The Little Mermaid (1989)

Directed by: Ron Clements/John Musker

Written by: Ron Clements/John Musker/Howard Ashman/Gerrit Graham/Sam Graham/Chris Hubbell

Based on fairy tale by: Hans Christian Andersen

I see penises!

Dammit. Wrong poster. Well, you know what I’m talking about.

The Little Mermaid is where everything changed. Disney was just churning out animated features that, while some were popular, none really connected with the world the way this did. The Little Mermaid had legs.

Disney had actually thought about making The Little Mermaid in the 30s, but it never quite gelled. In the mid-80s it was brought up again…They started a treatment and then found the original from the 30s. Strangely enough, it was incredibly similar! A few changes were made here and there, but it’s pretty close.

After Oliver & Company was a moderate success, Disney put more money into their animation studio and put a LOT of it behind their next feature. They decided that the formula of Oliver (semi-musical) was great, so they doubled down. The Little Mermaid would basically be Broadway on screen.

Howard Ashman had already been hired by Disney to write a song or two for Oliver. This time, he brought his writing partner (Alan Menken) along and they wrote the entire score for this one. It proved to be a great and award-winning partnership for the next three(-ish) movies. Although, they did seem to recycle songs on occasion. (“Part Of Your World” sounds almost exactly like “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop Of Horrors, “Under The Sea” sounds a lot like “Be Our Guest,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” sounds a bit like one of the songs from Aladdin…)

Luckily, all of these gambles paid off in a lot of ways. The Little Mermaid (along with Who Frames Roger Rabbit?) basically bankrolled the studio for the foreseeable future.

The movie is, of course, really good.

In case you live somewhere above the sea, The Little Mermaid is about Ariel (Jodi Benson), a 16-year-old mermaid who is obsessed with the human world. She and her best friend, Flounder (Jason Marin) collect human artifacts that they find all over the ocean. They’re told what they are by Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), a seagull who obviously has no idea what anything in the human world is. Her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars) hates humans, so he’s forbidden her to even talk about them. But he just won’t LISTEN! He sends Sebastian (Samuel E Wright) to keep an eye on her. But Sebastian is just a crab. How does a crab stop a full-sized, teenage mermaid from doing whatever she wants?

One night she goes to the surface and sees a shipwreck. She saves Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel (CB) Barnes) from drowning and instantly falls in love, like teenagers do. (To be fair, he also falls in love…with her voice.)

She goes back down, King Triton destroys all of her artifacts, and Ursula the sea witch (Pat Carroll) makes a deal with her: give me your voice and I’ll give you legs for three days. Get him to kiss you and you get your voice back. Don’t and I get you…forever.

Chaos ensues. Sort of.

It’s a lot of fun with charming characters and great music. There’s been a bit of a backlash in the last few years about how it’s problematic to take a woman’s voice away. While I absolutely agree with that notion, I also think that the movie is about how women NEED their voices. They need to be heard. That’s a message that we can use more of, these days.

The Little Mermaid started the Disney Renaissance. Not only was it their first return to fairy tales since Sleeping Beauty, but it put Disney back on the minds of basically every kid (and parent) on the planet. There really was no looking back.

Well…they had one more non-musical throwback to the non-classic years left.