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) carry her neatly from one scene to another, and the movie is never once 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 movie that really elevate the film. 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.
“The Little Mermaid’s” lead character, Ariel, is the youngest of seven royal daughters, as well as the most passionate and outspoken one. Instead of lying around the palace without purpose, Ariel spends her days poking around shipwrecks and chatting up seagulls, rarely staying still for a moment, learning more about human inventions and human society. For years now, Ariel has taken an interest in the world above her head, romanticizing it as a land where seemingly anything is possible, and she’d love to see it all. 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, and do something meaningful with her life. 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. But by the start of the film, she’s starting to lose faith in her instincts and her intuition, and she’s starting to consider that maybe her father is right, maybe she is just a fool. Still, an eventful encounter with an admirable human prince, who proves her right about humans being more than mindless monsters (that they can be brave and noble and self-sacrificing), convinces her not to let the dream die so soon and leaves her with quite a crush. She learns the importance of 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 on this blog, 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. You can’t help but take a shine to her for her kindness, courage and personal convictions. She’s also the first princess 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.
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 esteemed court composer and the king’s personal adviser / right-hand man. He’s clearly a grumpy middle-aged man, but he has a good heart and he’s scrappy; he endures quite a bit of slapstick in this movie (especially during “Les Poissons”), but he never lets it slow him down. For the first half of the film, Sebastian is only concerned with maintaining the usual status quo, keeping Ariel in line and keeping the king happy, so he doesn’t invoke the man’s 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 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, despite knowing it will probably only lead to trouble. 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 some 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 fast-talking, softhearted New Yorker type among the ensemble cast; the goofy everyman acting opposite to the more serious, straight man 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.
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 is humble (despite coming from a regal background, he never treats the people around him as being lesser than him), brave (never asking anything of his subjects that he wouldn’t do himself), handsome, kind to animals (he’s ultimately willing to die for his pet, Max), he loves the sea (which means he has a wanderlust like Ariel does), 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 a 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, just as Eric is not what you what you would expect a prince of his day to be – feeling more at home among working-class sailors than the pomp and circumstance of royal affairs. 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, who treats her with kindness and respect and has no interest in changing her, 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 that he’s starting to know), Eric rather sweetly picks the genuine article. Ariel and Eric’s 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.
King Triton is Ariel’s proud, authoritative, genial father with some extremist views. With Ariel, his troublesome reckless daughter, 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, he’s fiercely protective of his family, and he 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. A recurring theme in “The Little Mermaid” is that your actions have consequences that can unintentionally hurt others, very badly. Sebastian and Triton realize this after the grotto incident, and Ariel realizes it after her deal with Ursula gets her father captured. 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 conniving and 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, flamboyant and 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 her character overall. For a villain who loves to prey on other people’s personalty flaws, Ursula is ironically blind to the weak spots in her own judgment. If you notice, throughout the film, she always sneers at the concept of love: she thinks it’s a silly, vapid idea and that it doesn’t exist (which makes sense when you think about it, since Ursula is basically a sociopath). She figured if she took away Ariel’s voice, the call of Eric’s mystery girl, he would lose interest in her entirely. Instead, he starts to grow really fond of her anyway, for her personality, which pisses Ursula off something fierce. Then she makes the same mistake of underestimating Eric twice. During the climax, 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 all about Eric until he runs her through with an entire ship. It’s a perfect karmic demise. 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. It’s probably just as well: Ursula being Triton’s sister would raise all sorts of additional questions about how mermaid biology works).
The animation quality in “The Little Mermaid” is really astounding, especially since it comes off the heels of Disney’s dark age that lasted for decades. After the success of “Oliver And Company” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, Disney threw more money and talent at this film than they had done in years, and it really paid off. The film successfully captures the feeling of weightlessness underwater 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 dynamic direction and 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 before the crew is all thrown overboard, 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 sequence). “The Little Mermaid” contains some of the best synergy between animation and score I’ve seen so far 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 that all the best performances were coaxed out of the voice actors during the recording sessions. “Fathoms Below” is a rousing sea shanty that immediately grabs your attention and sets up the movie’s main conflict efficiently. “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 a heartwarming and triumphant encore, with Jodi Benson lending both of these songs a nice aquatic quality. “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are important moments of levity 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 between 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.
* 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.
* “What would I give if I could live outta these waters? What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand? Betcha on land they understand that they don’t reprimand their daughters. Bright young women, sick of swimming, ready to stand! I’m ready to know what the people know! Ask ’em my questions and get some answers! What’s a fire and why does it, what’s the word, burn?! When it’s my turn, wouldn’t I love?! LOVE TO EXPLORE THAT SHORE UP ABOVE?!!!” The passion and conviction from Jodi Benson. It’s all so beautiful.
* If Prince Eric’s crew were all knocked overboard during the storm, then how did Max cling on? His grip strength must be amazing. Also, it seems going back for the dog always gets you killed. Isn’t that 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.
* “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.
* Pixar seems to be quite fond of “The Little Mermaid”. Both “Ratatouille” and “Brave” rework elements of Ariel’s character arc, and “Monsters University” has a gag that only gets funnier when you realize it’s a dig at Ariel (“But daddy I love him!”).
* Howard Ashman slays his demo rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, gleefully channeling Vincent Price for five whole minutes.
* You can add Max the sheepdog to the growing number of Ariel x Eric shippers in this movie.
* 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 who traded away her voice, 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.
* Eric looked so bored in that boat 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.
* When Ursula snatches Ariel up like a rag doll and escapes into the sea, she briefly looks a lot like Gaston.
* A particularly funny animation error is Eric shouting ‘No, I won’t leave you!’ at Ariel, while his lips aren’t moving.
* Some freaky space-time stuff happens when Ursula gets her hands on the trident. The final fight starts at sundown when Ariel turns back into a mermaid, and when it’s all over the sun is already rising again. I’m pretty sure they didn’t fight all night.
* When King Triton made Ariel human so she could follow her dreams, he also gave her some clothes: partly so she wouldn’t have to run around naked on the beach again, and partly so Eric wouldn’t get that view of Ariel just yet. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s such a dad thing to do that it always makes me chuckle.
- Nostalgia Critic; The Animation Commendation; AnimatedKid; Jess’s Somewhat Grown-Up Type Blog; Katejohns619; The Disney Odyssey; Silver Petticoat; A Year Of A Million Disney Dreams I and II; Tor; Animated Meta; Jaysen Headley Writes; Author Quest; Roger Erbert; Disneyfied Or Disney Tried?; Fairy Tale Critic; See Them Dancing I, II, III, and IV; Disney In Your Day; All The Disney Movies; A Year With Walt; The Great Movie Debates; Jamie’s Film Thoughts; Healed1337; From The Perspective Of An Old Soul; Striking Film Reviews; Evy Writes; Movie Rob; Cut The Crap Movie Reviews; The Movie Man; LivLilly; Merbooks Blog; Movie Marmiteman; Angriest; NeverMedia; Bustle I & II; Regulas314.
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