The Little Mermaid (1989) Review

The Little Mermaid Poster 2

If you were to ask me what my favorite Disney canon film was, “The Little Mermaid” would be a strong contender for the title, because I seriously adore this movie. Growing up, I never had much of an exposure to the big four of the Disney renaissance. “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast“, “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” have been in the Disney vault for much of my life. I’m partly annoyed by that and partly okay with it, because it’s allowed to me scrutinize Disney’s most popular films and decide if they live up to the hype around them or not without having to worry about a filter of nostalgia. For the most part, I’d say that they do, especially this one. “The Little Mermaid” is one of those rare Disney movies and one of those rare musicals where you know it’ll be something unique and inventive right from the opening sequence, taking us from Eric’s raucous ship to the undersea city of Atlantica with Alan Menken’s theme for Ariel firing up for the first time.

Due to it’s ambitious plot, the film moves along at a brisk pace through it’s three acts; Ariel’s actions and the consequences of her decisions, along with that of other supporting characters’, carrying her neatly from one scene to another and the movie never once being allowed to drag (though the ending does seem to wrap up a bit quickly, like the filmmakers realized the movie was running long and they wanted to nip things in the bud). I’ve talked a lot in the past about how a strong ensemble cast can make or break a movie and while the animation is great and the soundtrack is stellar, it’s the characters in “The Little Mermaid” and the way the character relationships shine through in the second half of the film that elevate the movie. There’s Ariel’s euphoric chemistry with Eric; Flounder, Sebastian and Scuttle’s devotion to their little mermaid friend; Triton’s guilt and concern over his lost daughter; Grimsby offering Eric sincere relationship advice because he doesn’t just want the prince to be wed, he also wants his psuedo-son to be happy; and in a twisted sort of way, there’s even Ursula trying her best to kill Ariel to avenge the only real friends the sea witch had in exile. It all makes this film’s universe feel thoroughly lived in.

Part Of Your World (Reprise)

“The Little Mermaid’s” lead character, Ariel, is the youngest of seven royal daughters, as well as the most passionate and outspoken. Instead of lying around the palace without purpose, Ariel spends her days poking around shipwrecks and chatting up seagulls, learning more about human inventions and human society. For years now, Ariel has taken an interest in the world above her head, and she’d love nothing more than to cross the human / mermaid divide, live a life of adventure and excitement and exploration on land with endless, endless potential. But she knows it’ll never happen. One, because it’s impossible, and two, her father, the king, despises humans. Ariel, in general, likes to try to understand and appreciate the beauty in everything, and she doesn’t feel comfortable accepting and internalizing her family’s harsh prejudices just because they’re her family. Still, an eventful encounter with an admirable human prince, who proves her right about humans being more than mindless monsters, convinces her not to let the dream die so soon and leaves her with quite a crush. She learns the importance to staying true to herself and sticking up for what she believes in. When her father finds out, the king becomes terrifyingly abusive towards her, destroying her collection of human objects, and a pissed-off Ariel decides to cut a deal with Ursula the sea witch to try to become human.

I’ve touched on this before, in my first blog post, but Ariel is one of my favorite female characters from Disney. As far as Disney princesses go, she’s a pretty big deal. She’s the first truly proactive princess of the lot, who not only dreams of a more fulfilling life, but actively pursues it at every turn (not to mention, saves a dude’s life from drowning), finding acceptance on land and the space to pursue her interests. She’s also the first one that’s allowed to be more than just a role model figure. Ariel is a fundamentally flawed person, and her flaws drive the conflict of the story forward (if you’ve read my reviews of “Brother Bear” and “Frozen” you know those are my favorite sorts of characters). To elaborate, Ariel is a kind, brave, fun-loving and open-minded individual, but she can also be very stubborn and shortsighted. Throughout the film, she ignores Flounder and Sebastian’s warnings and keeps putting herself into dangerous situations for the sake of discovery, all too cavalier about the risks (a trait she shares with Remy from Pixar’s “Ratatouille”), which usually winds up stressing out her friends. This eventually catches up to her when she loses her bet with Ursula, and the sea witch not only betrays her (since she was just using her) but also almost kills her and her friends and family. While Ariel wasn’t wrong to want a human life or pursue it, she does learn the hard way that her actions have consequences that can affect more than just herself. Nearly every Disney renaissance film was a coming–of-age story, and all of them contained a growing-up lesson. This one was Ariel’s. Ultimately, Ariel is one of my favorite Disney characters because despite being a mermaid, she’s one of the ones that feels the most human, relatable and well-rounded.

The Little Mermaid Sebastian

Ariel is a lucky girl, because it’s pretty clear she has some of the best guy friends a mermaid could ask for. Ariel does most of the work attaining her goals in this movie, but she wouldn’t have gotten as far as she did without Flounder, Sebastian and Scuttle helping her. Sebastian the crustacean is Atlantica’s court composer and the king’s personal adviser. He’s clearly a grumpy middle-aged man, but he has a good heart and he’s scrappy; he endures quite a bit in this movie, but he never lets it slow him down. For the first half of the film, Sebastian is concerned with maintaining the usual status quo, keeping Ariel in line and keeping the king happy, not wanting to invoke his anger. It’s not until he sees how badly Triton hurts her and he knows his own part in that that Sebastian realizes Ariel is more than just the king’s daughter, she’s her own her person, she deserves a life of her own and a chance to be happy, so he decides to ‘switch sides’ so to speak and help her brave the human world to make that happen. During their adventures on land, the crab’s greater understanding of the teen and the mermaid’s appreciation of his friendship leads to the two bonding some, and Sebastian surprisingly becomes an uncle figure to Ariel, or at least a stand-in guardian. It’s quite an improvement on their previous relationship and makes for some amusing visuals (in fact, “Kiss The Girl” might be my favorite scene in the movie because of the surreal but adorable sight of a mermaid’s guy friends trying to set her up with a boy).

Flounder is one of the few figures in this movie that’s a wholly static character. He starts the film as Ariel’s timid, supportive friend who often gets dragged along on adventures and by the end he is still exactly that. I guess you could say he becomes more of an action fish than he ever thought he would be: braving storms, moving huge statues by himself, creating romantic atmospheres, and taking on Flotsam and Jetsam to save Eric’s life. With so many characters in this movie, not all of them can be developed. Out of Ariel’s three friends / sidekicks, Scuttle the seagull is the one that’s often forgotten about – including by Disney themselves – and that is not okay. Scuttle does the best he can y’all. Scuttle is Ariel’s consultant on human objects, and it’s pretty clear his information is not correct. It’s actually not clear if Scuttle believes it all himself or if he’s just straight up making things up to tell her. In any case, Scuttle is the loudest, most scatter-brained member of Ariel’s friend group and something of a screw-up, but incredibly friendly, well-meaning and supportive, as well as surprisingly invested in sea business that doesn’t really pertain to him. He also retains some of the spirit from the last film in the Disney canon by being a softhearted New Yorker type among the ensemble cast, the goofy everyman acting opposite to the more serious Sebastian. Scuttle finally gets a chance to prove himself when he brings Ursula’s treachery to light and calls in reinforcements for the gang’s final fight with the sea witch.

Kiss The Girl

Worldly, seafaring Prince Eric is the male protagonist of this film and Ariel’s love interest. It’s pretty easy to see how she got smitten so easily. The dude’s humble, brave, handsome, kind to animals, loves the sea, and most importantly, he’s single. He’s pretty much her dream guy, and as soon as she realizes he’s looking for a lady and he’s already glimpsed her, she knows she wants a shot with him. Ariel is also Prince Eric’s love interest. Eric is a hopeless romantic and a bit of daydreamer. His manservant and father figure Grimsby has been pressuring him to find a partner / future queen lately, but none of the girls he’s met so far interest him. Part of the reason he becomes attracted to Ariel is because she’s not what you would expect a lady of her time to be like, anymore than Eric is what you what you would expect a prince of his day to be. Instead of being quiet, reserved and dignified (read: boring), Ariel is fun-loving, adventurous, beautiful, wears her heart on her sleeve and has a real zest for life. During her time on land, Eric comes to realize there’s a very real chance Ariel could be the one for him, and after feeling like something of an outsider in Atlantica, Ariel has found a guy who likes her for who she is and it feels pretty good. Because they’re kindred spirits in a way, these two have got some sweet chemistry. I also appreciate that Ariel and Eric’s romance isn’t a chaste one; there’s very clearly some physical attraction there as well.

When faced with a choice between his mystery savior – essentially an idealized version of Ariel – and the actual, living person (with all her faults and her strengths), Eric rather sweetly picks the genuine article. Ariel and Eric’s friendship turned relationship has to be one of the most well-developed and compatible ones in the Disney canon up to this point, especially for a Disney princess film. In fact, they prove to be such a good fit that a pissed-off Ursula actually has to step in and sabotage Ariel because she was coming dangerously close to winning their bet (being a mermaid never slowed Ariel down or stopped her from getting things done, she doesn’t let being mute do it either). Afterwards, Ariel proves she respects Eric’s boundaries and decisions as well. She’s clearly crushed when he chooses another woman over her and what that will mean for her deal with Ursula, but she never tries to interfere or break them up or anything like that, she simply runs off to be alone for the rest of the day. She owns up to her own mistakes. Ultimately, the pair’s kindness and support for each other manages to prevail and allows them to save each other’s lives and defeat Ursula, proving love can indeed be very powerful. And while Ariel’s voice honestly didn’t matter much to her, so long as she felt free and accepted, it does feel right that Ariel and Eric never actually get together until she’s gotten her voice back (whole again once more) and gotten legs with no strings attached, free to make her own decisions.

The Little Mermaid Poor Unfortunate Souls

King Triton is Ariel’s proud, authoritative, genial father with some extremist views. With Ariel coming of age and taking more risks, Triton doubles down on forbidding her from going to the surface. King Triton isn’t a villain by any means; in fact, he’s rather sympathetically shown having trouble accepting his youngest daughter is growing up. However, he is subtly one of the more unsettling characters in this movie. The king is rather hotheaded and harbors an intense hatred of humans for reasons that are never explained (they totally killed his wife), the film implies he’s not entirely stable and that everyone around him is more afraid of him than they ought to be, and he’s all too willing to let his kingly authority bleed into his personal relationships (like threatening Sebastian with his trident to spill about Ariel’s love life or shooting up Ariel’s cave in front of her to send her a message about human boys). The latter personality trait is one that Ursula is well aware of, and one she uses against him as much as she uses Ariel’s naivety and hardheadedness against her to seize power. Triton takes Ariel’s place as Ursula’s prisoner to make up for becoming an abusive father, and when Eric proves Ariel’s faith him in was well-placed it causes Triton to reassess some things. By the film’s end, he reaches the same conclusion Sebastian did – that it’s wrong to try to force his daughter to be something she’s not – so he turns her into a human permanently, so she can make her own choices and be with Eric (repairing their own damaged relationship at the same time).

When it comes to our Cecalian antagonist, I fucking love Ursula as the villain of this movie. Ursula is a banished sorceress and gleeful sadist who spends her days in exile conning the foolish merpeople of Atlantica into making bogus deals with her, and then torturing their immortal souls in her lair for all of eternity when they can’t reach their end of the bargain (a girl’s got to pass the time somehow after all). Ursula longs to take revenge on the royal family for her exile, and she finally gets the chance when a rift forms between Triton and Ariel. Ursula is extremely vindictive but she’s also intelligent. She knows she’s no match for the power of the king’s trident so she bides her time and waits until the right moment to strike. She’s also confident in her abilities as a mage and a manipulator. I love how she’s already so certain that she’s going to talk Ariel into signing away her voice when she comes to her that she not only cons her in “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, she also spends half of the song mocking her. Despite being a villain, she’s a very fun, manipulative character, and she steals every scene she’s in. Ursula stacks all the odds in her favor, and when even that doesn’t work she plays as dirty as she can and succeeds magnificently. Her death scene proves to be as awesome as the character. Ursula supersizes herself to crush Ariel and Eric, but she focuses so much of her time and energy on trying to kill Ariel that she forgets about Eric until he runs her through with an entire ship. It’s perfect. Ursula is such a successful antagonist that it somehow doesn’t matter much that we never learn who this witch was or even what she was to our heroes (in one draft of the script, she was Triton’s evil sister but that clearly didn’t make the final cut, so her backstory’s pretty vague).

The Little Mermaid Atlantica

The animation quality in “The Little Mermaid” is really astounding. The film successfully captures the feeling of weightlessness with characters like Ariel, Sebastian and Ursula effortlessly gliding across the ocean floor and propelling themselves forward in a way that lends the movie a real sense of physicality. The main titles showcase some lovely backgrounds of undersea flora and fauna, and the dark setting of Ursula’s skeleton lair on top of boiling volcanic vents will give you the shivers. The storm scene, where Eric’s ship rides the choppy, detailed waves of a turbulent sea, is also an early masterclass sequence (there was apparently an insane amount of bubbles hand-drawn for this movie that are especially shown off in this scene). “The Little Mermaid” contains some of the best synergy between animation and score I’ve seen in a Disney film, like the boiling point of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” where Ursula takes Ariel’s glowing, echoing voice mid-vocal and leaves the mermaid to drown, or the final showdown with a vengeful, giant Ursula where eventually it feels less like the movie’s actions are leading the score and more like the thundering score is leading the film.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken contribute the songs and score for the film, and their collaboration is legendary. With the songs, there’s a sense of all the best performances being coaxed out of the voice actors during the recording sessions. “Fathoms Below” is a rousing sea shanty that sets up the movie’s conflict. “Part Of Your World” and “Part Of Your World (Reprise)” counteract each other nicely as a double bill, with the former being a bittersweet admission of a dying dream and the latter being heartwarming and triumphant with Jodi Benson lending both of these songs a nice aquatic quality. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are important moments of fun in the film and a chance for Samuel E. Wright to be both wild and soothing. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a sleazy, abrasive, slow-burning villain song that showcases Ursula in her element and packs some real power when a snarling Pat Caroll booms the last chorus. “Les Poissons” is the only song that feels like filler, but at least it’s funny filler with a nice mixture of slapstick and black comedy. It’s also a reminder that Sebastian and Triton have a point – humans eat fish, and Ariel never seems to have to reconcile her desire to be human with that unpleasant fact. Alan Menken’s salty, maritime score for “The Little Mermaid” is beautiful, laced with supple strings and harsh brass. I’m especially fond of how the phrase “what would I give to live where you are?” from “Part Of Your World (Reprise)” is restated various times throughout the score as Ariel and Eric’s wistful, heartfelt love theme, before finally emerging triumphant in the final moments of the film.

So “The Little Mermaid” is quite the powerhouse film and an incredibly touching movie about love, friendship, prejudice and the hard choice of conforming to what others want for you or following the path that you know will make you happy in the long term. It was a massive success in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I have to say it earned all the praise it got.

Rating: 10/10.

Side-Notes:

The Little Mermaid Eric's Kingdom

* Can we talk about how Triton and his wife decided to have seven daughters? Raising one or two kids is difficult enough, but seven is a whole lot of daughters.

* “SHARKS! SHARKS! WE’RE GONNA DIE!”

* Every scene Ursula is in is eevvviiillll and I love it.

* “Thanks to your carelessness, the entire celebration was-” “Well it was ruined! That’s all! COMPLETELY DESTROYED!!!”.

* “But it wasn’t her fault!” It pretty much was.

* “When it’s my turn, wouldn’t I love?! LOVE TO EXPLORE THAT SHORE UP ABOVE?!!!

* If the crew were all knocked overboard then how did Max remain onboard? Does he have Spider-Man’s grip strength?

* It seems going back for the dog always gets you killed. Right, Pa Kent?

* “I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know something’s starting right now! Watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be, part of your WOOORRRRRLLLLLDDDD!!!!” Perfection.

* Ariel’s sisters are some of the most superfluous side-characters I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie. I actually keep misremembering Ariel as being an only child, because they contribute absolutely nothing to the plot. We never even learn how they felt about Ariel running off to go live with the humans for a week because of their father’s outburst, which could have made for some interesting family drama. I feel like the only reason why they’re here is to assure the audience that Ariel isn’t leaving Triton without an heir at the end.

* Rude.

* “Each little snail here knows how to wail here, that’s why it hotter under the water! Ya we in luck here down in the muck here, under the seeeeeaaaaaaaa!!!!”

“He could have died!” “One less human to worry about!” Today I learned about mermaid racism.

* You know, Pixar seems to be quite fond of “The Little Mermaid”. Both “Ratatouille” and “Brave” rework elements of Ariel’s character arc, and “Monsters University” contains a nod to this movie that gets even funnier when you realize it’s a dig at Ariel (“But daddy I love him!”).

* Sherie Rene Scott kicking so much ass as Ursula on Broadway.

* Max is a shipper. Really, everyone’s a shipper in “The Little Mermaid”, except Ursula and Triton. Ariel / Eric is their NOTP.

* When your chances of getting sex improve 200% (and your friends approve).

* Much like how some people want the Beast’s library, I want Eric’s dinning room. Just look at that interior!

* I’ve sometimes seen people say that the voiceless Ariel should have wrote Eric a note explaining everything, but let’s be real here – if a mute girl you found on the beach wrote you a note saying she was a mermaid would you really believe her or would you just think she was delusional?

* You know, Ariel is often marketed with the more extravagant dresses and gowns she wears in this movie, but I’m actually more fond of the simple blue dress and corset she wears out about town with Eric. I think it offsets her poofy, red 80’s hair perfectly. Shame it drowned in the ocean during the climax.

* Girl, you’ve got this!

* Considering how bored Eric looked before Sebastian started singing, I’m guessing date night hit a lull.

* “Now’s your moment, floating a blue lagoon, boy you better do it soon no time will be better! She don’t say a word and she won’t say a word unless you kiss the girl!”

* When Ariel races down those stairs towards Eric, a somewhat mean part of my brain snarks “he ain’t marrying you, Ariel” every time.

* Just in case you had any doubts about Ursula being a bitch, she kicks Max in the forehead, hard. Poor doggo.

* Can we talk about how Ursula just snatches Ariel up like a rag doll? Because it’s kind of amusing. Also, Ursula looks like Gaston in this shot.

* A particularly hilarious animation error is Eric shouting ‘No, I won’t leave you!’ at Ariel while his mouth isn’t moving.

* ‘Oh, look. I’ve been impaled‘.

* Some freaky space-time stuff happens when Ursula gets her hands on the trident. The final fight starts at sundown and when it’s all over the sun is already rising again. I’m pretty sure they didn’t fight all night.

* When Triton made Ariel human, he also gave her clothes, so she wouldn’t have to run around naked on the beach again.

Further Reading:

Fanfiction:

Part Of Your World

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12 Responses to The Little Mermaid (1989) Review

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  5. healed1337 says:

    It’s not my favourite Disney Princess movie by any means, but I get why a lot of people love it. It’s got great music, one of the better supporting casts in Disney history and like you said, great animation.

    Like

    • Indeed. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are actually in a neck and neck tie as my two favorite Disney Princess films. While I tend to prefer The Little Mermaid’s story and ensemble cast, Beauty and the Beast tops it in almost every way when it comes to production. I’ll be talking about Beauty and the Beast next, and that’ll be fun.

      Like

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