I’ve been a fan of animation for as long as I can remember, though modern Disney wasn’t really a part of my childhood. Despite (or perhaps, because) Pocahontas was the first film I saw in the cinema, we didn’t really have modern Disney in the house. The Aristocats, One Hundred and One Dalmations and The Jungle Book were regularly in the VCR machine, while the renaissance-era classics like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid went sailing by my pre-adolescent head. Having now caught up with these titles I think that was a great shame. And The Little Mermaid is a classic example of what I was missing out on.
A good Disney film in my opinion has to check multiple boxes – good soundtrack/songs, visually engaging, a solid plot (for a kids’ movie), and perhaps most importantly a GREAT villain. The Little Mermaid checks all of these boxes and so definitely deserves the cult following it seems to have among university students, though falls short of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast on most fronts. With one exception – The Little Mermaid has what I think must be one of the best Disney villains of all time. The scheming Ursula has it all – megalomania, a lust for power, being (briefly) all but omnipotent, and having freaking octopus tentacles for legs.
When I was a kid I would have been scared of Ursula, and that’s one box on the Disney list very definitely ticked.
The plot is serviceable – Ariel, the daughter of the sea king (having evolved from Goldeen) Triton, falls in love with the unfortunately named Prince Eric. Unfortunately Eric is a landlubber and Ariel is a mermaid who has a confusing respiratory system that allows her to breath water and air, and a fish tail for legs. Ursula sees her predicament and offers her a deal with a short fuse and horrible consequences… which I won’t ruin if you haven’t seen the movie. It’s a simple plot but not to the point of condescending its target audience, and moves along at a fair clip after a sluggish start. Without much fat at all, the plot gets a tick.
Visually The Little Mermaid is a great example of what traditional animation is capable of. While it might suffer by comparison to Pixar’s Finding Nemo in having sparser frames and a less engrossingly underwater feel, it is still a gorgeous picture to look at. Specifically, art directors Michael Peraza Jr. and Donald Towns use abstract images of sometimes just two tones to create really visually striking frames. In particular the storm sequence in the first act and basically any scene involving Ursula (especially in the final act) is visually gorgeous by being pared down to such a limited palette. While this is possible in live action, and directors like Wes Anderson are known for doing it, the king of this kind of visual abstraction is traditional animation. Another technique which animation allows, and this film in particular uses to lovely effect, is matching scene transitions – to see how another great of animation, Satoshi Kon, uses this I highly recommend this excellent video essay from one of my favourite YouTube channels, EveryFrameaPainting. Visuals – tick.
Lastly, and to many people most importantly, what does the film sound like? Pretty good, is the short answer. While composer Alan Menken doesn’t produce his best work for the score (that accolade definitely belongs to Beauty and the Beast) the score is still good, and his decision to use a simple leitmotif to connect the plot together works very well. The songs however, written by Menken with Howard Ashman, are really top notch. The film is credited with bringing the Broadway style into Disney films, and with musical numbers such as the famous ‘Under the Sea’ you can easily see why the style was copied by the other films of the Disney renaissance, and is still copied to this day with releases like Frozen. The last tick goes in the box.
I do still have issues with Disney animation. The overly simplistic (even for a kids’ film) world view, the emphasis placed on the need for women to make love fall in love with them, the white heteronormativity (though this is hardly exclusive to Disney films from the era), and the unrealistic body expectations portrayed still rankle me. But The Little Mermaid is a good film. Well made, and historically interesting for representing a return to form for the studio. Give it a watch, especially if you are a fan of the style of music in early 90s Disney films. Or if you like badass villainous women. Especially that.