Despite having more free time on my hands than I have in years, I didn’t do as much with my quarantine as I would’ve liked. Stagnation in a small studio apartment made way for a steady depression, and every project I had been planning or working on since before March grinded to a halt by the second or third week. The world around us seemed to be crumbling, no thanks to the earthquake that hit Salt Lake this last spring.
Like many who were stuck indoors for months at a time this year, I’ve found more refuge than ever before in pop culture. At the start, I gave into the Tiger King craze like the rest of the internet–proving to be as trashy as most true crime sensations. Then, I re-watched all of Star Wars, checked off the MCU movies I’d missed from indifference, and even tried to cheer myself up with the Pixar films I love that don’t make me think or cry too hard. Give or take a Sorcerer or Titanic, I tended to stay away from anything too heavy. The one viewing project I gave myself that was somewhat academic came in the form of revisiting the ten films of the Disney Renaissance.
The vitality of the Disney Renaissance–referring to the 11-year/10-film stretch between 1989 until 1999 in which Disney is brought back from the dead–cannot be overstated. And while I can take or leave most of the films from this period, even the ones I dislike the most–Pocahontas and The Lion King–are captivating in one way or another. This is a group of films that pushes boundaries in what animation could look like and what family entertainment could be. And no other movie from this period is quite as pure and perfect as the DR’s inaugural film: The Little Mermaid.
Though based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, The Little Mermaid is a significant departure from the harsher sensibilities of the source material, recapturing the magic and optimism of Disney’s first two decades of animated features. The film is similar in aesthetic, and produced in the tradition of cel animation of heroine-centric stories like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, but The Little Mermaid finds depth and life in ways that doesn’t exist much in those earlier movies. Writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker, as well as lyricist and co-producer Howard Ashman balance classical sincerity with progressive characterization and storytelling the likes of which Disney has not matched before or since.
Without a doubt, the most radical element of The Little Mermaid is the titular character, eponymous young woman in question. Ariel (Jodi Benson) still feels like a revelation today. She is granted far more agency than her predecessors, while still not as sanded down as the women that follow in her footsteps (dolphin kicks?). When we meet Ariel, she’s shirking off her responsibilities, missing a ceremony of some kind, scouring the remains of some sunken ship with her pal Flounder (Jason Mann) instead. Upon returning home from this near-perilous adventure, Ariel is confronted by her loving, but controlling father King Triton (Kenneth Mars).
That parent-child tension and battle of wills is the emotional core of The Little Mermaid, as Ariel fights to be understood, and Triton tries to protect his daughter. Ariel should be curious about what lies beyond her home, but maybe she should also show up for her dad, too. At the same time, Triton isn’t wrong about humanity’s capacity for cruelty towards underwater dwellers but as a concerned dad whose youngest cannot wait to leave home, he’s making every classic mistake, and isolates Ariel by refusing to acknowledge her in any meaningful way–and being a low-key racist isn’t doing him any favors, either. This gets at what is so astonishing about The Little Mermaid. Parents and children disagree all the time in these movies, but they’re never as grounded and recognizable in their messiness as the battle of wills between Triton and Ariel is.
Of course, the film wisely takes Ariel’s side. If there are any lingering doubts about Ariel, what she wants, and how she feels, let “Part of Your World” make the case. Ariel doesn’t hate or resent Triton. She is, however, so enamored with what lies beyond the ocean’s surface. Ariel is the kind anthropologist impressed with even forks and old knick knacks, as we see her dash about her expansive collection of trash-cum-treasure. There is so much longing in Ariel, and just as much heartbreak as she is resigned to living as a mermaid. “Part of Your World” is the perfect “I want” song, a great character showcase that elevates Ariel as a canonical Disney heroine. Above all, the track lush and deceptively dynamic, is just as much a demonstration of the powers of Alan Menken, whose orchestrations go on to define the sound of Disney for years to come; and the abilities of Howard Ashman, whose power of language and sense of performance cannot be overstated. “Part of Your World” serves as an unbeatable centerpiece, with Menken building several motifs out of the song’s melody. Moreover, is there anything quite as relatable as wanting to go outside and do what humans often do? In the time of COVID-19, I can’t think of a piece of art that speaks to me more.
After crustacean conductor/adviser Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) pitches Ariel on staying under the sea in “Under the Sea”–a glorified novelty song that Ariel doesn’t even stick around for–and a nasty falling out with Triton, Ariel makes a Faustian bargain with the sea witch Ursula (Pat Carroll) to make a human whom Ariel has saved fall in love with the young princess without her voice. Ariel is granted legs and three days to fulfill her end of the deal–which Ursula does not plan on honoring. When Eric (Daniel Barnes), the man whom Ariel rescued from drowning, finds a mute Ariel stranded half-naked on the beach, he doesn’t recognize her. But the young prince takes this strange young lady in, and they spend the next few days together, falling for one another–with Sebastian, Flounder, and seagull friend Skuttle (Buddy Hackett in an Oscar-worthy performance) keeping a close eye. The key to this stretch of the film is that Ariel is still as charming and inquisitive as before–the best instance of which comes from Ariel playing a snarfblat–culminating in the swooning “Kiss the Girl.” Ariel is still herself, even if she can’t yet show herself all the way.
What’s also worth noting is how Clements and Musker key into a seldom discussed element of young adulthood: How no one is as well-equipped to deal with being a person and connecting with others at first. Learning to communicate and be understood by strangers is something grown-ups take for granted, but is a skillset that is hard-earned. Often, becoming a functioning person is figuring out how to talk about one’s feelings and experiences, developing and processing–something that extends well into adulthood. The struggle isn’t just having a personality, but reaching others as a person is. With Ariel, the situation is far more literal–and alluded to in the limited way in which she can conceptualize life above the surface in “Part of Your World”–but no less effective.
As the film goes on, we see Ariel and Eric trapped by Ursula, who cheats as a means of getting Ariel to break the contract. Here, we see Triton make right for how he treats Ariel by taking her place in the contract, implicit of his trust that Ariel that she will make the most of this second chance. And by golly, Ariel does. The Little Mermaid never forgets that this is Ariel’s story, and she always takes control. In the end, Ariel makes good on her freedom, not only to take care of herself, but to take care of others–I mean, she saves Eric something like three times in the climax alone. Yes, Ariel is imperfect, and she causes serious damage, but even when her choices are indefensible, she makes up for them. The Little Mermaid is a fine coming-of-age story, but the film’s transcendence derives from punctuating all the roughness and lack of sentimentality in Ariel running the gauntlet with grace that only a fairy tale could bring.
The foundation of The Little Mermaid is so sturdy, with a narrative and characters that are rich without being didactic or obvious, while appealing to anyone on such a basic level, that the film can be excused for the lackluster quality of animation. The Little Mermaid has plenty of striking images, but the budget and era of the animation is inescapable–made less flattering when compared to much of The Rescuers Down Under in 1990 and Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Yet, the visual storytelling is still so strong, and the music of Menken and Ashman are so compelling, that The Little Mermaid is as accomplished a work of film as anything else.
Beyond the flawed-but-still-compelling craft, The Little Mermaid is a landmark picture. Clements, Musker, and Ashman aren’t just making a cartoon; they’re tasked with making a movie that will give their company another chance at life. The film is a fulcrum point that dictates the next 30-plus years, while honoring the legacy of the cinematic lineage of Disney’s first golden age. Movies this important don’t always live up to their place in history. And yet, The Little Mermaid lives up to the challenge, and remains the best of the Disney Renaissance, and maybe even the single best work of animated filmmaking that Disney has ever produced–including their Pixar works. The Little Mermaid is so stunning and so human, speaking to the best and worst of what people are like with clarity and compassion, and without a single wasted or unenchanting moment on screen.