By the late 1980s, it seems that the studio Mickey Mouse built had reached a crossroads. The Walt Disney animation legacy was in danger of being shuttered forever after a series of critical and commercial flops, while simultaneously undergoing an upheaval in its animation department as the revered “Nine Old Men” retired and were gradually replaced by a cadre of young, insightful counterparts.
The fascinating 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty recounts this time period in the history of the Disney animation studios, beginning with the production of 1981’s The Fox and the Hound, the release of which was delayed six months due to the defection of Don Bluth, who took a chunk of the Disney animation stable with him when he started his own company. Don Bluth Productions found its greatest success with 1986’s An American Tail, produced in conjunction with Steven Spielberg, and was also responsible for films such as The Land Before Time (1988–predecessor to a bajillion dino-rific sequels), All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), and Rock-a-Doodle (1990). [Bluth eventually moved over to Fox Animation Studios, working on Anastasia (1997) and Titan A.E. (2000); the failure of the latter film led to the closing of that studio for almost ten years (it was revived in 2009 with the release of Fantastic Mr. Fox).]
Bluth’s main complaint about his former employer–that the Disney model had grown stale and lifeless–was echoed by some critics and moviegoers. The films released by the studio in the 80s–Hound, The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and Oliver & Company (1988)–were not out-and-out failures (with the exception of Cauldron, which sank like a stone at the box office), but were far from reminiscent of the glory days of Disney animation. Disney’s fortunes received a welcome boost from the release of their own Spielberg collaboration, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit–a live-action/cartoon combo that featured animated legends from multiple studios (Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal among them). The movie was wildly popular, becoming the second highest-grossing film of the year.
But the studio’s traditionally-animated films were floundering in comparison to its glory days. After years of being the dominant game in toon town, Bluth’s films gave Disney some solid competition. As An American Tail and The Land Before Time both outgrossed their direct box-office rivals (Mouse Detective and Oliver, respectively), Disney began to cast about for its next direction, looking to stay relevant … and to regain its position as animation’s top dog.
Who knew those next steps would take them under the sea?
The Little Mermaid tells the story of a sixteen-year-old mermaid, Ariel (voiced by the phenomenal Jodi Benson), who longs to know more about the human world. On a stormy night at sea, she falls in love with Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) after rescuing him when a hurricane destroys his ship. Eric, too, falls in love with the mysterious maiden with the beautiful voice who disappears before he can get her name. When Ariel’s father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), discovers Ariel’s fascination with the human man, he forbids her to ever see Eric again. But Ariel is coerced into making a deal with the sea witch, Ursula (an equally phenomenal Pat Carroll), exchanging her remarkable voice for legs–and three days in which to make Eric fall in love with her. Accompanied by her friends, Sebastian the crab (Samuel E. Wright), Flounder (Jason Marin), and Scuttle the seagull (the hilarious Buddy Hackett), Ariel must make Eric realize that she is his mysterious savior–and one true love–before it’s too late.
The original idea for The Little Mermaid, which was to be loosely based upon the fairy tale by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, had been floating around the Disney studios since the 1930s. Much like Walt’s desire to put Alice in Wonderland on the screen in the pre-Snow White days, however, development on the story would have to wait.
The project got the greenlight from studio executives in the mid-80s, but it wasn’t until songwriter Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken were brought on board that the film started to take shape. Ashman and Menken envisioned the film as being the animated equivalent of a Broadway musical (incidentally, the story was turned into an actual Broadway musical in 2007 and ran for almost two years). This extended to the casting of the roles: Benson, Carroll, and Wright–on whom the performance of the major musical numbers predominantly relied–all had experience in musical theater. The soundtrack became the backbone of the entire production, and indeed, the songs–“Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” among them–are among some of the most memorable and beloved tunes from the Disney canon.
Personally, I’m quite fond of “Les Poissons” myself–the scenes with Chef Louis (voiced with barely-restrained glee by Rene Auberjonois) trying to fricassee Sebastian are some of the funniest in the film (and besides … it’s fun to try to sing along with that over-exaggerated French accent).
In addition to setting up the film as a musical, quite a few changes were made to Andersen’s original tale. Like most of the source material for many of Disney’s features, the original story was much darker than the version that eventually appeared on-screen. The characters are given names in the Disney film, whereas Andersen’s creations were labeled solely by title (for example, the protagonist was simply known as “The Little Mermaid” in Andersen’s story). Additionally, the “Sea Witch,” who is merely the conduit for The Little Mermaid’s transformation in the story, becomes the antagonist in Disney’s adaptation. And the ending of the film was changed to give Ariel and Eric a “happily-ever-after” together, while in the story, the Prince marries another woman and the mermaid dies at the end. The religious aspects of the original story are also excised from the animated tale–in Andersen’s version, The Little Mermaid’s desire for the Prince was not her only motivation in seeking humanity: she also sought to gain an eternal soul, something generally unattainable for mermaids per the strictures of the story.
Ariel is one of the more proactive and relatable Disney heroines, at least throughout the first half of the film. She is adventurous and brave, desiring to discover what lies beyond her comfort zone and willing to risk herself to protect the ones she loves. She’s also willful and tempestuous and overtly rebellious (prompting Sebastian to exclaim, “Teenagers. They think they know everything”). What girl can’t relate to wanting to explore new worlds without an overprotective parent hovering (swimming?) about?
But then she chooses to change her very essence, giving up her voice–the thing that distinguishes her from other Disney “heroines,” allowing her the independence and wherewithal to challenge the status quo–in order to “get her man” (as Ursula so helpfully points out). And in the end, she abandons her family and everything/everyone she’s ever known to join the human world. Not exactly a feminist poster child, that Ariel.
Speaking of Ursula, in many ways, she rivals Maleficent, the big baddie from Sleeping Beauty (1959), as one of the most effective, chilling villains in the Disney canon. Her appearance notwithstanding (and, let’s face it, those tentacles don’t exactly give you the warm fuzzies), the thing that frightened me the most as a child–and still gives me the shivers to this day–is Ursula’s “garden” of the poor, mutated merfolk who could not live up to their bargains with the sea witch. Seeing their shriveled, beseeching figures clasping at Ariel’s fins as she swims into Ursula’s lair is creepy beyond belief. And in the final battle, her towering transformation brings to mind images of Maleficent’s terrifying dragon form. True, she has a more defined sense of (black) humor than her evil precursor, but that does little to alleviate the fact that Ursula is one bad mother-you-kn0w-what.
The animation in Mermaid is some of the most gorgeous work produced by the Disney animators, with entrancing underwater shots and beautiful character designs. Like its predecessors The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company, this movie used computer animation techniques for some sequences (particularly the ending shots on the wedding boat). The advancement in technology, while impressive and generally welcome, nonetheless heralded the end of an era–Mermaid would be the last Disney film to utilize traditional hand-drawn cel animation.
The Little Mermaid is an indisputable turning point in the history of Disney animation. It marked a lucrative return to the world of fairy tales for the studio, which had not produced a fairy-tale adaptation since Sleeping Beauty. The film was a worldwide smash, generating critical fervor and commercial success (in an interesting reversal of fate, the Disney film eviscerated Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, which was released the same day, at the box office). It won two Academy Awards–for Best Score and Best Song (“Under the Sea”)–beginning a tradition of Disney dominance in those categories that would last through the mid-1990s. And, perhaps most notably of all, The Little Mermaid ushered in the period known colloquially as the “Disney Renaissance,” marked by a string of successful blockbusters throughout the next decade that represented a return to form for the animation giant.
And on top of all that … well, it’s just a damn good movie.