Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, and Howard Ashman (based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen)
I won't lie: it intimidates me to arrive at The Little Mermaid. Universally held as the beginning of a renaissance for Disney animation, even upon its release in 1989 it was already recognized as something incredibly special—maybe not already taken as the start of a whole new wave of classics to rival (or exceed) the greatest works of animation undertaken under Walt Disney himself, but at least the best cartoon made by Disney since Walt died. Just seven years old, I was right there with them, although I hadn't grasped this historical context; I only knew it was the most amazing animated film there was, and this perception has not changed all that much in the intervening three decades and change.
If anything, my appreciation has only deepened, and it's not even nostalgia: the thing is almost perfect. It has only tiny flaws, most of which took me years to recognize: microscopic animation mistakes and omissions; a protagonist supervised and drawn by two lead animators with ideas about the character different enough that you can tell them apart after seeing it a hundred times; an insufficient quantity of Jodi Benson's voice in the mouth of its villain, even though this is the pivot upon which the plot turns, and even though in the ten lines or so Benson gets to be evil, you can tell she was having a total blast; a third act in general that's a little contrived and rushed; a plot hole involving the surreptitious relocation of a two-ton granite statue by a five-pound angelfish, who also had to open a door, that is almost admirable in the ways it nonsensically elides logistics and just dares you to give a shit; and, of course, the cheats the story makes to keep its mute heroine from making so much as an attempt, let alone a successful attempt, to communicate her circumstances to her confused paramour, even though three sunsets is a long time to spend together and not draw a picture, or pantomime, "I saved you from a burning shipwreck." On that last count, this line of reasoning can easily degenerate into the most arid kind of sterile literalism—the kind of nasty objection a surly teenager (or a YouTuber) whips out to try to prove they're smart (or bait clicks), by noting that (for example) even if the heroine might be mute, it sure seems like her sidekick can be heard and understood, and besides, she can read and write in what certainly looks like "English." In my defense, when I was the surly teenager, I hadn't been taught the word "diegesis" yet. Unfortunately, I don't know what excuse a grown-up in 2020 could make.
These are not just the "biggest" problems of The Little Mermaid; as far as I can determine, these are all of the problems of the The Little Mermaid. And just look at them. They're barely anything. A perfect movie is not just an absence of problems, of course, but The Little Mermaid is infinitely more than that, almost front to back unblemished craft, beautiful storytelling, and the most immediate emotions that had ever been dealt with by a Disney film. Also, the best songs to have ever been showcased by one. Its only competition before it is Fantasia, which doesn't count, and it's only been occasionally challenged since: in terms of consistent bangers, its only peers remain Moana (with which it shares its two directors) and Aladdin (with which it shares a composer and, to some degree, a lyricist, and its two directors). Moana could, maybe, claim to be a slightly better musical—which is not exactly the same thing as "having the best music"—but it's a near run thing even then, and, besides, Moana had the model established here to draw on, in more ways than one, whereas the form that The Little Mermaid took back in 1989 was new ground, and to get it this right on the first try is amazing.
The Little Mermaid began at Disney at the same time Oliver & Company did, in the same pitch meeting that Jeffrey Katzenberg decided that his and Michael Eisner's plans to revolutionize Disney animation for the 1990s would be spearheaded by one more cartoon about talking fucking dogs. Katzenberg didn't reject Ron Clements's idea to do a Disneyfied adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's damp fable, however. Rather, he asked Clements to do a little development, and Clements brought in the man he would never be creatively separated from for the rest of his life, John Musker. Together, they hammered out a rough treatment that stunned Katzenberg, who by this point was in the process of immersing himself in Disney's history, hoping to bridge the very obvious gap that he'd noticed between him and the animators who hated him. He recognized at once that what Clements and Musker had brought him was very much in line with the oldest, greatest of Walt's fairy tales—a princess, a prince, love, evil, the works.
The thing about the much-maligned Katzenberg is that, yeah, he could be a complete moron, like, one of the very stupidest people who ever earned a fortune without inheriting one first. (His most recent venture was Quibi.) He could be a mean-minded taskmaster and a poor communicator. He could, also, be heartbreakingly sensitive. He liked Diet Coke. A lot. More importantly, he was vain and insecure and concerned with status to a degree unusual even for a Hollywood producer; these drives eventually reoriented the whole American animation industry. And he could, frequently, be right—righter than any producer at Disney had been since Walt—and for a guy whose first response to Disney animation was to shut it down, sometime between there and here, maybe in the exact moment that Clements and Musker presented their pitch, some spirit must've taken him.
He greenlit The Little Mermaid, and then had what might remain the best idea of his career: having been made aware through their mutual friend, music mogul David Geffen, that Howard Ashman had fallen into a slump after his hit stage adaptation of The Little Shop of Horrors, Katzenberg invited him out to Glendale to work at Disney. Of the various in-development projects Katzeberg and Peter Schneider showed him, the one he fixed upon was Clements and Musker's. Ashman had ideas—so many ideas that he got a producer credit—and Katzenberg helplessly acceded to Ashman's suggestion to make it a full-on book musical, which is, it seems, pretty much what he wanted out of the librettist in the first place. It's tempting to impose a whole teleology on the two prior Disney animated features, the extremely music-heavy Oliver and Clements and Musker's own last project, The Great Mouse Detective, and assume that, with or without Ashman, Katzenberg and the directors were always ramping up towards a true Broadway-style musical, with a narrative so driven by showtunes that if you took them out the film would be two-thirds as long and incomprehensible.
Yet it's more prudent to consider it a groping, evolutionary process that finally found its catalyst in Ashman—and in Alan Menken, for as soon as he could, Ashman brought his colleague Menken out from New York to do the actual, you know, music. Ashman's achievement was Menken's, too, and Menken had the added task of doing the film's score, something he'd never previously done, which is incredible in its own right, considering that it's the best score to any Disney animated feature before or since. Besides incorporating his and Ashman's songs as driving leitmotifs, Menken also crafted some of the few bits of original orchestral score that I've ever found myself remembering out of a Disney movie, demonstrating a facility for action cues that's downright astonishing, considering he'd never had to come up with the appropriate accompaniment for a ship aflame or a battle against a hundred-foot-tall monster back on Broadway.
It's silly to think you've never seen this, one of the most popular movies of all time, but if a refresher is necessary, The Little Mermaid is the story, highly divergent from Andersen's spiritual tale, of Ariel (Benson), daughter of the sea king Triton (Kenneth Mars). Lately, Ariel's fallen into teenaged rebellion and begun to question the tenets of her society, particularly its prohibition against contact with the realm of the surface-dwelling humans above. This prohibition even extends to any investigation of human artifacts that have made their way underwater, like the sunken ship Ariel and her angelfish friend Flounder (Jason Marin) are excavating while Ariel's supposed to be debuting her lovely voice to Triton's court alongside her sisters on the occasion of her 16th birthday. (Okay, one more tiny, miniscule quibble: considering that we see them first, it's distracting how little effort went into the design or the voice acting of Ariel's sisters.) Anyway, Ariel's missed concert—plus a trip to the surface to show her discoveries to the confused seagull Scuttle (Buddy Hackett)—gets Ariel in trouble, and Triton assigns his court composer and Ariel's vocal trainer, the crab Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), to watch over her. This seems like a poor choice for a chaperone given that Sebastian is a two-ounce crustacean and Ariel is a 100 pound fishwoman, and, indeed, Sebastian's general impotence shall be repeatedly confirmed throughout the film. Yet he's also a softer touch than he first seemed, agreeing not to tell Triton about what he finds when he follows her to the enormous cache of human objects that Ariel's collected over the years. Unfortunately, the crab betrays her by accident regardless.
Things take their turn when Ariel encounters the human prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). Rescuing him from a blazing disaster at sea, she falls in love with Eric, and Eric, though only half-conscious when he hears it, can't get the beautiful voice of the woman who saved him out of his head; however, Triton, upon discovering this, becomes violently enraged, destroying Ariel's whole collection along with her dreams. Bereft, Ariel is approached by agents of the other great power of the sea—the octopod witch, Ursula (Pat Carroll)—and Ursula offers the young mermaid an infernal bargain. She'll make her human, in exchange for her voice, and send her to the shore to be with her prince. But if he does not kiss her by sunset on the third day, then Ariel will be reduced to one of the degenerate, poriferan creatures who populate Ursula's pathetic menagerie—the usual fate, it seems, of all who deal with this devil—and Ariel will be hers, forever. Ariel takes the bargain anyway, certain that she can seduce Eric, even though what he was in love with in the first place was her voice. It turns out she can't—with the help of her friends, she comes close, but Ursula is willing to cheat to win, for she has her own unfinished business with Triton, and his daughter shall make such exceedingly good leverage.
The Little Mermaid moves through these beats with a confidence and clarity almost unparalleled in Disney animation, or anywhere else, and what always strikes me is how dense it is, as a story, despite being so incredibly kid's-movie-in-the-80s short; it's unbelievable how much character, plot, and even world-building manage to get smooshed into an 83 minute runtime without losing coherence or even feeling crowded. (There's a whole magical war's backstory contained within Triton and Ursula's long-standing enmity, but even without a flashback, or much more than five or six lines alluding to it, we get everything we need to know about their history. Five bucks says the remake spends twenty minutes on it.) Without wishing to take anything away from the talents of Clements and Musker, much of this is down to Ashman and Menken, for the way the score bleeds into the musical numbers, and, especially, the way character and plot exposition is transformed, by way of song, into such remarkably substantive scenes.
Think of "Poor Unfortunate Souls," Ursula's villain song—it became the template upon which all subsequent Disney villain songs would be based—but, completely simultaneously, Ariel's transformation scene. It isn't even my second favorite number in the film, but it might be its most seamless join of narrative and music, stretching across an impossible range of moods, from the snide comic beats of Ursula pontificating about the nature of men (and women) to the genuinely terrifying power that Carrol brings as the witch tears the voice out of Ariel's very throat and works what amounts to body horror upon her supplicant. Even a song that potentially could be cut without doing catastrophic damage to the plot, like "Under the Sea"—which exists, primarily, to blast the audience with color and energy and give Ashman and Menken the opportunity to work with calypso music—turns out to be very useful for our characters after all, emphasizing Sebastian's conservative streak and reemphasizing Ariel's boredom with what looks like, from our perspective, her world's endless wonders; it concludes, of course, on the reveal that Ariel, the person for whose benefit this entire elaborate concert has nominally been performed, wasn't interested enough in hearing the same tired propaganda to even stick around for it.
Now, the songs don't always have a function, and while I might not outright cut "Les Poissons," it still eludes me what use this story has for a comic number where a maniacal and bracingly-stereotyped French chef (Rene Auberjonois) attempts to murder Sebastian. I also wonder what the directors and songwriters would've done with "Fathoms Below"—The Little Mermaid's introductory shanty, and maybe the soundtrack's most frequently-forgotten song—if Katzenberg hadn't nixed their plans, out of pacing and budget concerns, to do a big, burly production number right out the gate. What we get is still very nice, and fades into the score's first dreamy intimations of the musical heart of The Little Mermaid.
That's "Part of Your World," and if you feel a need to shit on Katzenberg, please take this opportunity to shit away: proposing that this song, of all songs, be cut from the film—after being animated—because of a poor response by a screening audience composed of apparently the stupidest children in Los Angeles, I can't imagine an executive potentially doing more damage to their own movie. It took the combined pleading of the directors, songwriters, and one of Ariel's lead animators, Glen Keane, to change his mind; thankfully, he did, and while The Little Mermaid does not live and die on just this one song, "Part of Your World" is still the best and most important part of it, for even if very little plot happens in it, practically the whole movie happens because of it. It allows Ariel to explain to us who she is and, more crucially, who she wants to be. The entire story flows directly from the character established here, in three and half minutes of beautifully-sung yearning.
This is where I admit to no small amount of irritation over the discourse surrounding the Disney Princess genre, at least as it falls upon The Little Mermaid. It bears noting that this was a genre that did not really exist before The Little Mermaid brought it into being, or at least The Little Mermaid took the sparse preexisting material of the genre—the three princess-centered fairy tale romances produced by Walt over a span of twenty-two years, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty—and did so much more with their basic narrative machinery that, even as good as they are, today they feel more like prototypes for something better, with elements that The Little Mermaid would refine into something with far greater potential for cultural impact and, yes, for being endlessly copied. Its closest ancestor is Cinderella, of course—it is, likewise, a tale of magical transformation that awards its oppressed heroine a prince; there is also the matter of the animal sidekicks—while it looks to Sleeping Beauty for its wonderfully louche villain and for its action finale. But in combining their influences, The Little Mermaid's creators arrived at something entirely new, adding to the mix the fully rounded and psychologically-accessible young woman at the center of it all.
Ariel, basically, is such a perfect product of Disney formula that she transcends it. There is not, in all of Disney animation, a more sharply-drawn character, whose drives are at once universally-relatable and also incredibly specific to her, and while Disney would routinely fail to reach this level again (sometimes with very credible efforts, sometimes less so), I think it takes an actively hostile viewer to interpret Ariel as just another Disney princess who exists solely to marry a prince, to the point I wonder if folks sometimes misremember what actually happens in this princess's movie. For one thing, "Part of Your World" arrives before Ariel even meets her prince, and this song (plus the Indiana Jonesy expedition we've already seen) establish that Ariel's fascination with the human world has been her passion for a long time—thus braving a shark to acquire a fork, thus her ode to the museum's worth of artifacts she's collected. These are inscrutable out-of-context discoveries that whet her intellectual appetite, but can't satisfy it. Ariel's an explorer, archaeologist, and anthropologist first, and when she does encounter Eric, he's the handsome focus for a yearning that she's always had. Even when she's become a mute human to take her place by Eric's side, The Little Mermaid focuses at least as much on Ariel's wonderment at finally arriving in a world she'd previously only been able to study from afar, like when she gets to drive a carriage and barely notices Eric next to her—to the extent she practically kills him in her ecstatic enthusiasm. (As for Eric, he's easier to critique, but he's one of Disney's best princes, too, given brief but fairly solid characterization in his love for the sea, his reckless loyalty to his dog, his distaste for grandiose honors, and his reluctance to assume the responsibilities of state. He is, anyway, a far cry from the blank slates we'd seen before.)
This is on top of the more mythic qualities of Ariel's arc, which sets her in generational conflict with a patriarch as she awakens, through her intellectual pursuits, to independent adulthood (and, through Eric, to forbidden sexual desire). "Coming of age" and allegorical transformation had always been and shall likely always remain Disney animation standbys, but rarely has the intergenerational divide come off as more threatening than in Triton's tantrum, and the transformation has never been more terrifying than in Ariel's Expressionist-inflected escape to the surface, where her new body almost kills her before it gets her to where she wants to go; meanwhile, there's something deep and true about how, in giving up her voice, she's actually foreclosed the possibility of being the person she wanted to be, and can't fully triumph until she gets it back. (Just like her father can't defeat his archenemy until he accepts responsibility for putting Ariel in this situation in the first place.) And as clearly as this resonates with just about everybody who's ever seen it, it's actually a little baffling to me that it's not been embraced more fully as one of the strongest trans allegories in cinema—not that I think this was fully intentional, but at least with Ashman (just a gay cisman, but...), it's probably not too much to guess that the "coming out" element wasn't entirely a happy accident. In any event, I can't imagine anyone attending to Glen Keane's incredibly expressive mermaid as she wonders what life in the light would feel like, and not being moved by the nuanced half-smiles Ariel makes as she tries and fails to convince herself that her heart's desire is impossible, maybe even laughable.
Or again look to "Poor Unfortunate Souls," where Ariel gins up the courage to make what she's been told upfront is a mortal gamble; it's not just hard to imagine a Disney face moving so smoothly through such conflict prior to The Little Mermaid, but impossible.
All that about the story, and I'm only just now touching on the animation—Keane is the best place to start, of course, as he designed Ariel, and thus, unwittingly, just about every other Disney protagonist for the next thirty years (including the men, and even after the transition to CGI, Ariel's softball-sized eyes and protruding cheeks are still going strong, though only Rapunzel has come close to matching her facial flexibility). Keane had to fight to animate Ariel, and it was through her that he escaped being typecast as Disney's hulking monster specialist; instead, he became probably the most readily-identifiable animator of the whole Renaissance. Keane co-supervised her animation—my understanding is that he personally did almost all of the work for the whole "Part of Your World" sequence—though he was joined by co-supervisor Mark Henn, and when I mentioned about a billion words ago that one can definitely tell The Little Mermaid's heroine was split between two people, the implication is that one was better and one was worse. It's a little suppositional (I don't have an index of who did exactly what), but Henn is worse, though mostly only in the comparison: Keane's draftsmanship is superior, and as a result Keane is less afraid to mess with his teenaged heroine's face, complicating the emotions his drawings create; Henn's Ariel is more basic, and while her wide-eyed gaping expressions are generally well-used (e.g. Ariel's smitten first look at Eric), the all-time-great, precisely-acted figure that The Little Mermaid offers when Keane's drawing her is not, in honesty, available in every frame. Plus I suspect there was a third person who did some borderline-mediocre medium long-shots of Ariel where she looks wonky. Generally, the closer the framing, and the more constantly-shifting expressions Keane (or Henn) can put into the drawings, the more Ariel's design works for the film; when it works, which is most of the time, Ariel is very possibly the best-animated protagonist in Disney history as well as the best-defined.
It's hardly just the Keane-and-Henn show: The Little Mermaid confirmed a number of rising stars, from Ruben Aquino on Ursula to Andreas Deja on Triton, and everyone acquits themselves admirably. Aquino's Ursula gets all the praise—not without justification—for her fleshiness and the impressive mobility of her eight legs, and Ursula represents another perfection of Disney formula: after fucking decades of lousy villains, broken only intermittently by the likes of Lady Tremaine and Maleficent, Ursula brings back the key components of a great Disney villain, and it's not just a black and purple color scheme or vast magical powers, but genuine competence. (It's actually mildly astonishing that, with all the elements here to make another sloppy, comic villain on the pattern of the Queen of Hearts or Madame Medusa, The Little Mermaid never leans in that direction; outside of one joke about how since being exiled she's "wasting away," Ursula's corpulence is almost exclusively used to make her more intimidating.) Yet if I were feeling contrary, I could name Deja The Little Mermaid's silver medalist: it's down to Clements and Musker too for putting the shots in the film, but Deja does wonders with the little moments that reveal to us Triton's shame and sensitivity. It deepens a character that on paper sounds like a monstrosity of a father, and anchors him just enough in protective feelings for his daughter rather than just wounded authority that his final act of kindness comes inevitably out of his character, too; it's not my original observation, but it's not totally untrue that the person who has the clearest moral arc in The Little Mermaid isn't Ariel but her dad.
Altogether, The Little Mermaid boasts the kind of human and humanoid character animation that had not been seen from the Disney studio since, well, possibly ever—not this consistently good and focused on storytelling, anyway, and free of frivolous business (Chef Louis and a few overcooked frames of Ursula's human guise as "Vanessa" notwithstanding)—and, before I forget it, I should note that even the comic relief is great here, Sebastian rising to the level of "actual friend" instead of useless joke vehicle, and Flounder and Scuttle are mostly harmless. This would automatically make it a highwater mark for Disney after many years spent unwilling to prove the studio's bona fides as the most capable animation studio on Earth (other than The Black Cauldron, which proved nothing as far as character animation went, the last Disney film to boast so many humanoid characters was Sleeping Beauty all the way back in 1959). But The Little Mermaid excels on pretty much every metric for animation quality possible, and taking it as the end of the line for Disney's Xerography Era, it is shocking how refined the process had become, to the extent that, even knowing how good the new computerized animation systems would be, one can wonder if it's a shame that The Little Mermaid was its last hurrah; without even squinting hard, The Little Mermaid actually looks like it could have been made in Disney's Golden or Silver Ages, with much the same painterly appearance. (Walt had done a bit of work on a possible adaptation of the Andersen tale back in the 30s. Clements and Musker discovered this belatedly, and were surprised and gratified to see that Kay Nielsen's concept art wasn't even that dissimilar, albeit way more deco than their movie ever thought about being.) That it also demanded an attention to watery physics makes it even more astounding, though I can see how it also offered freedom, which the directors and animators absolutely take full advantage of.
There are shots—the blaze of a ship from as seen from below the waves as Ariel rescues Eric, the colossal kraken that Ursula becomes on her way to one superbly grisly ending—that could not have been bettered even with all the artistry of the Nine Old Men and their auxiliaries behind them. There are other shots that would've been beyond their ken entirely, with painted CGI done so richly and delicately—like the opening shot of Eric's ship blasting out of the fog—that I never would've known it was CGI if I hadn't been told. The biggest thing missing is the multiplane, which had to be approximated by outside vendors, Disney's ancient colossus having fallen into disrepair. It also just feels like a Golden Age movie, despite its many novelties: the comfort with near-nudity (and rad villain impalement), indeed, its frequent thematic focus on horniness and horror, marks it as the first Disney film kind-of sort-of for adults in almost fifty years, and Katzenberg got a small shock to find that adults were actually going to see it without children, helping push it toward its huge box office take. It was also the first real beneficiary of WDFA's more robust finances, granted a budget of around $40 million. It looks every bit of it, from the care taken with the characters to the numerous moving parts of the musical numbers to Mark Dindal's exquisite effects animation. Lavish in both quality and in quantity, the million or so bubbles demanded by the setting proved such a daunting chore that Disney outsourced it just to get it done in time.
In every respect, then, it feels like it could start a renaissance, and I never can tell what the best thing about it is: Ashman and Menken's songs (for the record, my second favorite is "Kiss the Girl"), Clements and Musker's unparalleled ability to tell a story, Keane and Henn's unprecedented act of animated characterization, or the thousand other things that I've missed. Luckily, I don't have to choose. The Little Mermaid can be reduced to its parts, or its historical importance, but let's sit with it as it was in 1989: not a beginning, so far as anyone could yet tell, but an end in and of itself, one of the great masterpieces of animation, that still melts me, every single time.