Classic Movie Review: The Little Mermaid (1989)

Posted: April 25, 2021 in Animation, Comedy, Romance

Ariel (Jodi Benson) is a strong-willed mermaid, the 16-year-old daughter of King Triton. (Kenneth Mars) Ariel collects human nick knacks from the surface, even though neither she or her seagull friend Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) knows what they are. King Triton is annoyed that Ariel missed a musical performance, because she was on the surface. Triton asks the royal composer, Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) to keep an eye on Ariel, but she goes up to the surface again, and sees Eric, (Christopher Daniel Barnes) strapping, young seafaring lad, and Ariel subsequently saves Eric’s life.

When Triton finds out that Ariel has been to the surface multiple times, he gets angry and uses his Trident to destroy Ariel’s collection of human paraphernalia. This rash judgement plays right into the hands of the Sea Witch Ursala, (Pat Carroll) who has been plotting to extract King Triton’s power, and usurp his throne. Ursala approaches Ariel and asks her to make a deal. Ursula will give Ariel human legs in exchange for her voice. Ariel impulsively takes the deal, can she attract Eric without her greatest gift, her voice?

The Little Mermaid is a classic movie for two major reasons, animation, and the music, The animation is beautiful, bright and colorful and makes the underwater look very inviting. After such animated and semi-animated flops in the 70’s like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Robin Hood, and Pete’s Dragon, the animation was refreshing and looked like Disney’s classic animation. The characters were interesting and had their own personalities. King Triton was regal and strong, Scuttle seemed confused, Sebastian was only interested in his position in the royal court, and Ursala was scheming and manipulative, much like Cruella De Vil, she even bears a passing resemblance to Cruella, as well as Pat Carrol, the actress who portrayed her The music takes this movie to another level, “Under the Sea” “Part of Your World” “Kiss The Girl” among others, are not only very entertaining, but they move the story along as well.

There are flaws, Ariel is only 16, she shouldn’t plan to be marrying anyone. Ariel and Eric don’t really get to know each other, Ariel literally can’t speak when they are dating, not a basis for a good relationship, and a lyrical reference to a blackfish in the Under the Sea song, is accompanied by an unflattering caricature of a black female fish. Even with some flaws, this movie became a template for many other Disney classics, a little romance, a little comedy, lots of songs, that’s the current Disney formula, and it’s working. Beauty and The Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin, to name a few, have all followed a similar formula, without seeming formulaic. There was a sequel to The Little Mermaid, not nearly as good, and there will be a remake, because Hollywood has no new ideas.

The acting is good, especially by the character actors. Jodi Benson gives Ariel that teenage rebellion and stubbornness that Ariel needs and she has a great singing voice. Christopher Daniel Barnes gives Eric a happy go-lucky attitude, and there’s not much else to the character. Samuel E Wright gives Sebastian a Trinidadian accent and a haughty air about him. Buddy Hackett makes Scuttle funny and endearing all at once. Pat Carroll oozes evil just as much as her character oozes black ink, and Carroll seems to enjoy playing the scheming, vindictive Ursula, maybe a little too much. Ursula even gets her own song. Rene Auberjonois almost steals the film in his one major scene as a psycho French chef.

The direction is good, the pacing is fast, the musical numbers are staged well, the animation is stunning. The set piece is set in a storm, which makes the scene much more dramatic, and the directors get very good performances, both directors are veterans of the newer Disney animated films, Hercules, Aladdin, The Princess and The Frog and Moana. A flashback and a small backstory involving Triton and Ursula would have added a lot to the story, but the Little Mermaid made over 200 million, and probably saved Disney as a studio.

The Little Mermaid: Get hooked on it.

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