. So much is at stake that tensions run high, and yet ironically it is such a romantic, intimate and relaxed song, aided by its Caribbean flavour provided by Samuel E. Wright’s sensual performance – he certainly created the mood! The number reminds us of the sweetness and awkwardness that brings you back to being a teenager, when you are shy, becoming aware of your romantic and sexual feelings, and when you don’t know whether to make a move or not.
Bedroom eyes are discovered
Alongside goofy romantic eyes
Plus we get the hilarious moment when Eric tries to guess Ariel’s name, until Sebastian becomes impatient and just whispers it irritably in his ear. Wow imagine if he had just let Eric go on.
‘Mildred? Diana? Rachel?’
‘I’ll give you a clue’
(Special Note from Melissa: Because I miss the Great British Bake-Off dearly, for fun I would say that the Signature Bake award goes to Part of Your World, the Technical Bake award goes to Poor Unfortunate Souls, and the Showstopper award goes to Under the Sea.)
Ron Clements and John Musker ‘s writing has been brilliant so far – Basil the Great Mouse Detective had a fantastically written script, and The Little Mermaid, with extra sprinklings and direction from Howard Ashman’s creative mind, creates a great story, one of the best so far in the canon. It is at heart, a very emotional story, not at all afraid to hide from that; the characters’ goals and actions come from emotional places – Triton’s love for his daughter, Ursula’s desire for power, Sebastian’s conflict between a father and daughter, Ariel’s longing to be part of a world that she cannot be part of, and Eric’s yearning to find the ‘one’. Aside from the songs, this may be why audiences identify so much with the film – despite the magical dressing, it is a very human story.
Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s original story, Disney’s The Little Mermaid uses the following factors from its source material – a mermaid rescues a prince from drowning, falls for him, and does a deal with a sea witch to become human in exchange for her voice. This is as far as it really goes, but they are powerful elements for a story and form a solid narrative for the film. The rebellious young princess with ‘unusual’ interests longing to be part of another world has a mythical vibe and yet is frequently embraced in modern writing.
Interestingly enough, when the team dug through the archives to discover that Walt and his team were working on a The Little Mermaid short back in the 1940s, they realised looking through the minutes from meetings that they had very similar story ideas! Walt, true to his attitude on most adaptations, notably The Jungle Book, made a note that they do not need to literally do Andersen’s text, but instead draw upon it for inspiration. Therefore they cut out ‘heavy’ stuff like the mermaid longing for the immortal soul. Walt came up with the idea of the mermaid humming a song and the prince groggily waking up and remembering the ‘haunting refrain’ – huge inspiration from Walt! However a thought-provoking element of the 1940s idea was that the mermaid wouldn’t know what price she had paid until she tries to speak to the prince for the first time, and realises that she can’t.
The film starts and it continues moving forward – it is a very goal-driven film – when characters want something, they take it.
We have seen the deleted scenes and despite being interesting, they were wise cuts as they would have slowed the action down. Apparently during the process, Jeffrey Katzenberg said that while he loved all of the film’s components, he didn’t quite love it yet. During this period of major story trouble, Howard Ashman wrote three key scenes – Sebastian trying to persuade Ariel to go home and relenting, Sebastian’s coaching scene in the bedroom, and Triton and Sebastian’s final scene. That 3rd scene was initially all done in silence, but Ashman emphasised that they really shouldn’t be afraid of having the words spoken. These scenes made a huge difference. The narrative and storyboarding flows brilliantly, balancing humour with emotion, and the film has fantastic use of tension and timing. Because of Ursula’s ticking clock in her ‘Three Day Deal’, the stakes feel incredibly high.
It is not only one character who has a developmental story arc – there are multiple plots/subplots that interweave effortlessly. The plot revolves around Ariel, and anything that could be perceived as subplot connects with the main plot. There is a father-daughter conflict, an evil scheme, an unlikely duo ‘road trip’, a mystery, and a romance. The four main characters have goals, and Ursula’s scheme weaves a web of all of these goal strands.
Ariel’s objective – Wants to experience the human world
Eric’s objective – Wants to find the right girl
Triton’s objective – Wants his child to be ‘normal’
Ursula’s objective – Wants to rule the sea
Interestingly enough, the young characters achieve their goals by the film’s conclusion, and the older characters do not. Ursula’s objective is achieved but destroyed in minutes, while Triton chooses to let go of his objective, embracing that his child will never be ‘normal’, and instead accepts her ‘oddness’ and the success of Ariel and Eric’s goals – she can live in the human world, and Eric can be with his daughter. The story reveals the changing of the guard – the progressive younger generation have enlightened the older generation – perfectly summed up in Triton’s rainbow at the film’s end. However the ending is beautifully bittersweet – it is not a sickly sweet happy ending. Triton has to let his daughter go, and Ariel has to leave her family and friends to live her life on the land.
The biggest issues for us in terms of story was that the climax felt over too soon, and while the film has terrific pace, it could have afforded to slow down at times, primarily because the material is brilliant and we want to see it, but also because we want to see more. The shark scene seems a little redundant too as he never appears again, and it feels mostly like screening tension for tension’s sake (we’ve heard that it didn’t tend to be any of the creators’ favourite scene) and of course … WHAT DID ARIEL DO ON THE 3RD DAY? We need Columbo on the case! Or Basil …
The Little Mermaid is a film that we have waited a very long time to get to in The Disney Odyssey. As we have proceeded through the studio’s history, we’ve really taken notice of how much things changed since Walt Disney’s death, and the long-term impact that his passing had on the artists and animators at the studio. The lack of a clear leader-figure to pull everything together and to keep things on track was really evident, and for such a long time nobody was able to step into that role and have a truly noticeable impact.
All of that changed with the arrival of Howard Ashman – people at the studio called him a “new Walt” which was not the sort of endorsement to be given lightly. However, the praise was rightfully given as The Little Mermaid firmly solidifies itself amongst the true classics in the Studio’s canon. For the first time since Sleeping Beauty (released thirty years prior) comes a film where it looks as though the studio has well and truly put their all into it. It is one of the most fully realised films in the canon at this point – I would consider The Jungle Book and Basil the Great Mouse Detective to be amongst my all time favourite films in the canon, but I will admit that they are inhibited by budgetary restraints and consequently look very sketchy at times. It is a genuine delight to see the artists and animators able to really showcase their abilities – the film looks fantastic.
The film tells its story really well, the pacing is consistent and the musical numbers are skilfully integrated in order to ensure that the plot is always moving forward. Also it’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack to the film is brilliant – every song is memorable and serves a clear purpose (even the throwaway comedy song is entertaining and memorable). Songs like “Part of That World” and “Under The Sea” are indelibly ingrained into cinematic history. The film also has a really great score, something that hasn’t been so apparent since Mary Poppins (and probably the most well rounded original score in an animated film ever up to this point).
The film also boasts a great cast of characters, all of whom serve a purpose to the plot. We have already discussed the characters at length, so there’s not really much to add, except to say they they’re all really well designed and really well acted.
All of the components in the film work really well, and a significant factor within this is the fact that Howard Ashman really cared. He cared about the characters, he cared about the songs – and that translates into the final product really clearly. The Little Mermaid was truly a labour of love from the artists and animators at Disney, and consequently it is one of their best ever films.
The Little Mermaid is one of those films that I do not remember watching for the first time … simply because it was always there! Our scrappy old family VHS copy was likely bought when I was still an infant, so we have had it for as long as I can remember. I loved watching it as a child, but as per usual with Disney films during this period, when DVDs became mainstream, VHS copies would get tucked away (and pre-teen-isms would kick in) and it wasn’t until 2006 when I bought it on DVD, initially as a Christmas present for my sister, that I realised how bloody marvellous this film is – and upon re-watching it for The Disney Odyssey, I loved it even more. However, during my teen years, while I really liked The Little Mermaid, I always insisted that Beauty and the Beast was the superior film … I’m really not so sure now. But you’ll have to wait until that review before I can even work that out for myself.
The film encapsulates what I love about the possibilities of cinema – and in this case the possibilities of the animated musical. The work, effort, creativity, joy and care that went into this film is as clear as day – John Musker, Howard Ashman, Ron Clements and Alan Menken were a phenomenal team, and everyone else who played a part in this film did an absolutely wonderful job. I love the songs, the score, the characters and the story. The lead, the villain and the supporting cast are all engaging and entertaining, aided by high-quality and truthful character animation, brilliant vocal performances, and a witty, yet tender script from Musker and Clements. Ariel is an appealing, heart-felt and identifiable leading lady, while Ursula is so delightfully evil that it’s fantastic seeing them together in the Poor Unfortunate Souls scene. The narrative structure is solid, balancing humour, emotion, and tension, meaning that I constantly felt invested in the plight of all of the characters. It features one of the best romances in Eric and Ariel, one of the most sinister schemes in Ursula, and one of the best parent-child dynamics in Triton and Ariel, so far in the canon. The film never felt slow, which was good, and yet it meant that sometimes it moved a little faster than I wanted it to – it could have afforded to slow down at certain critical moments and it wouldn’t have hurt the film. The artwork is really lovely and at times absolutely beautiful to behold, but again, like Basil, character animation is the true strength in The Little Mermaid.
The gorgeous score for The Little Mermaid is one of my favourites so far in the canon, and the songs are fantastic – not only a return to form, but an ignition of something different, and perhaps in a way even greater. Music has returned to being the heart and soul of Disney animated films. If I had to choose, Part of Your World would likely be my favourite song, mainly due to how much it is entwined into the film’s score, and how much passion and longing swells not only in the music, but in the vocal performance. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken had brought something very special to Disney, and it really shows when watching the film. Howard was indeed ‘another Walt’, and knowing what went on behind the scenes during production, truly enriches the film in my esteem even more. I love the theatrical sensibility of The Little Mermaid, which goes beyond the music and songs, whether it be in Ariel’s yearning desires for more, in Ursula’s delightful manipulation, in Sebastian’s lavish entertainments, or in Triton’s bittersweet decision to let his daughter go at the end – theatre transcends – The Little Mermaid feels like theatre but has partnered fantastically with the wonders of cinema and the amazing possibilities of animation. It is a triumph and a glorious return to the musical and the fairytale at Disney.
(P.S. There is a scene in The Little Mermaid that partly (in among many reasons) inspired me to want to do The Disney Odyssey in the first place. It was the scene in which Grimsby gives Eric his words of advice on love, and Eric’s thought process in which he decides, in silence, to let go of the fantasy and embrace the girl before him, until (un)timely intervention steps in with Ursula/Vanessa’s hypnotic enchantment, as she emerges hauntingly from the ocean, all accompanied by breath-taking underscore. I felt blown away by that scene watching it a few years, and it reminded me how powerful Disney animation can be, and how it does not always get the credit that it truly deserves. Yes, Disney is popular – it gets that credit – but sometimes I feel like the films do not get seen as works of art in entertainment as much as they should be)
Jeffrey Katzenberg warned The Little Mermaid team to not get their hopes up – it would not likely do as well as Oliver and Company because ‘guys’ movies do better than ‘girls’ movies. John Musker remarked in an interview that he never even considered it to be a ‘girls’ movie’ and believed that it would transcend gender lines. It is not surprising that Katzenberg said this because in 1980s Hollywood, sadly, there was truth in that and it is a debate which continues today. However, consider animated films that could be perceived as ‘girls’ films, simply because of their female protagonists – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella – these are the films that practically saved Disney animation and ignited their own eras – the Golden Age and the Restoration (Romantic) Era. Alongside this warning from Katzenberg, there was also a widespread fear of the film being constantly compared to the ‘classics’ and ultimately considered to be inferior.
While there were critics who did think that way, The Little Mermaid was a critical and financial success. It was released in 1989 in the USA, but in 1990 for the majority of the world, including the UK. Similarly to what recently happened initially with Frozen, the film had a good opening weekend (good not great), but it just kept playing and playing and playing, becoming an enormous hit. It made $84,355,863 at the domestic box office. In its lifetime, the film made $111,543,479 domestically and $110,800,000 internationally… much more than Oliver and Company. The film was released on the same day as Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, which made a mere $27,100,027 at the domestic box office.
Variety called The Little Mermaid Disney’s ‘best animated feature since “Jungle Book” … [which] should come as no surprise to admirers of “The Great Mouse Detective,” writer-director collaborators John Musker and Ron Clements’ exceptionally appealing 1986 animated feature that helped salvage the art form at the studio after it had nearly sunk into “The Black Cauldron” … It’s also hard to say enough about the contribution of lyricist Howard Ashman (who co-produced with Musker) and composer Alan Menken, whose songs frequently begin slowly but build in cleverness and intensity’. They refer to Under the Sea as an instant classic, and that ‘Newcomer Jodi Benson (Ariel) also exhibits a show-stopping set of pipes on the ballad “Part Of Your World,” a “Les Miz” ringer’. Their biggest criticism is that ‘the filmmakers succumb to the annoying MTV-influenced convention of some too-quick cuts … and jarringly awkward edits, as if overly concerned with rushing the story along’.
Roger Ebert loved the film: ‘Watching “The Little Mermaid,” I began to feel that the magic of animation had been restored to us … Something seems to have broken free inside all of these men, and the animating directors they worked with: Here at last, once again, is the kind of liberating, original, joyful Disney animation that we all remember from “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” and the other first-generation classics. There has been a notion in recent years that animated films are only for kids. But why? The artistry of animation has a clarity and a force that can appeal to everyone, if only it isn’t shackled to a dim-witted story. “The Little Mermaid” has music and laughter and visual delight for everyone’.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times also had nothing but high praise for the film: ‘The heroine of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ”The Mermaid” failed in her bid to become human, and became a disembodied spirit relegated to spending centuries in limbo. ”The Little Mermaid,” a glorious Walt Disney version of this tale and the best animated Disney film in at least 30 years, is due for immortality of a happier kind … ”The Little Mermaid” is a marvel of skillful animation, witty songwriting and smart planning. It is designed to delight filmgoers of every conceivable stripe. Teenagers will appreciate the story’s rebellious heroine … Adults will be charmed by the film’s bright, outstandingly pretty look and by its robust score. Small children will be enchanted by the film’s sunniness and by its perfect simplicity’. Maslin also wrote that Ashman and Menken scored ‘a bull’s-eye with ”Part of Your World,” a powerhouse ballad … Any Broadway musical would be lucky to include a single number this good. ”The Little Mermaid” has half a dozen of them’.
The Little Mermaid won two Academy Awards – the first time that a Disney animated film has won any since The Jungle Book (1967) and the first Disney film since Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) – Best Music, Original Song for Under the Sea, and Best Music, Original Score. Kiss the Girl was also nominated for Best Song. It won and was nominated for exactly the same awards at the Golden Globes. Under the Sea also won Best Song Written for a Motion Picture or Television at the Grammy Awards and the film won Best Recording for Children, while Kiss the Girl was nominated and the film was nominated for Best Instrumental Composition for a Motion Picture or Television.
It won the Golden Screen Award in Germany, the Animation Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the BMI Film Music Award at the BMI Film and TV awards, the Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in an Animated Feature at the Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards, Best Family Motion Picture (Adventure or Cartoon) at the Young Artist Awards. It was nominated for Best Casting for a Comedy Feature Film at the Casting Society of America awards, for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures at the PGA Awards.
Akin to The Rescuers’ naked lady fiasco, The Little Mermaid has its own controversy – and not only one, but two. The palace in the cover art of the original VHS release appears to fashion a spire that looks like a phallus – it was allegedly an accident based on the artist working late into the night and in a hurry. The second controversy is the ‘knee jerk’ one – the minster at Eric and Vanessa’s wedding appears to have an erection – the defence was that it was his knee, but organisations used it to complain about subliminal messaging in Disney films – there was even a lawsuit.
(Special Note from Melissa: Wow … some people have way too much time on their hands. I own this VHS copy and have had it for 25 years … both the cover and the screenshot did not have any impact on me as a child. I didn’t even notice it until I read about it on the Internet years later. It did not ‘ruin’ my childhood or have any impact on me psychologically – so sorry to parents out there who love to find a reason to complain that Disney have traumatised or corrupted their children)
There was direct-to-video sequel and prequel to The Little Mermaid, as well as a TV series and a Broadway musical (and later a reinvention of the musical). The film was re-released in cinemas in 1997 in the USA and 1998 in the UK. A 3D re-release of the film was cancelled in 2013 due to the under-performances of Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc.
(Special Note from Melissa: I would go berserk that this happened but to tell you the truth I don’t think The Little Mermaid would look great in 3D. However I would have been thrilled to have seen it in 2D on the big screen!)
The overall legacy that the film left is that it reignited the Disney musical, and more importantly established even further the fruitful connection between musical theatre and animation. It brought Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to the forefront! Jeffrey Katzenberg, despite his initial cynicism, later described The Little Mermaid as the ‘foundation on which the renaissance was built’.