Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Disney Discussion - The Little Mermaid

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #28 of The Disney Discussion
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Featuring the voice talents of Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Buddy Hackett, Kenneth Mars, Jason Marin, Rene Auberjonois, Paddi Edwards, Ben Wright, and Edie McClurg 
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Summary (in 150 words or less):
When mermaid Ariel saves Prince Eric after he falls overboard from his ship, she falls in love at first sight.  However, when her father King Triton discovers Ariel has gone to the surface multiple times collecting human paraphernalia, he wrecks her collection and forbids her from going above water again.  Ariel is devastated and visits Ursula, a sea witch, who formulates a magic spell that turns Ariel into a human for three days during which she must convince Prince Eric to fall in love with her and kiss her.  Should she fail at this task, Ariel will be under Ursula's command for all eternity.  The trick -- Ariel will be unable to use her voice which is the one thing Prince Eric knows about her as she sang to him upon rescuing him.

Facts and Figures
The Little Mermaid is the Walt Disney Company's 28th full-length animated feature film and was released on November 17, 1989.

During its initial release, The Little Mermaid made $84 million at the box office.  A re-release in 1997 (the same weekend Fox released Anastasia) brought in an additional $27 million.  Worldwide, the film has grossed over $210 million to date.

The Little Mermaid was nominated for three Academy Awards (the first nominations the company received for one of its animated features since 1977's The Rescuers).  The film was nominated for Best Original Score (Alan Menken) which it won.  It also received two nominations for Best Song for "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea," the latter of which took the Oscar.  The film also was nominated for Best Feature Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes -- a huge feat for an animated feature at that time.  "Under the Sea" also won a Grammy for Best Song from a Motion Picture.

In the past, Disney had held off on releasing their films on VHS following their theatrical releases as they felt it would inhibit future re-releases.  The Little Mermaid was the first animated film they released six months following its time in theaters.  The VHS release was a huge success with the company selling over ten million copies in its first year.  This opened the door for all future films to be released on home video shortly after their theatrical showings.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Although this may seem surprising, The Little Mermaid is the first fairy tale animated feature for Disney since 1959's Sleeping Beauty.  In those forty years, many things changed for both the nation and the Disney company itself.  The eighties had been a rough decade for the animation studio and there was a huge worry that the company was on its last legs.  There wasn't much hope for The Little Mermaid, either, with Disney's animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg stating that this "girls' film" wasn't going to be as successful as Oliver and Company.  Fortunately, Katzenberg changed his tune as the production progressed and The Little Mermaid is considered the film that launched Disney animation back into the forefront, starting what many have called the Disney Renaissance.

I'll admit to being a little startled at the film's opening as I found the animation during the initial "Fathoms Below" sequence a little worn-looking, but once the camera launches into the ocean and we see the title card above, my worries abandoned me.  Not to say that the past several Disney animated films we've looked at had disappointing animation -- admittedly, things upticked in the 80s following a somewhat disappointing 70s era of pencil-lined figures -- but there's a quality here that shows that time was spent on all aspects of the film from the main characters to the errant fish floating across the screen.  While I think the backgrounds and landscapes will come into their own a bit more in upcoming films we'll watch, they're certainly not disappointing here.  (I think above ground backdrops fare a little better than those under the sea.)

Speaking of "under the sea," the key reason The Little Mermaid succeeds and the reason this flick stands out from those that came before it is the music by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.  Both Ashman and Menken honed their skills writing music for the theater and their songs for The Little Mermaid are certainly the most theatrical we've seen in Disney films to date.  We have rousing chorus numbers, intimate character moments, an opening set piece, a terrific tune for our villain to sink her chops into, and throwaway ditties -- all musical aspects we're likely to see in a Broadway show that have found their way to the big screen.  Of course the key is that these songs need to further the story rather than just sell a record and they do just that.
It's incredibly difficult for me to pick a favorite from the septet of songs.  Admittedly, the film's opener "Fathoms Below" and the throwaway "Daughters of Triton" that introduces us to Ariel's sisters who promptly vanish from much of the rest of the film aren't particularly strong starters, but things pick up quite a bit when Jodi Benson as Ariel belts out "Part of Your World."  The longing expressed in this song is certainly replicated in songs in future Disney films (and we've seen it in the past as Aurora hums "Once Upon a Dream" in Sleeping Beauty or Snow White warbles "I'm Wishing"), but Ariel isn't just grasping for love, she's hoping for a whole new life as a whole new species.  I'm not sure it gets more wishful than that.  Ms. Benson provides the perfect blend of teenage angst and adult maturity in her voice work for Ariel and that's perfectly depicted in this moving song.
To go off on a little tangent about our main character, some criticize Ariel for being a woman who's headstrong and adventurous, yet is willing to give up her voice for a man.  In this day and age of Frozen where the women take charge of things, we're still living in a what some would say a sexist fairy tale world in The Little Mermaid, but I for one don't think you can fault this age-old fairy tale for its perhaps antiquated ideals.  The film's romance between Ariel and Prince Eric is quite charming and adequately handled.  Aiding the romance is the lovely song "Kiss the Girl" in which Sebastian (the crab proxy of Ariel's father King Triton whose job is to look after the King's daughter and reign in her rambunctious nature) attempts to convince Prince Eric to fall for the mute Ariel.  I commented earlier about the above ground landscapes creating great atmospheres and that's the case for this song.    It's a fantastic moment.
Granted, "Kiss the Girl" doesn't have the joie de vivre of "Under the Sea" -- the Academy Award-winning showstopper that truly showcases the talent behind the wordsmith Howard Ashman.  We get sardines beginning the beguine and carps playing the harp for starters and the clever wordplay coupled with the vibrant animation is a match made in heaven.  I can understand why this charmed the Oscar voters.
Perhaps, however, the best song belongs to the villain, Ursula, the gigantic octopus, who tells us her past and hope for her future in "Poor Unfortunate Souls" -- perhaps the best villain song in any Disney film.  There's a cheekiness to her sinister nature voiced with great comic vibrance by Pat Carroll that we can't help but love the vampy nature of Alan Menken's music when it's paired with Ashman's incredibly clever wordplay.  All of Ashman and Menken's songs key us in to the inner feelings of the characters, helping to push the story along all the while being extremely hummable, memorable, and iconic, but "Poor Unfortunate Souls" seems to go above an beyond that.  We not only witness the villain's desires, but we find ourselves privy to our protagonist's dreams as well as she signs away her life for a chance to be with her one true love.
Even a throwaway tune like "Les Poissons" jubilantly sung by a French chef introduces us to a memorable character whose five minute presence in the film adds so much to the rich character landscape.  From Ariel's nervous fish friend Flounder to Prince Eric's stern butler Grimsby to Scuttle the bumbling seagull, none of the characters (except for perhaps the aforementioned sisters of Ariel) feel superfluous even if they actually aren't all necessary in the grand scheme of things.  Screenwriters and directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker have whimsically crafted a great film in which all aspects shine.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • Ursula makes an appearance much earlier than I remember...her conniving begins in the first ten minutes of the film as she's popping shrimp into her mouth, lounging around bemoaning the fact that King Triton is the ruler of the sea.
  • I'm all for Ariel having a nifty collection of human stuff, but the books and paintings she has wouldn't cut it in the salty brine of the ocean.
  • Ursula is so deliciously evil.  Her bellowing belly laughs, her sexy movements, her viciously humorous voiceover by Pat Carroll...dare I say that Ursula is my favorite Disney villain of all time?  We'll have to see if this holds up as we progress.
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
There's not even a modicum of doubt as to whether The Little Mermaid belongs in the Disney Pantheon.  The Little Mermaid started the 1990s Disney Renaissance buoyed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's marvelous score that ushered in a new era of Disney animated musicals.  Everything works here and with the exception of a slightly disappointing opening eight minutes of animation or so, there's nothing to complain about here.  The film moves along at such a brisk pace that you'll never find yourself bored or pondering when it'll conclude.  With the film's songs nicely placed throughout to add depth to characters or lightness to dark moments, directors and writers Ron Clements and Jon Musker proved that they had the chops to create a classic -- one that was a huge step up from their previous effort The Great Mouse Detective.  If you haven't seen The Little Mermaid in ages, wipe the dust off that VHS or DVD and feast your eyes on a modern day animated classic.

The RyMickey Rating: A

Join us next Wednesday for The Rescuers Down Under, the 29th film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Rescuers Down Under is currently streaming on Netflix, so join in on the fun!***

No comments:

Post a Comment