The Little Mermaid represents the catalyst that broke the chain of mediocre Disney films and restored the creative integrity of early Disney animation. This stunning homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale would be the first jewel in the Disney Renaissance Era, a series of Disney animated features which was initiated in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, and concluded a decade later with Tarzan. The story follows the journey of a young mermaid named Ariel, (Jodie Benson) who wishes to become human, but really, the movie is a transcendent metaphor of love and transformation encompassing Ariel and the two men in her life who love her the most: her father, and Prince Eric.
One of the predominate themes which is established in The Little Mermaid is transformation. This concept is particularly manifested in Ariel and her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars). Throughout the film, Ariel undergoes transformation both physically and emotionally. Initially, Ariel is a mermaid child who possesses a beautiful voice that is revered by those around her. When Ursula (Pat Carroll) offers to fulfill Ariel’s desire to become human, she is physically transformed and her voice is sacrificed. Consequently, when Ariel fails to fulfill her contract with Ursula and is transformed again into a mermaid, Ariel’s voice breaks Ursula’s curse on Eric and allows him to recognize her for who she truly is. This ultimately leads to the completion of Ariel’s physical metamorphosis and allows her to regain her human form.
Ariel’s transformation is not exclusively a physical experience, but an emotional journey as well. She begins as a quintessential teenager: she’s forgetful, she’s rebellious, she’s reckless, she wants something that is forbidden to her, and when she is castigated for disregarding the rules, she flees. When she encounters Prince Eric for the first time, she realizes that he is the personification of her desire to be human, but I don’t think she truly loves him at this point. I think she is more fascinated by the idea of him. Ariel’s desire to be human manifested before she discovers Eric: their chance encounter just gave her the necessary incentive to consummate her desire. When Ariel becomes a human, we see a different side of her personality. She has sacrificed her voice, and essentially, the essence of what defines her, in order to become human, but her sacrifice prevents her from revealing her identity to Eric. Although she is shrouded in a bubble of silence, Ariel is able to convey to the audience (and to Eric) what she is feeling. She is fascinated by the human world, and her inquisitive spirit is finally able to experience what she has so desperately longed for when she was a mermaid. Her emotional palette also becomes deeper; particularly in regards to her love for Eric and the pain she feels when she nearly loses him. By the end, Ariel has been refined through her experiences and learns to take responsibility for her actions. She is able to not only heal the relationship with her father, but she is also able to be reunited with Eric as well.
King Triton also undergoes a dramatic, emotional transformation throughout the course of the movie. Initially, Triton comes off being a bit of a pompous and arrogant tyrant who cares more about appearances and power than his youngest daughter. His prejudice against the human world provokes him to destroy Ariel’s collection, and consequently shatters their already fragile relationship. When Ariel vanishes and Triton realizes the repercussions of what he has done, he goes from being a pompous tyrant to being a heartbroken father who is desperate to get his daughter back. By the end he has come full circle and he’s no longer concerned with appearances as he is with protecting his daughter. When Eric saves Ariel from the malevolent Ursula, Triton’s hatred of humans is broken. He loves Ariel enough to let her go, thus giving her his blessing to marry Eric while simultaneously healing his relationship with her. Triton’s actions, even in the beginning, are motivated by love and his desire to protect Ariel, but it is only when his anger and prejudice are dispelled that the audience can truly appreciate this.
Ursula is one of the most brilliantly realized animated antagonists that Disney has rendered to date. While her predecessors have been predominantly an exercise of elegance and understated animosity, Ursula is the personification of a character who is impassioned because she is the villain. Her gift for dark magic and compelling, manipulative schemes coupled with her imposing, octopus-like appearance and flamboyant personality makes Ursula one of Disney’s most formidable and memorable villains. I must admit, even as an adult, Ursula has always scared me.
The musical score for The Little Mermaid, composed and conducted by Alan Menken, is flawless. The music creates a perfect balance of tender intimacy, manipulative foreboding, and lighthearted playfulness which allows the audience to gain a deeper connection to the characters and the story, without distracting from the plot. The Little Mermaid won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for best original music score by Alan Menken and best music original song, “Under the Sea”, in 1990.
I have always loved Disney films, and The Little Mermaid has always been one that I have considered to be an exceptional masterpiece. This movie is a worthy addition to the Disney animated family that both children and adults can appreciate.