The Little Mermaid
Release Date: November 17th, 1989
Inspiration: “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Budget: $40 million
Domestic Gross: $110 million
Worldwide Gross: $233 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
IMDB Score: 7.6/10
Storyline (per IMDB): In Disney’s beguiling animated romp, rebellious 16-year-old mermaid Ariel is fascinated with life on land. On one of her visits to the surface, which are forbidden by her controlling father, King Triton, she falls for a human prince. Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human for three days. But when plans go awry for the star-crossed lovers, the king must make the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter.
Pre-Watching Thoughts: We continue on this trek with the final film of the 1980s and what is typically considered the official beginning of the period of Disney’s history known as the “Disney Renaissance”. Amazingly enough, this is the first film based on a fairy tale since 1950’s Sleeping Beauty and while the films had a wide array of success or failure, it was a bit refreshing to come back to the original trope that put Disney on the map. This was an interesting film for me in that I always liked it, but I never considered it one of my all-time favorites and we will see how it holds up since it has been a long time that I have seen it.
Voice Cast: As I mentioned in the last film, we were now reaching the period where the number of returning actors for these films becomes less and less while the majority of the cast is pretty much brand new. Case in point, we only have one returning actor for this film and that is Ben Wright who voices Grimsby in what would end up being his final role as he sadly passed away prior to the film’s release. We now move onto the newcomers of this film and we start off with Jodi Benson who voices Ariel in what was her first major role and would ultimately become her defining role, and then we have Christopher Daniel Barnes who voices Eric though he would become more known for voicing Spider-Man in the 1990s animated TV series. We then have Pat Carroll who voices Ursula in what many consider the defining role of her career as well, and then we have Samuel E. Wright who voices Sebastian in what was perhaps his defining role though we will see him again in another Disney film. Next, we have Jason Marin who voices Flounder in what would be one of his last roles in his short career, and then we have Kenneth Mars who voices King Triton as he would become one of the biggest voice actors of the next few decades. We then have Buddy Hackett who voices Scuttle as he was reaching the twilight of his career, and then we have Paddi Edwards who voices both Flotsam and Jetsam in a dual role as she was nearing the end of her run as well. Next, we have Edie McClurg who voices Carlotta as she was starting to hit the best stretch of her career, and then we have Kimmy Robertson who voices Andrina, Arista, Adella, and Alana in a quad-role which I think is a record for one person voicing different characters. We then have Caroline Vasicek who voices Aquata and Attina in a dual role though it is worth mentioning she voices Ariel in the Austrian version of the film, and then we have Will Ryan who voices a seahorse in a minor role and finally we have Rene Auberjonois who voices Chef Louis in a small yet memorable role. Unlike previous films where certain actors are best known for voicing numerous characters amongst all the films, this one begins the trend where actors are best remembered for just one specific character and would become their trademark role.
Hero/Prince: As I mentioned earlier, this was the first film since Sleeping Beauty to be based on a fairy tale so we have our first prince to talk about and that is Prince Eric who is celebrating his birthday when we first meet him. During the celebration which is taking place at sea, a storm comes through and destroys the ship while nearly killing Eric who is saved by Ariel and she returns him to shore before singing to him. She leaves before he comes to and he is haunted by her voice while being completely unaware that she is a mermaid, and after she becomes human he doesn’t recognize her at first as she has given up her voice in exchange for being human. He starts to fall in love with her until Ursula who is in disguise as Vanessa and using Ariel’s voice, puts him in a trance and he prepares to marry her until Ariel and her friends break the spell and Ariel’s voice is restored. But before they can kiss, Ariel becomes a mermaid again and Ursula takes her back to the sea only for Eric to try and save her, and after Ursula claims Triton’s trident and tries to conjure a spell Eric uses a wrecked ship and drives the splintered bowsprit through Ursula which kills her. He returns to shore and Ariel watches from afar until Triton decides to turn her into a human, and she returns to Eric’s side and they get married before departing on their honeymoon. Eric is a pretty interesting prince as he seemingly has everything he could possible have though he is clearly missing something as evident when he becomes obsessed with Ariel after hearing her sing, but he is willing to sacrifice his life for Ariel as he goes to save her life and ends up delivering the final blow to Ursula. After going so long without having a prince since Philip back in 1950, we come back firing here as Eric ends up being a great prince and hero so it will be interesting to see where he ranks especially against some of the princes from the early years.
Princess: While we have had two princess from Aurora to now in the form of Maid Marian from Robin Hood and Princess Eilonwy from the Black Cauldron, we have what Disney considers their first “canon” princess in nearly 40 years in Ariel the mermaid. She is the youngest of seven children and she has a fascination with the human world despite her father’s protests, and she stumbles upon Eric’s birthday party and ultimately saves him after a storm destroys the ship. When he learns of Ariel’s actions, Triton destroys her collection of artifacts and out of anger she is drawn to Ursula who plans to use her in a plot to take control of Triton’s kingdom, and Ursula transforms Ariel into a human in exchange for her voice and she has three days to earn true love’s kiss or she will turn back into a mermaid and become Ursula’s property. She falls in love with Eric and nearly kisses him only for Flotsam and Jetsam to stop them from doing so, and then Ursula turns herself into a human named Vanessa and uses Ariel’s voice to put a trance on Eric. They nearly get married until Ariel’s friends break it up and Ariel’s voice is restored though she fails to kiss Eric on the third day, and she reverts back to a mermaid and Ursula takes her back only for Triton to sacrifice himself to break the contract and free Ariel. Ursula uses Triton’s trident to grow into a giant and calls upon the sea as she nearly kills Ariel only for Eric to thrust a ship into her and kill her, and Ariel laments her lost love until Triton willingly turns her into a human and she marries Eric as they get to live happily ever after. Ariel is not like a typical princess in that she is an independent thinker as evident by her admiration of the human world, and she is very rebellious to the point that she takes Ursula up on her offer after Triton destroys her treasures. She is definitely a far cry from the princesses in the early days of Disney and many see her as the template for princesses going forward, and there is no doubt that she is one of the more memorable princesses in Disney history and might rank near the top of the list though it is still too early to tell.
Villain: We have been on a solid stretch of good villains in the Disney films, but we haven’t had one that has really stood out in the same vein as classic villains like Maleficent and the Evil Queen though that changes here with Ursula the sea witch. She holds a grudge against King Triton and wants to take control of Atlantica from him, and when she learns of him destroying Ariel’s treasures she sees an opportunity to use Ariel as bait in her plan. She offers to turn Ariel into a human so she can be with Eric in exchange for giving her voice to Ursula and also becoming Ursula’s property if she doesn’t receive true love’s kiss in three days. After Ariel and Eric come close to kissing, Ursula turns herself into a human named Vanessa and uses Ariel’s voice to seduce Eric, and they come close to being married until Ariel and her friends break it up and Ariel reclaims her voice. However, she fails to kiss Eric and is transformed back into a mermaid as Ursula drags her back into the sea, and she attempts to turn Ariel into a polyp until Triton intervenes and exchanges his life for Ariel’s. Ariel is restored and Ursula takes control of the trident as Eric comes down to try and save Ariel, and after her cohorts are killed Ursula grows into a giant and summons a powerful storm until Eric uses a wrecked ship to drive the bowsprit into Ursula which kills her and all the polyps including Triton are restored to their original forms. I should also mention Ursula’s henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam the eels who bring Ariel to her and also make sure to keep Ariel and Eric from kissing, and they try to kill Eric only for Ariel to redirect Ursula’s shot from the trident to them and they are disintegrated. Ursula is another one of those villains that we just love to hate as she will do anything to get what she wants, and she fashions herself as the answer to all of Ariel’s problems while hiding her true intentions to become the ultimate ruler of the sea. She will go down as one of the best villains in the history of Disney and she will more than likely rank very high amongst the other villains with only a few probably finishing ahead of her.
Other Characters: This is an interesting film in that we have a lot of characters in this film both in the human world and sea world, but the majority of them are mainly background noise and as part of bigger scenes aside from a select few who play a big role in the film. First, we have Flounder who is Ariel’s best friend and stands by her side despite his many fears when they go out on adventures, and he even presents the statue of Eric as a gift to Ariel and remains her friend when she leaves to be with Eric. We then have Sebastian the crab who is a loyal servant to Triton and is assigned to keep an eye on Ariel, and despite his reservations of humans and his loyalty to Triton he supports Ariel to the very end and along with Flounder they help Eric during his fight with Flotsam and Jetsam. Next, we have Scuttle the seagull who is in essence Ariel’s liaison to the human world despite not knowing much about humans, and like Flounder and Sebastian he helps Ariel when she needs it and succeeds in helping her get back her voice. We then have King Triton, the ruler of Atlantica and Ariel’s father who maintains that humans are bad and Ariel must not interact with them, and he even goes as far as to destroy Ariel’s treasures. When he learns of what Ursula did, he sets out to save Ariel and even sacrifices his own life in exchange for Ariel which leads him being turned into a polyp, and after Ursula is killed he is restored and decides to turn Ariel into a human after seeing how happy she is with Eric. We then have Eric’s loyal valet Grimsby who stands staunchly by Eric’s side and tries to help him find a bride, and he sees how happy Eric is with Ariel and supports him when they get married in the end. We then have Eric’s dog Max who Eric saves when the ship is destroyed which nearly kills him, and he also falls in love with Ariel after seeing her on the ship and then he recognizes her when she first appears as a human. While he is a normal dog and doesn’t talk like other dogs in previous films, he is just as much of an important character as he doesn’t want Eric to marry Vanessa/Ursula and is fully behind having Eric being with Ariel. The rest of the characters were minor though did have memorable moments like Chef Louie who makes a grand feast for Eric and Ariel, and he ends up getting into a fight with Sebastian as he tries to kill him only for Sebastian to continuously avoid him even in the end when he escapes him at Ariel and Eric’s wedding. You can definitely tell that they made sure that many of the other characters were just as important to the film as the main characters, and we will continue to see this template used going forward with the films.
Songs: From when we started with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the main common factor that all these films had were that they featured songs whether it was just one or two songs or featuring songs throughout the duration of the film. However, I think that most will agree that while a lot of the songs are memorable and leave an imprint on the film, at the end of the day the film could’ve survived without them and a few just outright didn’t need them. This is the first film that is in essence an animated version of a musical film that could be transitioned from the big screen to the Broadway stage, and this would become the norm for the Disney films going forward and really help them stand out from the films of the past. Before we get to the main songs, we do have to mention briefly the song in the beginning called “Fathoms Below” which the sailors sing though it is fairly quick and was just a transition into the beginning of the film. The first official song in the film is “Daughters of Triton” which Triton’s daughters sing and it is a fine song though it’s more to establish the relationship with Triton and Ariel, and then we have one of the two trademark songs of the film which is “Part of Your World” that Ariel sings and it is a very powerful ballad showing off Jodi Benson’s voice. We then have the other trademark song from the film which is “Under the Sea” that Sebastian sings to persuade Ariel to stay in the ocean, and it is a very fun song and one that I don’t think gets enough credit for being a great song. We then have Ursula’s solo outing “Poor Unfortunate Souls” that she sings to convince Ariel to sign her contract, and it is a very powerful song as Ursula is at her evil best trying to sway Ariel to see things her way. Next, we have “Les Poissons” that Chef Louie sings while he is cooking his meal and even while he is preparing Sebastian for cooking, and it is one of those songs that is fitting for that character even if it is not as memorable as the other ones. Finally, we have the love song “Kiss the Girl” sung by Sebastian and the other animals as they try to get Ariel and Eric to kiss before Flotsam and Jetsam breaks it up, and it is another nice song and showcases Samuel Wright as Sebastian. As mentioned, this film was set up to be similar to a Broadway show which is a bit ironic since there would be a Broadway show based on the film made nearly 20 years later, and as I also mentioned this would become the template by which future Disney films would be made.
Plot: As I had mentioned earlier in this recap, this film is the first one based off of a fairy tale in nearly 40 years with the last one being Sleeping Beauty back in 1950, and that is because that film slightly underdelivered and it seemed like the market for fairy tale adaptations had dried up. Interestingly enough, Disney had wanted to do an adaptation of the Little Mermaid way back in the 1930s as part of a package film highlighting adaptations of other works by Hans Christian Andersen. Anyone who knows Andersen’s version of the Little Mermaid knows how dark of a fairy tale it is and in essence how depressing it is, so it should come as no surprise that this film was made to make it more appealing to kids. In this film, Ariel is a mermaid fascinated with humans despite her father’s objections and she falls in love with a prince named Eric, and the sea witch Ursula transforms her into a human in exchange for her voice and that she will belong to her if her and Eric don’t share true love’s kiss in 3 days. Ariel nearly comes close to the point that Ursula poses as a woman named Vanessa and uses Ariel’s voice to draw Eric to her, but Ariel and her friends recover her voice before they get married though she is turned back into a mermaid when the third day ends. Ursula attempts to transform Ariel into a polyp only for Triton to exchange his life for Ariel’s and Ursula becomes the new ruler, and she attempts to kill Ariel only for Eric to kill her first and Triton is restored to his body. Realizing that Ariel loves Eric, he uses his powers to transform her into a human permanently and she marries Eric as they live happily ever after. As I said earlier, this adaptation is pretty different from the original especially with the ending as Ariel gets her happy ending here while in the original she dissolves in the ocean after the prince marries another woman. In a funny twist, it is reported that the changes Walt had made between the two originally in the 1930s were the same changes the staff made for this adaptation, and it just seems like we were almost destined to get this version at some point.
Random Watching Thoughts: I believe this is the first Disney film based on a fairy tale that doesn’t have the storybook beginning; For those that remember, this film had the controversial VHS box cover with the strangely shaped structure on the castle that closely resembled the male genitalia, I leave it to you to figure out the particulars; Grimsby seems like the kind of person that would get seasick very easily; Obviously these sailors must’ve seen a mermaid or mer-person at some point to know the tales of King Triton and the mer-people; That fish was so relieved to be back in the water; It feels like the animators just used Ariel’s template when creating the other mermaids and not making them look completely different; Leave it to be a seahorse to act as the royal announcer; Horatio Felonious Ignacious Crustaceous Sebastian; Triton gets the trumpets and Sebastian gets the kazoos; I wish we could learn about what happened to Ariel’s mother since we never hear anything about her at all; That book must be completely waterproof if the ink doesn’t run at all despite being underwater; I never noticed that the curtain was completely made of bubbles; Poor Flounder having to claim that he is not scared though we clearly now that he is; Classic foreshadowing as Flounder asks about sharks just as a shark goes passing by; Only a mermaid would be so fascinated by a simple fork; That brief moment where Flounder actually swam into the shark’s mouth only to escape quickly before he closed his mouth; Of course there would be an anchor there for the shark to get caught in; What is Scuttle looking for before Ariel comes up to the surface?; Scuttle thinks Ariel is far away and screams only to realize Ariel was right up there; So according to Scuttle, the fork is actually a “dinglehopper” and humans use them to brush their hair, and I wonder how many kids went home and actually used forks as a comb after this; Also according to Scuttle, the smoking pipe is actually a “snarfblatt” and is used for music and not smoking; He put water in the pipe and dumped it out yet when he blew into it, a bunch of sand and seaweed came out; So Ursula did use to live in the palace given her ranting about it unless she was making it up and trying to make herself sympathetic; She claims to be practically starving just seconds after eating a shrimp; I don’t know who’s more upset, Triton or Sebastian; Sebastian sounding like a counselor and thinking he knows everything about teenagers; Triton is Ariel’s father yet he wants Sebastian to be the one to keep an eye on her; I thought Sebastian was going to pull himself completely out of his shell trying to get out of that rock; That is quite the collection that Ariel has amassed and you wonder how long it took her to find all that stuff, and more importantly how she’s kept it hidden from Triton for so long; So she has books and even a painting which somehow have not decomposed and fallen apart; So in one scene Sebastian’s legs are in the thimble, the next scene the thimble is gone, yet in the next scene the thimble is back; I don’t know if that ship is safe enough to shoot fireworks off of; Max has got quite a sense of smell if he could sniff out Ariel; Of course Scuttle would think Ariel was talking about Max though to be fair Max is not a bad looking dog; Grimsby must think Eric is quite the narcissist that he would enjoy getting a giant sculpture of himself as a birthday gift; Eric mentions the kingdom of Glowerhaven in a offbeat remark, yet Disney thought it was important enough to expand on it in the series “Once Upon a Time” on ABC; Grimsby says the entire kingdom wants to see Eric wed yet mentions nothing specifically about his parents who must still be alive if Eric is just a prince; Again, we get foreshadowing as Eric makes a comment about lightning and now they sail right into a storm; Funny we see the statue in the water yet we never actually see it fall off the ship; Eric is a true man that he is willing to risk his life to save his dog; Kind of morbid to have the fireworks go off while the burning ship is sinking into the ocean; Eric could be on the verge of death yet Ariel feels compelled to sing a love ballad to him in the hopes that maybe he wakes up; Eric’s first conscious thought must’ve been if he was in Heaven when he saw Ariel singing to him; That scene of Ariel on the rock as the water splashes up still remains one of the most iconic in Disney’s history; I wonder what her sisters would’ve thought if they found out Ariel was in love with a human; You have to give credit to Sebastian for doing his best to sway Ariel to stay in the ocean, especially in the form of a fun song; I wonder how long it took the songwriters to come up with fish that their names rhyme with music instruments; I love how Sebastian sings for another good 2 minutes before realizing that Ariel is not even there anymore; Another classic film trope where two characters talk with one talking about one thing while the other thinks they’re talking about something else which leads Sebastian to spill the beans about Ariel; How was Flounder able to get that statue into the grotto given how small all the entrances were?; The way Triton speaks about humans make you think he had a bad encounter with them; I get wanting to discipline your child, but Triton did go over the edge in destroying her collection including the statue and then he still shows remorse for having done it; Flotsam and Jetsam having the different colored eyes is pretty creepy; Ursula’s lair is a giant fish skeleton which just looks ominous; If I’m Ariel and see all those polyps, I would’ve turned right around and swam out of there; One thing you have to give Disney credit for is having the villains at some point seem relatable and somewhat likeable even though we know they are evil at heart; Is there any other type of kiss in a fairy tale besides true love’s kiss?; Ursula has a warped impression of human men if all they care about is looks and not about conversation, though to be fair she does have a point when it comes to certain men; Only Ursula would actually have Ariel sign a contract to bind her to this agreement; I know losing your voice is bad, but I think I’d rather that than having the feeling of a sword stabbing you and feeling like you are stepping on knives all the time; Given the controversy surrounding some of the things with this film, I can’t believe no one realized the fact that from when she became human to when she was found by Eric that she was basically completely naked aside from the seashells on her chest; Scuttle asks what is different about Ariel and can’t figure it out even though he is literally resting on her new legs; Sebastian was so forceful in his determination until Ariel gave him the sad eyes and easily swayed him; Even though Ariel was now a human, Max was still able to recognize her smell; You would think Eric would’ve recognized her because he did see her briefly though he only really knows her by her voice; Ariel is so amused by the bubbles in the bath when she literally spent her whole life in the water; Of course Sebastian would fall into the kitchen and see all the stuffed crabs; Of course when she sees the fork she would brush her hair with it and she would try to make music with the pipe; I understand being into your work, but Chef Louis takes it to another level; That was way more than just a dab of flour; Honestly, Sebastian is such a small crab and Louie went way overboard trying to kill him; Poor Grimsby got ash blown in his face and then he didn’t even get to enjoy the crab; She still uses the fork for a brush even when she has an actually brush; The seahorse looks so exasperated when Triton told him to keep looking even after he said they searched everywhere; I was just thinking about this, we know that Ariel is 16 because she said it yet we never know how old Eric is; She was way too excited to be given the reins to the carriage; Scuttle’s heart was in the right place to try and make things romantic, but seagulls aren’t known for singing; If I was Eric, I would be a bit skeptical if I just heard random voices singing about kissing Ariel; Why would Eric think that her name is Mildred?; You know, it’s interesting they think that kissing would restore her voice when Ursula never said that and only said she would be human forever, so you would think she would spend the rest of her life as a mute; I wonder if they did an effect where as Ursula was transforming into a human if they recorded both Pat Carroll and Jodi Benson laughing and merged them together; Ursula doing her best impression of a Siren by drawing Eric to her using Ariel’s voice; So what was Ursula going to do at sunset after marrying Eric, was she going to reveal herself in the end?; That is quite the ship they have for weddings; So since she’s no longer a mermaid Ariel apparently can no longer swim completely?; Speaking of controversy, there was the rumor that the minister during the wedding at what appeared to be an erection in his pants, but the animators confirmed it was just his stubby knee; All this chaos is going on yet the minister continues to go about the business at hand; Just when you think Ariel and Eric are going to get their kiss, the sun has to set and Ariel turns back into a mermaid; Ariel had her dress on when they dived into the water, yet she quickly lost it and went back to having the seashells on; That is pretty freaky seeing Ariel almost turned into a polyp; Eric needs to work on his aim if that harpoon barely grazed Ursula’s arm; I wonder what kind of eels Flotsam and Jetsam were because I thought most eels were electric; Again, Disney is the master of horror as the scene of a giant Ursula emerging from the sea is absolutely terrifying; It’s a good thing Eric is a sailor otherwise he and Ariel would be screwed; I wonder if anyone ever realized that when Eric jabs the bowsprit into Ursula, you can actually see it come out her back; That was a quick swim for Eric to get from where Ursula and the ship went down to getting back to shore; Sebastian says the exact opposite to Triton about children leading their own lives when earlier, he said they need constant supervision; Man, Triton not only turned Ariel back into a human, but he even made a dress for her; Even during a wedding, Louie can’t restrain himself and has to chase after Sebastian; That was good that they had Eric and Triton give each other the nod of approval.
Overall Thoughts: Overall, the final film of the 1980s for Disney was a really great film and ended the decade on a very strong note after a bit of a lackluster start. This whole decade has been a very tumultuous time for Disney as they started ok, nearly came to the brink of possible collapse in the middle, and finished on a high note while showing that animated film was still more than profitable. Disney had made many great strides throughout the decade with the expansion of the theme parks and the ongoing success on TV, and as we head into the 1990s they were going to show that they were still the kings of the box office. As for this film, it is a great film and a perfect kickoff to the Disney Renaissance.
Final Grade: 9/10