Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989)

NOTE: Since the films are getting better post-Dark Age, I figured that my scores should get better. From now on, a grading scale of ten instead of five will be applied to each section.

Image: Disney, Wikipedia

The Disney Renaissance started under the sea, you know.

PLOT –

Ariel, the mermaid daughter of King Triton, is obsessed with the forbidden culture of humans. When she saves a human prince from drowning, she makes a deal with a sea witch to walk on land in exchange for her beautiful voice. She must kiss the prince within three days, or belong to the witch instead.

One of the better plots of the 80’s Disney Animated Canon films. The pacing is much better here, with the beginning of the film taking its time to explore the underwater kingdom and surrounding areas of Atlantica. We’re sucked in from the get go, and the time given to the characters lets us know them better. However, there is a rocky transition from sea to land, and the film becomes more formulaic: instead of a story of exploration and freedom, it becomes more of a standard romance.

The plot here is more complicated than the others, juggling multiple characters and trying to give everyone screen-time, and eventually, the climax is a huge blur. Several big events happen in the span of roughly a minute, making for a breakneck climax that would cause whiplash rather than an understanding of the events occurring. Several plot elements go unexplained, and it all happens so fast that we’re just forced to accept what is on the screen and left questioning… What just happened?

There are also some unnecessary characters that bog down the plot as well, but they are harmless enough to not really slow it down. Something I also want to touch on, is that the plot is pitch-perfect Broadway, and the songs, their placement, and the character arcs evoke that nicely.

My PLOT RATING is 7 / 10.

CHARACTERS –

Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the first Disney Princess since Sleeping Beauty. Yeah. It’s been far too long. She has a strong character, great agency, and a drive and zest for life and exploration. She retains this even when on land, and her body language when her voice is lost still speaks to these traits. Ariel still does act like a ‘bratty teenager’ but we see both sides of the coin when it comes to the parent-child relationship well. Both her and Triton believe what they are doing is right. She also is a quick thinker and resourceful at times, and her never-give-up attitude is one of her greatest strengths.

Triton (Kenneth Mars) is, at points, an antagonist to Ariel, but that is only because they are at odds with each other. He only loves her and cares for her deeply. He holds a grudge with the human race (has anyone seen Mrs. Triton, by the way?) and the scene where he finds Ariel’s collection is a showcase of just how much he hates them. Like with Ariel, we see his side and how much regret he goes through trying his best to raise his daughter, and in the end, he’s a really great father.

Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), Flounder (Jason Marin), and Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) are the animal sidekicks to Ariel, yet they have way more personality than those that come after. Sebastian is brimming with personality, charm, and some sarcasm. His wild takes are nothing short of hysterical, and he has some of the best songs in the film. He wears many hats in this movie, yet he wears them all well, basically boiling down to being an extremely loyal and trustworthy friend to all. Flounder is sadly, a flat character, basically serving as a support system to Ariel, and not having much impact on the plot. He does try hard to help and make a difference, which is at least, not a total waste of character. Scuttle is a riot here. He’s the comic relief, and he’s used very well, basically disappearing during tense moments so as not to lose the tone of the scene. He provides many memorable and funny quotes in the film, and plays a big part in the climax.

Ursula (Pat Carroll) is a great Disney Villain. She’s threatening, funny, camp, and an all-out diva. She’s based off of the drag queen, Divine, and it comes through here. Her wild expressions, gestures, and voice can be owed to the talented Pat Carrol and the team of animators that brought Ursula to life. As a more modern version of a witch, and somewhat of a saleswoman, she has great dialogue and represents the threat of debt and promising more than you can offer. Her hench-eels Flotsam and Jetsam (Paddi Edwards for both) are appropriately creepy, and allow her to see through their eyes, a la The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.

There are three principal human characters here:

Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) is somewhat of a flat character, but I do admire his devotion to Ariel. Throughout the film, they save each other and are always there for each other (aside from possession, at least). Eric works better and has more personality when paired with other characters rather than be alone. Grimsby (Ben Wright, who previously played Roger Radcliffe in 101 Dalmatians) is his caretaker, and while I do appreciate his design and mannerisms, he does not do that much in the film except for being a combination of Flounder and Sebastian at points, and someone for Eric to talk to. Then… There’s Chef Louis (Rene Auberjonois). He has all the same problems of Dinky and Boomer, except now he has a song that wastes even more time. He serves to get Sebastian away from the main plot, but there had to be a better way…

My CHARACTERS RATING is 7 / 10.

DIALOGUE –

The dialogue in this film is more natural and modern than what we have seen before. It’s a nice change of pace here, as the dialogue naturally and seamlessly leads into song and back, showing the strength of the writing talent. Lines are memorable, and care is taken to make sure that the dialogue is appropriate to each character, with little space in-between lines. While this film is packed with dialogue, it does not feel overstuffed.

My DIALOGUE RATING is 9 / 10.

EFFECTS –

Water effects have improved immensely. The waves are looking incredible, and the shimmering effects underwater is done minimally, but well. Millions of air bubbles dot the screen, and it’s all breathtaking. Several characters are onscreen all moving at once, beautiful lighting, and the backgrounds are gorgeous. That being said, some character models are off sometimes, especially Ariel from some angles, lessening the impact of her songs at points.

My EFFECTS RATING is 8 / 10.

MUSIC –

The firecracker score and songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are at it again. The first film in the Renaissance and already incredible out of the gate. The score itself almost lasts the runtime of the film, and the songs… Oh yes… Broadway here we come!

“Fathoms Below” – Sets the tone and provides some mystery about the human culture from the point of view of a mermaid. Very good.

“Daughters of Triton” – Kind of funny in that “look how pompous they are” feel and filled with exposition. Pretty quirky and intentionally sounds like a small concert.

“Part of Your World” – Beautiful. Filled with small character moments, personality, and the birth of the ‘I Want’ song for Disney, which will be seen for years to come. The reprise is also epic. One of the best songs here.

“Under the Sea” – A really fun song. Upbeat and energetic, yet not my favorite Sebastian song in the film. It did win the Oscar for best song though.

“Poor Unfortunate Souls” – The new evolution of the Villain Song, and the first for a Disney Villainess. Dark, loud, and very evocative of Broadway with normal talking in-between the verses. The end is one of the best parts, though, and at some points, Carroll’s voice seems to be straining and giving out (ironic, innit?). Also has a reprise that is quite ominous.

“Les Poissons” – Seriously, I think that Louis would have been more at home in Beauty and the Beast as a side character. The song doesn’t really gel at all with the film and seems tacked on instead of having a point in the plot other than introducing this time-wasting character.

“Kiss the Girl” – My personal favorite of the pack, Samuel E. Wright sings subtle tones and brings in the baritone. Quite the magical and wonderful song, with nice accompaniment. The soundtrack version thankfully takes out Scuttle’s warbling, even though I can still hear it in my mind…

My MUSIC RATING is 9 / 10.

OVERALL –

One of the better Disney films, and a breath of fresh air. Not in my Top Ten, but most likely in my Top Twenty. The atmosphere is breathtaking, and the story beats are straight out of Broadway (yes, I’ll keep saying this). The music is incredible here, showcasing Ashman and Menken’s talents, and the start of even better music in the future. The core cast is better here, and thankfully dwindling in numbers, allowing for more focus on each. The dialogue is more modern, and the effects and animation are wonderful. This film does have some drawbacks here and there, such as off-model designs, a few superfluous characters, and a confusing climax, but it’s miles better than everything that came previously.

The Little Mermaid is the start of a greater path for Disney that will last for decades.

Image: Disney, Onthegoinmco.com

My OVERALL RATING for The Little Mermaid is 80%.

Next time, we’re not just going under the sea…

We’re going down under!

Stay tuned!

 

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