Now guys, I am many things but I am most certainly not stupid. Looking back at what we’ve covered thus far, the first five Disney films are time honored classics, attention waned a bit during the package films, there was a lot of excitement about Walt’s golden age, and we’ve been heatedly talking about the so-called dark age of Disney’s history. Those discussions were all well and good, but I’m not naïve. I know that this is the moment in Disney history everyone has been waiting for. I speak of course of the Disney Renaissance. There had been some great films released prior to 1989, but for many people, myself included, the time from 1989 to 1999 was the period that made many a young person discover and fall absolutely head over heels in love with Disney. And I’d be lying if I said that these films weren’t the ones I was the most excited for when I made the decision to do a project like this. It all began with a certain redheaded mermaid who dreamed of something more.
The Little Mermaid earned $111 million during its initial run at the box office (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid_(1989_film)). With subsequent rereleases, the film has earned $211 million to date. But in my opinion the greatest impact The Little Mermaid has had is not a monetary one, but an emotional one. A great example: just a few days ago, my mother and I were visiting a good friend’s house to buy some eggs (she and her husband raise chickens). They’ve recently adopted a lovely but quiet little girl from Guatemala named Breesa. We were sitting around her kitchen table talking about everything that was going on in our lives and in the world, when my mom brought up Waking Snow White. I was explaining to her and Breesa what I had been doing for the Waking Snow White project, and I mentioned that the latest film I was writing about was The Little Mermaid. I happened a look over at Breesa, who had been listening intently but not saying much. At the mere mention of The Little Mermaid, her eyes suddenly lit up and she had the brightest sparkling smile on her face. I immediately recognized that look because it’s the same look I get at the mere mention of The Little Mermaid.
There is so much that I love about this film that it’s difficult for me to choose a place to start. I guess that the best place would be the area where Mermaid won its Oscars: the music! The Little Mermaid was the first collaboration between Disney and the two men responsible for the incredible The Little Shop of Horrors, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. This film would prove to be the start of a long, loving, healthy relationship between Menken and the Disney studio and a showcase of the talent of Ashman before his passing during the production of Beauty and the Beast. The music produced for The Little Mermaid would define an entire generation of Disney films, as well as a generation of Disney fans.
The defining song of The Little Mermaid for me is an easy choice: “Part of Your World.” My iTunes say that I’ve listened to “Part of Your World” fifty-two times, but that doesn’t take into account laptop changes, computer crashes, and the numerous times I listened to it as a kid on cassette tape. When that is all taken into account, I can say that I’ve listened to this song a lot. It’s one of my all time favorite Disney songs and arguably one of my favorite songs of all time. The lyrics are so completely original and the music is just beautifully composed.
“Part of Your World” was one of The Little Mermaid’s most famous scenes, and it was a perfect showcase of what makes Glen Keane such a remarkable animator. No other animator gets into a character’s head and expresses every little nuanced emotion that they feel just through their hyper expressive eyes like Keane can. “Part of Your World” was more than just a mere princess wish song; Keane, Jodi Benson, and Howard Ashman elevated it to bare Ariel’s soul before the audience. The crux of the film’s meaning rests on the shoulders of this one scene, so it’s kind of hard to believe that Jeffrey Katzenberg at one point decided that the scene needed to be cut from the film.
This story was detailed on the Platinum Edition documentary: apparently at one of the earliest screenings of The Little Mermaid, a little boy that Katzenberg was sitting behind had dropped his popcorn during “Part of Your World” and became totally focused on picking up his popcorn. When Katzenberg saw this, he became convinced that the scene was boring and should be cut from the final film. Naturally, everyone else involved in the film’s production was aghast at such a suggestion. Ashman, both Ron Clements and John Musker all made their arguments about why the scene should not be cut, but Katzenberg would not budge on the issue. It took the efforts of Mr. Keane himself (who had already animated three-quarters of the sequence at this time) to convince Katzenberg to give the scene another chance at another screening. To this day, Katzenberg calls this story rather “humiliating” for him to hear because of how hard it is to imagine the film without “Part of Your World.”
It’s not just the song that makes the scene so memorable. Glen Keane did an absolutely astounding job animating Ariel in this scene. As a kid, I never got bored during the scene; I was always so focused on how pretty Ariel was. Her appearance is credited to the efforts of two men: her supervising animators, Glen Keane and Mark Henn (Disney leading lady extraordinaire). Keane has stated numerous times that his main inspiration for Ariel was his wife, who apparently looks exactly like Ariel “without the fins.” Her body type was based on then sixteen Alyssa Milano, with Sherri Stoner providing live action reference for many of Ariel’s major scenes.
The fact is that Ariel’s hair is the subject of my favorite scene in Little Mermaid: the scene after Ariel rescues Eric and is singing on the rock. There are times where the reprisals are some of the strongest pieces of music and animation in a film. Case in point, is the first reprisal of “Part of Your World.” That animation of Ariel on the rock is my all time favorite piece of Disney animation. Not only does she look absolutely stunning (the way her blows in the sea wind looks incredibly realistic), but I love the moment when the water crashes behind her and the allusion to the figurehead on the bow of a ship is made. That look of raw determination and excitement that is evident in her eyes cemented Ariel’s status as new breed of Disney princess.
There have been a lot of teenage heroines to come out of Disney, but Ariel is the first who truly is unquestionably a teenage girl. She’s whiny, she talks back to her father, and she speaks the credo of adolescent kids all over the world: “I’m sixteen-years-old – I’m not a child anymore!” Many a young woman watching this film inadvertently will find herself identifying with Ariel on multiple levels. She’s at the stage in life where she’s definitely not a kid, but not quite a woman either and wants something out of her life that differs greatly from what her family has in mind for her.
Disney was definitely entering into new territory with Ariel. Their golden age heroines - Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora – were perfectly nice young women who had the rotten luck of having bad things happen to and around them. Not so with Ariel. Ariel wasn’t perfect. She was actively trying to change her fate and in the course of doing so made plenty of mistakes, some of which could have had serious and permanent repercussions.
This doesn’t detract from Ariel’s likability. Quite the contrary, it actually makes her that much more human and that much more sympathetic. There are some feminists who might be tempted to criticize Ariel for giving up her whole life for a guy, but I would say that this is not the case. “Part of Your World” lets the audience know from the start that Ariel had always wanted to have a life on the land. Falling in love with Eric was simply the nudge out of the door that she needed, or the push out of the sea I should say.
He also has great chemistry with Ariel, which is surprising since the majority of their scenes happen after she has lost her voice. I once heard a girl allege that Eric fell in love with Ariel based entirely on her appearance. Naturally, I disagree. Even though she doesn’t talk for at least a quarter of the film, Ariel’s personality manages to shine through. Her curiosity for every single thing she sees is very endearing but she still manages to show off that signature Ariel spark. Just check out her facial expressions when Eric is trying to guess her real name during “Kiss the Girl.”
Ah, “Kiss the Girl.” It’s one of my favorite Disney songs, it’s one of the best Disney love songs, and it provides the basis for the most romantic Disney scene since Lady and Tramp’s date. It starts off in a very comedic manner with Scuttle’s… uh… “vocal, romantic stimulation.” But thanks to Sebastian’s professional intervention, (“First we’ve got to create… da mood.”) an atmosphere that is so romantic and memorable is created. Gentlemen, take notes, because I can safely say that there is not a woman who was once a dreaming little girl in 1989 who has not fantasized about sharing a rowboat ride with their prospective significant other. The circle of blinking fireflies, the fountain like cascade of water created by a ring of fish, and the sexy atmosphere created by the leaves of an old willow tree are all optional, but highly recommended.
Of course, “Kiss the Girl” wouldn’t have been half the song it turned out to be were it not for the amazing performance of Samuel E. Wright, a Broadway star who has voiced Sebastian in subsequent appearances after the original film as much as Jodi Benson has voiced Ariel. Of the supporting character in The Little Mermaid, Sebastian is my favorite. His scenes are some of the most meaningful and some of the funniest the film has to offer. The chosen quote used to title this entry is the one line from any Disney film that no matter how many times I hear it, I still laugh.
But Wright’s best comedic performance in the film was when Sebastian was going to head to head against the seafood loving chef, Louis (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Rene Auberjonois, who had a major role on Boston Legal for a number of years). The most that Wright says during the scene are some gasps and screams, but the scene is staged so perfectly that it never fails to make me laugh. “Les Poissons” is a lyrical tour-de-force on Ashman’s part, and is completely successful at making the act of cooking seafood incredibly barbaric. Let me just say that it’s very difficult for me to eat crab cakes after watching this movie.
But for a better example of Wright’s talents as a vocalist, look no further than the song that won the first Oscar for Disney since 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, “Under the Sea.” The calypso tone for the song was one of several of Ashman’s contributions to the film, and completely changed the direction of Sebastian’s character, originally envisioned as an Englishman. “Under the Sea” is a perfect example of what a master lyricist Howard Ashman was. The way he arranged certain words to form a cohesive story and rhythm is absolutely brilliant to listen to and still holds up twenty-one years later.
Of course, Ashman left his handprints all over The Little Mermaid. He was a lot like Walt Disney, in that when he performed demos of the songs, he would become every character a lot like how Walt would play every character when he pitched the story of Snow White. Especially indicative of this is the sea witch herself. It had long been a dream of Pat Carroll’s to voice a Disney character, and she turned in a dynamite performance as Ursula.
Everything about the character was big and over the top, and I’m not just talking about her body shape either. Her gestures were big and theatrical, and served as a sharp contrast to petite and graceful Ariel. I love the animation that accompanies her line in her introductory scene, “And now look at me – wasted away to practically nothing.” Some of her choreography during “Poor Unfortunate Souls” comes across as downright sexual and provocative.
Which is not surprising when you learn exactly whom they based Ursula’s looks off of: world famous drag queen and a John Waters’ favorite, Devine. Don’t believe that a drag queen and Disney could ever cross paths? Just take a gander at Ursula’s makeup and hair. Definitely a new, slightly more controversial era for Disney animation, I’d say.
I’m sorry that I even have to bring this up, but it’s hard to talk about The Little Mermaid without getting into this particular subject. Some of you I suspect already know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t, there are many people who have accused Disney of hiding some very sexual images in and around this film. On the cover of the original VHS release of The Little Mermaid, supposedly an artist rendered one of the spires on Triton’s castle in the shape of a penis. Disney insists that this was completely accidental, and I’m inclined to agree; let’s face, there are plenty of things in this world that are reminiscent of male anatomy but are not intended to be such. All subsequent home releases of The Little Mermaid have not included Triton’s castle in any way.
Oh, but we’re not done with the hidden penis imagery. For a long time, there were those who claimed that the priest performing Eric and Vanessa’s wedding was sporting an erection. I am happy to say, though, that this one has been disproven in recent years. If you happen to own a VHS copy of The Little Mermaid, go back and watch it again. The so-called erection is actually just a side angle of the priest’s knobby, bent knees. Even though it’s been established to not be an erection, the shot in question has been re-edited for the Platinum Edition release.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some risqué elements in The Little Mermaid. I mentioned the use of Devine as a character model, but there's also Ariel herself to consider. For the first half of the film, she swims around in a belly revealing seashell bikini. No Disney princess had ever been that exposed before, further evidence that Disney has acknowledged the women’s lib movement in its heroines. And then there’s the scene where she undergoes that rather painful looking transformation into a human at the hands of Ursula. For the next two scenes, Ariel is completely naked from the chest down.
Ursula’s magic in that scene are some impressive visuals to be sure. We have the effects animation department to thank for a lot of that. The Little Mermaid is an amazing film to watch for the effects animation alone. The storm scene alone took ten animators over a year to finish. There really hasn’t been an animated scene so dependent on effects animation since Pinocchio. There’s lightning, there’s fireworks, there’s explosions, there’s rain, and there’s water. Lots and lots of water. The waves are so violent and tremendous; it gives the audience an idea of how vulnerable sailors were in those ships of yesteryear.
The storm also provides an impressive backdrop for Ariel and Eric’s first meeting. For Ariel to save someone twice her size from a storm like that is an impressive feat to say the least. It’s no wonder that Eric became obsessed with finding the girl who saved him. Though the love story is a prominent part of The Little Mermaid, at its heart it is a story about fathers and daughters.
King Triton (voiced by Kenneth Mars, and animated by Andreas Deja) is easily the most complex father to spawn a Disney princess. Though he comes across as harsh and unfair to Ariel, the audience gradually sees is an overprotective father whose only fault is loving his daughter too much. Though Ariel makes some mistakes along the way, Triton is at fault for what takes place in the story as well. Like so many fathers, he wants to believe that he knows what is best for his daughter but fails to see the kind of person his baby girl is growing into. The story of Ariel and Triton is the story of all fathers facing the terrifying prospect of their youngest daughters growing up.
His character’s complexity is due in no small part to the skill of master animator, Andreas Deja. Though he would become famous for animating villains, Deja was able to portray Triton from multiple points of views. When he’s lecturing Ariel, the audience sees him as harsh, inconsiderate, and unfair. When he’s destroying Ariel’s collection of human things, he comes across as terrifying, verging on villainy. It is during these moments, that the audience only sees Triton from Ariel’s point of view.
It’s only when the audience sees Triton in the moments without Ariel does the audience how much love he has for his rambunctious daughter. He doubts himself as a parent and blames only himself when Ariel goes missing from the sea. But when Sebastian explains to him Ursula’s involvement, he rushes to save his daughter and doesn’t hesitate in exchanging his life for hers. But the moment that never fails to trigger the waterworks is towards the end when he’s watching Ariel watching Eric (in a pose that is a very subtle tribute to Hans Christian Anderson). The short dialogue he exchanges with Sebastian truly does reveal that Triton finally understands his daughter, but the clinching line:
Triton: Well… I guess there’s one problem left.
Sebastian: And what’s that, Your Majesty?
Triton: How much I’m going to miss her.
And just like that Triton turns Ariel human without any trouble at all. What gets to me about this part is that Triton had the power all along to give Ariel her dream and that she never had to make a deal with Ursula. But all of the hardship had to happen before they could finally communicate with each other on the same level. At the end of the film, Eric (a human) has earned the respect of his father in law who sends off his daughter’s marriage with a blessing. Ariel’s whispered, “I love you, Daddy” never fails to bring the tears to my eyes.
Ariel’s relationship with her father is one that many women can relate to, myself included. Ages back when I reviewed Dumbo, my awesome reader, Tink, shared an incredibly personal story about the emotional response that particular film evoked in her. She apologized at the start of her comment for what she had to say about the emotional response she had to Dumbo. I am going to say this for everyone who wants to comment that if there were any kind of films that demand that personal, emotional stories be shared, it’s the Disney animated films. I can’t think of movies that create as strong an emotional response as these films.
One of my favorite stories revolving around The Little Mermaid came from the Platinum Edition documentary. Back when the film was released, the studio received a letter from a New Jersey state trooper who went to see the film and spent the entire duration just crying his eyes out. His relationship with his own daughter was estranged, but when he saw The Little Mermaid, he was so moved that he called her and worked things out with her. I have seen only Disney films have that kind of power.
But in 2011, Ariel will get the full princess treatment when the first Little Mermaid dark ride is opened in Disney’s California Adventure with a version opening in the Magic Kingdom in Disney World in 2012. This is something that has been planned by Imagineers for years, almost immediately after the film’s debut. A version of what they had originally planned can be seen on the Platinum Edition DVD, though I’m not sure it will be the exact same vision as the final product. Given The Little Mermaid’s impact on Disney, Disney fans, and countless others, the dark ride homage is long overdue.