A Decade of Disney: The Little Mermaid (1989)

Welcome to the first installment of A Decade of Disney, in which we’ll be reviewing The Little Mermaid. This beloved classic Began the period now known as the Disney Renaissance and put the company’s animation studio back in the spotlight.

Virginia: It’s fitting that Disney’s return to success came with a return to form. The Little Mermaid was the animation studio’s first fairy tale musical since Sleeping Beauty was released three decades prior. While The Little Mermaid isn’t my favorite Disney film, it is an important landmark in the company’s history. I love the character of Ariel and her vivaciousness and tenacity. I’ve always thought Triton to be the film’s most interesting character because, in my opinion, he grows and changes the most. My favorite scene is near the very end when they embrace at Ariel and Eric’s wedding, and Ariel whispers to Triton that she loves him. Do you have a favorite moment or sequence in the film, Munir?

Munir: Before I answer that, I want to mention some things. While The Little Mermaid is credited with starting the Renaissance, several factors and films contributed to that. After the disastrous debut of The Black Cauldron in 1985, the animation division was in serious danger of being shut down. Fortunately, The Great Mouse Detective, released a year later, was able to turn a small profit, even though it paled in comparison to An American Tail by Don Bluth, who was their main competitor at the time. Oliver and Company, released in 1988, was actually able to surpass Bluth’s The Land Before Time and the live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was a smashing success. This set the perfect conditions for Disney to release The Little Mermaid. As you say, it was their first fairy tale in three decades. However, I think the most important factor in the movie’s success was the Broadway-esque musical numbers. They were created by two of the most important people of this period: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The Little Mermaid was a box office success, and it won two Oscars, one for best original song and one for best original score. This was the first time the animation studio won Oscars since Dumbo won best original musical back in 1941. Personally, I love The Little Mermaid. It’s one of my personal favorites, and it’s up there at the top of my Disney ranking. I like almost everything about it: the title character, the villain, the sidekicks, the supporting characters, the animation, and, of course, the music. If there’s something the movie could’ve improved, it’s the pacing. It tends to drag a little at the beginning, but that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise wonderful film. Now, to answer your question, I have many scenes I like, but my favorite is “Kiss the Girl.” It’s the perfect combination of music and beautiful animation that makes the movie soar.

The Little Mermaid

V: That’s a great choice. Ashman and Menken were a true powerhouse duo. Many have even made the argument that Alan Menken’s work has never been as good with any other lyricist. One character I tend to think of as a weak link in The Little Mermaid is Prince Eric. I don’t dislike him, but he has minimal personality, and he and Ariel don’t share much chemistry. To me, the most interesting relationship is between Ariel and her father. Critics of this film love to point out that Ariel is disobedient and rebellious, but I think they’re missing the larger picture. Ariel’s decision to run away and sign Ursula’s contract is propelled by Triton’s choice to destroy all of her possessions. Ariel acts in self-interest throughout the film, but she is reacting to being stifled by an overbearing father who won’t let her live her own life.

M: Your point about Eric is fair. I think the first fairy tale film that actually saw the protagonists fall in love was Beauty and the Beast instead of being in “love at first sight.” Personally, I don’t mind that because, being a fairy tale, I think it’s something expected of the genre. I also think The Little Mermaid does try to develop their relationship a little before Eric knows who Ariel really is, but it’s true that we don’t know much about Eric, although he’s not unlikeable. Also, you’re on point about the criticism this movie receives, I think that Ariel’s most important relationship is actually with Sebastian, who acts as a surrogate father. At first, he’s just like Triton, close-minded and over-bearing. Little by little, he starts seeing things through her eyes and actually helps her achieve her goal. Her relationship with Triton is also significant because it’s what propels the whole story. I’m really tired of the criticism that Ariel is a bad role model because she “gave everything up for a man” when it’s not true. If you actually see the film (which, in the case of many of these critics, I really doubt they did), you can see that Ariel’s fascination with the human world was formed long before she met Eric. You even have the whole “Part of Your World” sequence that explains that. Sure, she meets Eric and has a crush on him, but let’s remember that she’s 16; she’s a teenager, and she’s impulsive. Also, I think that before Eric saves her at the end, people tend to forget that she saves him first during the storm, so I don’t think she needs a man “to rescue her.” And lastly, I agree with you that it’s her fight with Triton and the subsequent destruction of her things that pushes her to go to Ursula. I think it’s at that moment that she feels utterly alone, so it’s fair to assume that she would try to go to a new world and try to be with the guy she likes. While I’m all in for strong female protagonists, I don’t find Ariel weak at all. Actually, I think she’s a nuanced, imperfect character, which makes her more interesting.

The Little Mermaid

V: I agree entirely about Beauty and the Beast being the first to really show the natural progression of a relationship. I actually also agree with you in that the “love at first sight” trope doesn’t really bother me or detract from my enjoyment of films like these. Really, I think the reason Eric sticks out as a flat character is that the other main characters in The Little Mermaid are so interesting. The Prince in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a pretty basic character, but Snow White and the Queen are merely archetypes as well, so he fits right in. Ariel is a three-dimensional character, and so are her other allies, so to show her pining for such a bland, perfect fairy tale prince makes you want more. The film is pretty short at 85 minutes, so I feel like they could have explored his character more, but oh well. It doesn’t ruin the movie or anything like that. I agree that Ariel wanted to be human before she even met Eric; she already collects human objects at the beginning of the film, and frequently visits the surface. People throw similar complaints at Cinderella. Oftentimes people say things that just don’t make sense or go against what you see in the film. I’m indifferent on “strong female characters,” personally. To me, the strength of a character is in how interesting and likable they are, not the level of physical strength or personal independence displayed. I do think Ariel clearly is an independent free thinker, as she is willing to go against the beliefs of her father and the very society they live in to follow her own. To be honest, I think some of these “critics” would only be satisfied if she didn’t fall in love with a man at all. Ditto Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White, etc.

M: Agreed. Your point about Ariel being a free thinker and going against what her society expects from her is excellent. To fall in love with someone isn’t a sign of weakness. Sometimes the desire to make a character “strong and independent, who needs no man” can not go so well (see: Brave), while other times it just flows with the story (see: Moana). What do you think of the music? Personally, I think that, with the exception of Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (excluding “A Guy Like You”), The Little Mermaid has the perfect combination of songs and score. Ashman was a masterful lyricist, and his songs are playful, full of life, propel the story, and give the characters more dimension. Menken’s score is catchy and gives each moment full potency. Another Renaissance film, The Lion King has a beautiful score, but the songs are a mixed bag. I can’t find any fault in Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid

V: I agree totally, and I would even say that Ariel’s willingness to leave the comfort of home to find happiness with Eric is a sign of strength. Part of the problem with Brave, in my opinion, is that the story is ABOUT how Merida doesn’t need a husband to be happy and is a tough person and all that junk. It’s just not interesting. Their attempts to make her tough also made her pretty unlikeable as a character. With Moana, they simply don’t mention suitors or marriage at all because that’s not what the story is about, and it works much better. Back to The Little Mermaid, I’m of two minds on this film’s soundtrack. The score is good, but not as complex as the one for Beauty and the Beast. That being said, as you implied previously, The Little Mermaid is a simpler film than Beauty and the Beast, so I think that works. I don’t like Sebastian’s songs “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” very much personally, but I like “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” a whole lot. “Part of Your World” is every bit the Broadway heroine “I Want” song that Menken and Ashman wanted to bring to their Disney projects. Almost every Disney musical since has had one. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could see this scene and think Ariel is unlikable or bratty. Her motivation makes perfect sense, and her passion is infectious. As for “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” it started a run of great villain songs, in my opinion. It’s dark and atmospheric while still being campy and fun. I agree completely with your assessment of The Lion King’s soundtrack, but I’m sure we’ll discuss that more in that review.

M: On the other hand, I just love “Kiss the Girl,” and it’s the best song in the entire film, in my opinion. Like I said before, I think every song is excellent, and I agree with your assessment of both “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Speaking of which, what do you think of Ursula? I think she’s a great villain, and one of the best in the whole canon. She’s the strongest villain since Cruella De Vil. She’s theatrical, fun, but menacing, and has a great voice. Also, I think she set the template for many of the villains that came after her, including Gaston, Jafar, Scar, Hades, Facilier, and Gothel. Even Frollo, who is a much more serious villain, has his “Ursula” moment during the Hellfire sequence. I have to say that I really like this type of villain because sometimes the heroes are lacking and it’s them who lift the film up. I actually hope we return to this archetype with Frozen II because I’m tired of the whole “secret villain” thing that has been done at the studio in recent years.

The Little Mermaid

V: I like Ursula a lot. I agree that she’s both scary and entertaining, and Pat Carroll is fantastic in the role. I think some more backstory on Ursula could have made her personality and motivation even more interesting, but I’m fine with the way she is. I concur once again about this type of loud, dramatic villain. I love the archetypal Disney villain, though I prefer those with an interesting motive like Frollo and Gothel over basic ones like Jafar and Scar. But I’d take any of the above over another Hans, and it’s not even a contest. We also agree in hoping that Disney ditches the plot twist villains in Frozen II.

M: One last thing I want to discuss before we wrap up is the animation. I know it may not be as polished as most recent traditionally-animated films, and it was the last film that was not done using the CAPS system, but I find the animation quite lovely. The animation on the characters is impressive because they’re very expressive and fluid. I’m also still impressed at the amount of work they put into animating the water, especially during the storm and the climax. But, my favorite scene, as I mentioned above, is “Kiss the Girl,” because it works like a big Broadway number. The camera work, the lighting, the special effects, and the choreography are all on point. What do you think of the animation, Virginia?

The Little Mermaid

V: You’re exactly right. The Little Mermaid employs dynamic character designs, a great variety of color, and I completely agree with you about the detail put into the water. Although the most emotional moment for me is Ariel’s final goodbye to Triton, my favorite scene visually has to be the “Part of Your World” sequence. I love the expressions on Ariel when she talks about her love of the world above. The objects are also gorgeous, and I love the painting she has of the woman gazing at fire.

M: To wrap up, I think The Little Mermaid is a very good film that stands tall among the Disney canon. It has some issues, but nothing serious that would detract from the great experience it is. It’s also the film that gave us a whole new generation of animators and launched Disney Animation into a significant and very successful era.

V: I think that’s a fair assessment. I also have a few issues with the film, but nothing that ruins its entertainment value. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to come back for our Rescuers Down Under review!

The Little Mermaid

Plot - 8.5
Acting - 10
Direction/Editing - 7.5
Music/Sound - 8.5
Animation - 10



The Little Mermaid isn't a perfect film, but it is a very good one. The animation is timeless and the characters likable. It's no wonder this film kicked off one of Disney's most profitable, well-remembered decades in animation.

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