The Little Mermaid is one of the most beloved of all Disney movies. Released in 1989, The Little Mermaid breathed new life into the Disney brand, creating the broadway musical-style Disney movies we still see today, as well as kickstarting the Disney Renaissance – a period that saw one Disney hit after another – that continued throughout the 1990s. In terms of pure entertainment value, The Little Mermaid remains a highlight in the Disney canon. In regards to its message and narrative, however, I’m afraid that The Little Mermaid shows a bit of age.
We all know the story by this point: the titular Mermaid Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars), ruler of the seven seas. Ariel is too free-spirited and rambunctious to be confined to the sea. She dreams of seeing the world above the waves. Ariel finds the human world to be a more fascinating place, collecting so many human trinkets that she needs a treasure trove to store them all.
One day, Ariel ends up saving the life of a human, Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes), and she immediately falls in love with him. Meanwhile, the sea witch Ursula (Pat Carrol) has the power to grant Ariel’s wish to live on land with Prince Eric, but at the cost of the mermaid’s beautiful voice. Ursula has ulterior motives, and plans on using Ariel to get revenge on King Triton.
The Little Mermaid features some of Disney’s most memorable characters. Ariel is one of the stronger Disney heroines, showing a sense of ambition and drive that her predecessors such as Snow White were never allowed, and Ursula is one of Disney’s most iconic villains with reason. She’s effectively scary and equally charismatic, making her a villain you love to hate. And Pat Carrol’s vocals make her one of the most perfectly voiced villains in animated cinema.
Ariel’s sidekicks include Sebastion (Samuel Wright), a charming crab who serves as Ariel’s perpetually nervous caretaker, and Flounder (Jason Marin), a fish who fills the ‘little buddy’ role better than most. There’s also Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett), who gives Ariel information on her human trinkets with less-than accurate knowledge.
The Little Mermaid boasts an appealing cast of characters, but its main stars might just be the musical numbers. Most Disney animated films have songs in them, but The Little Mermaid is one of the few (along the likes of Beauty and the Beast and Frozen) where the songs feel so integral to the narrative that it can truly be labelled a musical.
The movie’s centerpiece song, “Part of Your World” remains one of the most beloved of Disney numbers, and the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” is still one of the most fun. While the other featured numbers may not be as iconic, they are nonetheless just as entertaining (Ursula’s musical number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is an underrated highlight).
On top of it all, the animation is lively and colorful, and expresses such quality that it’s hard to believe the movie was made during one of Disney’s rougher periods. There were no cut corners in bringing Ariel to life (though the early uses of CG certainly show their age).
However, as entertaining as the film still is, there are elements in the story that haven’t aged so gracefully. The major drawback to the film is, strangely enough, Ariel’s infatuation with Prince Eric. As sweet and well meaning as the film is, the love story at the heart of it all feels a bit naive. That is, when it isn’t outright eye-rolling.
The problem is that Ariel, who on one hand was Disney’s first attempt to make their female characters interesting, basically falls head over heels (pardon, fins) for Prince Eric based solely on the fact that he’s the most attractive human she encounters. Before he even knows she exists, Ariel is ready to leave behind her life and family just because, well, he’s hot.
Sure, Eric ends up being a nice enough guy. In fact, he may be a little too perfect for his (or more accurately, his movie’s) own good. Prince Eric is, unquestionably, the most boring and bland character in the movie. Granted, he never needed to be as interesting as Ariel or as fun as Sebastion, but Eric’s cardboard personality only make Ariel’s infatuation with him seem all the more questionable. The Little Mermaid was supposed to be a sweet and timeless love story, but Ariel’s “love” for Prince Eric more often than not comes off as little more than a juvenile crush.
Perhaps The Little Mermaid isn’t the most meaningful Disney movie then. But it still is one of Disney’s most fun offerings. Aside from Prince Eric, the characters are memorable, the animation is lovely and the soundtrack remains one of Disney’s best. Its idea of love may be misguided and outdated, but in terms of sheer entertainment value, The Little Mermaid holds up. Swimmingly.