THE LITTLE MERMAID: Of Singing Fish, Rebellious Youths, and Dinglehoppers

The Little Mermaid (1989) – The 28th Walt Disney Animated Feature – Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker – Starring Rene Auberjonois, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Buddy Hackett, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, and Samuel E. Wright.

There is, of course, the automatic negatives that come with any Disney Princess film, and there are those who will automatically dismiss any of the Princess films out of hand. I don’t agree with that, but I understand it. The Disney Princesses can often be problematic but dismissing them out of hand is as stupid as embracing them without interrogation, and of all the Disney Princesses, it is THE LITTLE MERMAID’s Ariel that offers the most confounding characterization.

On the negative half of the equation, THE LITTLE MERMAID offers up the problematic figure of a love-stupid 16-year old girl willing to sacrifice everything for the affection of a guy she met once. All she really knows about Prince Eric is that he’s a handsome human, and this is enough for her.

On the positive side of the ledger, Ariel is an active character who owns her actions. She might be 16 and lovestruck, but Ariel (Jodi Benson) forges her own path in THE LITTLE MERMAID. She’s headstrong, forceful, and rebellious, but she’s not a bad person and she’s not sitting around waiting for her fairy tale prince to find her. She has an infectious personality and an adventuresome nature, and when it comes time to make her bargain with Ursula the Sea Witch (Pat Carroll), she puts her own life on the line. Of course, she is a 16-year old kid and doesn’t realize that while she’s playing a short game, Ursula is playing a long game, using Ariel to get to her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars).

While it is ultimately unfortunate that Ariel doesn’t see that there’s more to life than getting Eric to fall in love with her, and while it is unfortunate that Disney simply affirms rather than complicates the typical fairy tale fantasy, I come down much more on the positive than negative side when it comes to Ariel. It’s important that kids dream of being something other than what their parents or society want for them, and whatever her faults, whatever the dangers of Disney tossing up another princess fantasy, Ariel is a well-rounded, likable character.

And so is THE LITTLE MERMAID. I really kind of adore this movie – it’s full of really great characters and fantastic songs. Watching it just makes me feel good, both for the film itself and what it represents, and that is decidedly part of its charm. MERMAID marks the beginning of the so-called “Disney Renaissance,” a period that lasts 10 films and 11 years and saw the company produce films that were both commercially and critically appreciated. Watching MERMAID now, it’s surprising how dated it looks – this is a classically created, hand-painted cel animation and it’s the last Disney film produced in this manner. It looks old and it looks amazing.

With Ariel at its center, MERMAID gives us two wonderful supporting characters in Sebastian the Crab (Samuel E. Wright) and Flounder (Jason Marin) the, er, tropical fish. (He’s not a flounder.) The latter is Ariel’s sidekick while the former is her father-appointed watchdog. Flounder is always willing to do what Ariel wants, while Sebastian warms to her over the course of the film. There is something dangerous about Ariel’s charm inside the film, as everyone (minus Ursula) eventually gives her what she wants. Triton gets mad at her, but eventually gives permission to marry Eric. Who’s a human. And Triton hates humans. Even Sebastian, who holds vehemently militant views on keeping Ariel in lockdown, succumbs to her charm when he’s given personal responsibility to watch her.

THE LITTLE MERMAID deals with the difficulties of being a single parent. Triton raises Ariel as a single parent (and king of the oceans). He’s got a bunch of daughters who all fall in line with his expectations, but Ariel is the baby of the litter and the most willing and likely to seek her own path. Eric, too, is something of child raised by a single parent. While both of his real parents are nowhere to be found, he is in the charge of Grimsby (Ben Wright), who takes a mothering role in Eric’s development.

While the story is simple and straightforward, the musical numbers are often highly choreographed and complex. They’re also utterly fantastic. MERMAID boasts five Disney classics written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and only two of them feature the same character. Ariel takes center stage in “Part of Your World,” which speaks to her desire to be part of the human’s world. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is Ursula’s song, and its rhythm and lyrics would make it feel right at home among Danny Elfman’s songs for The Nightmare Before Christmas. “Les Poissons” is sung by Chef Louie (Rene Auberjonois) as he’s trying to make a dinner out of Sebastian.

The two showstoppers are both sung by Sebastian the Crab. The first is “Under the Sea,” his celebration of life underwater, sung to Ariel as he’s trying to convince her that “life is better, down where it’s wetter” instead of up on the surface. It’s a wonderfully designed piece by Disney’s animators, truly one of the highlights of the company’s long and celebrated history. I love how Sebastian puts on this big show for Ariel, and that she cuts out before it’s over. Sebastian’s other number is the less-heralded but equally fantastic “Kiss the Girl.” While there is something mildly creepy about Sebastian singing a song to put Eric in the mood to kiss Ariel, it must be remembered that Eric needs to do this to break Ursula’s spell and save Ariel from being turned into a creepy little emaciated polyp. Where “Under the Sea” is a massive set piece, “Kiss the Girl” has a subtler, quieter piece that speaks to the universality of music. “Under the Sea” has Sebastian backed by the denizens of the deep, who presumably have either been in his musical shows or are used to them. “Kiss the Girl,” on the other hand, has the deep-sea crab supported largely by shallow water species.

The one quibble I have with THE LITTLE MERMAID is that the film robs Ariel of some of her agency when Ursula takes her voice. She becomes a little too passive as she waits for Eric to kiss her. Luckily, Ariel does recover in time to help foil Ursula’s plan to marry Eric in her place (the witch tricked Eric by using Ariel’s voice) and she gets a full assist from Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), a seagull who’s been Ariel’s (usually incorrect) info guy about the surface.

Ariel foils Ursula’s plan to marry Eric, but the Prince’s kiss comes too late to save Ariel, which leads to a hurried finish that sees Ariel transformed into a polyp, then Triton turned into one to save her, then Ursula growing all monstrous, then Eric killing her, then all the polyps getting better, and then Ariel’s wedding. It’s a breathless final 20 minutes, and before we know it, Ariel and Eric are hitched. Her decision to go through with the wedding would have had more bite, of course, if Eric was the baker’s son instead of a prince, but that’s a tad too much realism for a Disneyfied fairy tale.

That’s a small, imperfect cherry on top of a very tasty sundae, however. THE LITTLE MERMAID isn’t one of my all-time favorite Disney films, but it’s not far from it.