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The Little Mermaid (movie)

Walt Disney Pictures' 1989 animated film based on the classic story.

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Floats, but Just Barely

  • Dec 9, 2013
Okay, here are things that everyone knows: Disney has the world's strongest animation canon. One day, they might end up relinquishing it to Pixar, but Disney comes packed with so much history and longevity that that day is still a little ways off. For seeming eons, Disney animated films were just about the only game in town. Well, around the 70's and 80's, they got a bit too cocky and began producing a lot of celluloid trash. Finally, with them losing ground in the 80's to the onetime animation juggernaut of Don Bluth (he of The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, All Dogs go to Heaven, and The Land Before Time), they staged a mighty comeback in 1989 with a little classic move called The Little Mermaid. 

The Little Mermaid is still highly regarded as a classic of animation. It's well worthy of tha status too, so much so that, watching it now as adults, the early millennials who first fell in love with it are still quite blind to just how convoluted The Little Mermaid really is. Yes, it's a children's story based on a short by the great Hans Christian Anderson, but man, what a crazy mess of a plot. It's a good thing it got in at the tail end of the Reagan years, because there's no way in hell something like this ever would have flown anytime afterward. 

See how crazy The Little Mermaid is: THERE IS A MERMAID AS THE MAIN CHARACTER! A MERMAID! CRAZY! AND SHE HAS ANIMALS FRIENDS! WHO TALK! I mean, whoa, where are these guys getting the weed from, right? Who's their dealer and where can I find him, right?

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, the story of The Little Mermaid is universally known: A little mermaid by the name of Ariel is the daughter of Triton, the King of the Ocean. She's a little bit of a rebel; much to Triton's worry and annoyance, she makes regular trips to the surface to pick up little knickknacks humans accidentally dropped from passing ships. Given the fact that she's forbidden to keep going up and down from the surface, Ariel has to keep her fascination with the human world a secret from Dad. Sadly, Triton has a very nosy lobster confidante named Sebastian who lets Triton in on her side hobby, which pisses him off and sends him on a rampage in her secret closet. Ariel, not believing humans are the vile, disgusting creatures Triton makes them out to be (oh, if she only KNEW), is devastated. 

There's this evil witch named Ursula who knows Ariel's true desire, though, and she cheerfully offers to give Ariel a fresh new pair of real human legs for three days so she can explore the surface and meet the man of her dreams, Prince Eric, who she once rescued from drowning. Eric never got a look at Ariel, but he did manage to overhear her voice, and upon hearing that voice, he decided he was in love with Ariel and wanted to marry her. So in exchange for her legs and looks, all Ursula needs is Ariel's voice, and if Eric and Ariel haven't gotten it on in three days, Ariel goes back to mermaid form and Ursula owns her lock, stock, and barrel. Ursula is planning to use Ariel as her prime bargaining chip in challenging Triton's lordship. 

Go through that summary again and see what sticks out. Is it the fact that Eric must be pretty fucking shallow? Yeah, he hears a voice and falls in love, automatically, with whoever it happens to belong to. So when Ursula pretties herself up and takes to the surface in an effort to use Ariel's own voice - which she gets to use - against her, Eric basically whores himself out. Talk about thinking with the wrong head. Of course, since Ursula is controlling Ariel's voice, Ariel has every reason to be worried since it's the voice the Prince likes and not the girl. Ariel gets her legs completely mute, and when she voices her concern over not being able to, you know, speak to Eric and try to find out what he's really like and try to form some basis of an actual relationship, Ursula is ready with a pretty point blank response: Dress up like a Bratz doll and shake her groove thang. 

Yeah, it's pretty freaking absurd trying to get grownups to swallow that much, because it's extremely trite even by Disney standards. Yet somehow it always seems to escape the glare of cultural critics who prefer to go gunning for Belle and her Stockholm Syndrome. If anything, The Little Mermaid is actually worse on that front. The shame of it is that Ariel otherwise shows such promise as a character: She has a rebellious streak, an independently thinking spirit, and is a lot more than many Princesses of Disney past who frequently moved between trophies and decorations. Of course, you could probably factor in the fact that Ariel IS just 16 years old, and being of that age, she wants everyone to think of her as a more complex and rebellious person than she is. 

Somewhere in my more recent years and more recent viewings of The Little Mermaid, it occurred to me that I wasn't getting to know several of these characters very well. First of all, Sebastian. I know he's supposed to be some kind of advisor to Triton, but apparently advising the King comes with the duty of composing for the Royal Orchestra as well if the movie is to be believed. When Ariel fails to play her part in some kind of opera, Sebastian helps Triton scold Ariel, complaining that she ruined what was supposed to be his grandest achievement. That's quite the dual role. We also know Triton hates humans, but that's never explained. There's also Ariel's seagull friend Scuttle, who provides Ariel with all the information she could ever want on humans. I wanted to know just where Scuttle was coming up with this information, because to him, a fork is called a "dinglehopper" and is used as a comb while a smoking pipe is called a "snarfblatt" and used as a musical instrument. Ariel has six sisters and we don't get any information about them. 

Yeah, for being such a beloved classic of Disney's mighty animation division, The Little Mermaid is making us work with a pretty weak story. Even though The Little Mermaid was one of the first Disney movies to try to offer up a female lead as something more than some kind of prom night prize, that's pretty much what she aspires to be. It's Ariel who wants to give up HER own spot in the world and everything she knows, after all. To draw the comparison to my favorite Disney Animation movie once again, I don't know why Belle keeps taking all the beatings for Stockholm Syndrome with Ariel running around. In Beauty and the Beast, the is a gradual but very marked and notable change in the behavior of Beast, and it isn't like Belle spends so much time sitting around and taking it - she never seems to forget that she's captive because she, herself, made a bargain for her father's freedom. She also tries to escape, and she is helped by Beast's servants, who are legitimately warm to her from the very beginning and provide her with comfort and companionship as well as a communication buffer between her and Beast in the early goings. None of this happens in The Little Mermaid. It's a common romantic comedy trope that the woman is willing to give up all her accomplishments for a man, but The Little Mermaid goes a step further because Ariel is surrendering her entire world, basically selling her soul.

I don't want to denounce The Little Mermaid entirely, because it does succeed in showing us an imaginative fantasy world with wonderful writing and fun songs. "Under the Sea" is just plain infectious. It says a lot about The Little Mermaid that the movie escapes academia's attacks because the warmth and sweet writing are able to mask its deficiencies so well, and for those reasons, I'm rating in the positive because, hell, I like this movie too. I can't pretend the flaws weren't apparent to me even when I was a young kid, though, so I can't place this on the level of a lot of Disney's other work. It's standard, which means it's worth a few watches whenever it pops up on The Disney Channel, but if I write up a list of great animated movies - and believe me, I LOVE animated movies - I'm leaving The Little Mermaid off for sure.

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More The Little Mermaid reviews
review by . January 22, 2011
Like Beauty and the Beast, I don't think this movie is quite as good as everyone says it is. Don't get me wrong, it's still fantastic and I have great respect for what it did for Disney, I just don't really adore any Disney princess films that aren't Aladdin. For those of you who don't know, Disney wasn't doing so well for around a 20-year period. They were making movies, but they weren't doing so well. This would also be a great time to point out that Don Bluth …
review by . December 10, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Great Disney animation     Cons: none     Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. The Little Mermaid is a great animated movie, as is almost every other movie Disney has done. The story is one many can relate to in some ways. Who has not at one time or another wanted to be someone or something else, in this case a mermaid wants to be a human and live on land. She runs into trouble when she makes a deal with the evil …
review by . October 15, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
THE LITTLE MERMAID signalled a new renaissance for the Disney animation department. Following the lean years of "The Black Cauldron" and "The Great Mouse Detective", the animation department was within a heartbeat of ringing it's death-knell, when in 1989 a little mermaid swam into cinemas and into the hearts of a generation of moviegoers.    Based on the bittersweet Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, the story of mermaid Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) and her quest to become …
review by . October 14, 2006
Until recently, I hadn't seen The Little Mermaid. My family and I went to Disneyworld for the first time in August 2006, and seeing the live Little Mermaid show--as well as the preliminary sketches for Ursula at the Disney Animation Studio--piqued our interest in this classic Disney tale.    My son became smitten with Ariel and as soon as the Platinum edition came out, we bought it!    The re-colored version is FANTASTIC: they show the before and after pictures …
review by . October 10, 2006
Unless you've been under a rock for the past twenty years, you're probably familiar with the story of Disney's "The Little Mermaid." Briefly, it's a tale of forbidden love. A young mermaid (Ariel) longs to live topside with a young man called Eric. Alas, her father doesn't want her going above the water because he worries about what might happen to her. Throw in a bad deal made with a sea witch (the diabolically funny Ursula), a singing hermit crab, a friendly fish and a whacked-out seagull, and …
review by . October 06, 2006
This, in my opinion, is the movie that saved Disney from fading out of existence, as we know it. Before the `Little Mermaid' there had not been a blockbuster Disney animated feature for years (specifically not since the `Great Mouse Detective') while `Oliver and Company' was released the year prior to this it was following the old formula and was not, to my knowledge, particularly successful.    'The Little Mermaid' revived the breathtaking beauty of the classic Disney films …
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Nicholas Croston ()
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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From the moment that Prince Eric's ship emerged from the fog in the opening credits it was apparent that Disney had somehow, suddenly recaptured that "magic" that had been dormant for thirty years. In the tale of a headstrong young mermaid who yearns to "spend a day, warm on the sand," Ariel trades her voice to Ursula, the Sea Witch (classically voiced by Pat Carroll), for a pair of legs. Ariel can only succeed if she receives true love's kiss in a few day's time and she needs all the help she can from a singing crab named Sebastian, a loudmouth seagull, and a flounder. The lyrics and music by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are top form: witty and relevant, and they advance the story (go on, hum a few bars of "Under the Sea"). Mermaid put animation back on the studio's "to do" list and was responsible for ushering Beauty and the Beast to theaters. A modern Disney classic.--Keith Simanton
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