Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Little Mermaid (1989): A Review



Pre-The Little Mermaid, animation was considered a dying to dead genre. The Disney Company, which had originated the animated feature film, had had a bad run of animated films. It was to where the company gave serious thought to ending the division. The Little Mermaid ushered what was called "the Disney Renaissance", when the company revived both its financial and artistic fortunes. It is also a delightful film, with excellent songs and a compact story that entertains and charms the viewer.

Teen mermaid Princess Ariel (Jodi Benson) dreams of the world above the sea, but her father King Triton (Kenneth Mars) is aghast at the thought. She won't be denied, and one night observes the human Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) sailing on a battleship and she falls instantly in love. In desperation, she enlists the help of sea witch Ursula (Pat Carroll), who will give Ariel human legs which will allow her to go to the surface.

There are a couple of catches. First, Ariel must surrender her voice to Ursula. Second, Ariel has three days to have Eric give her true love's kiss, or she will revert to being a mermaid. Ariel has friends to help her in this quest: appropriately crabby but caring sea crab Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), eager young tropical fish Flounder (Jason Marin) and eccentric seagull Skuttle (Buddy Hackett).

Will Ariel and Eric find true love or will Ursula win out in her efforts to take over both the mermen and human world?

The most interesting thing for me about The Little Mermaid is how remarkably short the film is. The film manages to tell its entire story, complete with six songs and musical numbers, in 83 minutes. The film never feels rushed. In fact, The Little Mermaid is so well-packed that I would argue that one musical number could have been cut altogether due to being superfluous.

That would be Les Poissons, a number where royal Chef Louis (Rene Auberjonois) sings of his delight in preparing a fish meal, horrifying Sebastian, the latter doing his best to avoid being part of the main course. Having seen the film twice, I keep reaching the same conclusion: that Les Poissons just serves no purpose in The Little Mermaid. It does not advance the plot nor give any insight into a major character (Louis essentially is here for that one scene). I did not find it memorable either. I actually found it similar in style and melodically to Beauty and The Beast's Be Our Guest. The latter worked within its film, but the former stuck out.

The rest of The Little Mermaid's songs, however, are among the best in a musical film. Two of its songs were nominated for Original Song: Kiss the Girl and Under the Sea, with the latter winning. I can see why the latter still delights people. Under the Sea is a great, big, upbeat number filled with a Jamaican flavor (Sebastian has a Jamaican accent). The song is splashy, bright and colorful, but it also expresses Sebastian's view on how the underwater world is much better than the human world. It is a nice, joyful number that works well.

Kiss the Girl, conversely, is more quiet and intimate. Again sung by Sebastian with a chorus, Kiss the Girl is romantic without being schmaltzy.

It is a strange situation that what has become The Little Mermaid's signature song was not nominated for Original Song. I think many would be surprised that Part of Your World was not listed for Oscar consideration. For me, it is the best song in The Little Mermaid and among the best written for a musical film. Starting out slowly, we learn why Ariel is so fascinated with the human world. We also hear how she yearns for something different, for adventure and exploration. Part of Your World rises to a crescendo that is appropriately grand without being bombastic. Part of Your World is a perfect song, complete with spoken sections, expressing Ariel's hopes while advancing the story.

The last major song is a sheer delight. Ursula's Poor Unfortunate Souls is wickedly fun, showing Ursula's gleeful malevolence as she entices Ariel with her own powers. Playful, brazenly insincere and gleefully over-the-top, Poor Unfortunate Souls reveals Ursula's evil while still keeping a tongue somewhat in cheek.

Howard Ashman's lyrics and Alan Menken's music combines to fit every style of song, from the ballad to the big dance number. The Little Mermaid's songbook is practically perfect, where almost every number expresses character or moves the plot forward.

The success of The Little Mermaid also hangs on the voice work, and every actor was perfect in their role. Benson brings an innocence mixed with strength as Ariel. She may be young, but she is also full of courage. Barnes' Eric may be a standard Prince, just there to be the object of affection, but he does have a charm whenever trying to upend royal plans his court tries to give him. Wright's Sebastian mixes frustration, snobbery and horror with a caring side. He may be appalled at Ariel's wanderlust and consorting with the sea witch, but he also genuinely loves Ariel and wants to protect her.

Marin's Flounder is a cute figure, the second fiddle to the antics going on around him. Hackett is equally delightful as the well-meaning but clearly addled Skuttle, who gives wild names for human objects he clearly does not know, let alone what their use is for. Mars shows King Triton to be a firm ruler but also a loving father. After he destroys Ariel's collection, the animation shows his genuine pain at causing his daughter to break down in tears. He expresses concern for his wayward daughter, but can also be mischievous, as when he appoints Sebastian to be Ariel's minder. 

Carrol's Ursula is pitch-perfect, and not just in the music. Her take is one of delightful evil: grandiose, egocentric but also frightening in her evil and destructive power. 

If there are any flaws, I would say that the resolution to the crisis is rather quick and the inclusion of Les Poissons, which I think should have been cut altogether. Apart from those minor points, The Little Mermaid is an absolute triumph. 

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