The Scoop: 1989 G, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and starring Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, and Rene Auberjonois
Tagline: Somewhere under the sea and beyond your imagination is an adventure in fantasy.
Summary Capsule: Mermaid sells voice for legs in order to get a boyfriend.
Justin’s Rating: 20 dinglehoppers
Justin’s Review: Out of the entire Disney animated library, The Little Mermaid may be the most significant one of them all.
Consider that from the 70s into the 80s, Disney animated movies — the once bastion of greatness and classic entertainment — had either taken a nosedive in popularity or profitability. While there were a couple of good movies (The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound), most were just… forgettable. Oliver and Company, anyone? What about The Black Cauldron?
Then came The Little Mermaid and Disney once again exploded into the cinema spotlight. It was a huge hit that was transformed into a cultural pop icon, from the characters to the soundtrack. Starting with Ariel’s journey, Disney enjoyed an animated movie revival that went well into the next decade.
Teen boys liked it because it had a redhead in a bikini who occasionally became naked. Teen girls liked it because it spoke to their rebellious sides. Everyone liked it because the soundtrack was awesome and so memorable.
As of late it’s become trendy to rip The Little Mermaid apart for its failings as a feminist message. Personally, I think it holds up well as entertainment, although not as strongly in a post-Finding Nemo world. But my gripe with it is more now that I’m viewing this film as a father and an adult who isn’t mesmerized by seashell bras.
So here’s my thing: As likable as Ariel is, she’s a complete nitwit in this film from start to end. The movie kind of makes her dad out to be “the man” who doesn’t get her growing need for independance, but pretty much the entire movie shows that King Triton is right.
For starters, Ariel is so into herself that she forgets to show up to her dad’s party. She then ignores his warnings to stay away from humans who eat sentient fish and falls in love with a guy after seeing him for about 30 seconds, tops. Then, to be with her “one true love,” she makes a deal with a known witch, gives up her voice, and has to seduce a guy within three days using nothing but her big eyes and oh-so-charming mannerisms. When this all backfires on her, it ends up putting Prince Eric in danger, hands over the crown and Power Trident to the witch, and transforming her dad into a trapped spirit. Yeah, she’s “so sorry!” at this point, but really, she doesn’t learn because the minute she gets a lucky break and gets away with it all, she marries the guy she’s now known for a long weekend.
Triton has every reason to crack down on her as hard as he does (although I would say that his dinglehopper-destroying snit-fit didn’t help matters). He knows quite well that humans kill fish — talking fish who are portrayed with personalities. Sebastian the crab has an ongoing feud with a cook over this topic. In another Little Mermaid movie, it’s revealed that Ariel’s mom was killed due to humans, which you think she’d be aware of. Triton is an obviously loving dad who wants the best for his daughter, but she puts herself and him in jeopardy due to rampant hormones.
I mean, c’mon. There’s no way that you can know that anyone’s “the one” from stalking them for a minute or two. Just because Eric looks cute (um… from her perspective) doesn’t mean that he isn’t some sort of horrible ruler, or a wife-beater, or an opiate junkie. The movie shows them going on one — one! — date prior to their marriage, and during that time Ariel doesn’t (can’t) say anything.
Common sense is trampled on in order to make this plot work, and it’s just not something I can watch without wanting to sit Ariel down and give her a reality check on life. She thinks that “on land they don’t reprimand their daughters”? Hahaha… oh dear, you have another thing coming, fish-girl.
But maybe that line also shows a bit of self-aware irony, as if the film knows that Ariel is being ridiculous and isn’t afraid to point that out. Maybe the lesson she learns (um… don’t make pacts with witches? voices are good? fins are bad?) have matured her a bit by the end.
It’s really interesting to look back at how The Little Mermaid “spoke” to the late-80s generation of teenage girls and how Frozen today has become the anti-Mermaid that is equally attracting that demographic. Maybe the middle ground between the two are strong, independent females who want what they want, and even though their stupidity gets them in trouble, they persevere. And they also sing, but that’s a given.
- It’s possible that Prince Eric could be related to Prince Phillip and Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959). In the dining room in Eric’s castle on Ariel’s first evening on land, there is a painting hanging on the wall. The couple bear a striking resemblance to Aurora and Phillip.
- In the opening scene when King Triton arrives at the arena, you can briefly see Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and Kermit the Frog in the crowd of sea-people as mermen when he passes over them.
- Ariel’s body type and personality were based on Alyssa Milano. The effect of her hair underwater was based on footage of astronaut Sally Ride in weightless conditions.
- The character of Ursula was based on Divine.
- This was the last Disney animated feature to use hand-painted cels and analog camera and film work. 1,000 different colors were used on 1,100 backgrounds. Over one million drawings were done in total.
- The first Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty (1959).
- This was the first Disney film to receive an Academy Award since Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).
- The Little Mermaid had been a Disney property since 1941. Walt Disney planned to include the much darker Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale in a planned anthology film of the fantasy author’s works. After a bitter strike by the animators that same year and the increasing focus on wartime propaganda shorts, the initial version of The Little Mermaid was shelved in 1943.
Ariel: No look, he’s breathing. He’s so beautiful.
Sebastian: Hm. Teenagers. They think they know everything. You give them an inch, they swim all over you.
Triton: Don’t you take that tone of voice with me, young lady. As long as you live under my ocean, you’ll obey my rules!
Ariel: I just don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad.
Ursula: My dear, sweet child. That’s what I do. It’s what I live for, to help unfortunate merfolk, like yourself, poor souls with no one else to turn to.
Scuttle: It’s a dinglehopper. Humans use these little babies to straighten their hair out. See? Just a little twirl here and a yank there and voila. You’ve got an aesthetically pleasing configuration of hair that humans go nuts over.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Little Mermaid II
- The Little Mermaid III