Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Movie Review: The Little Mermaid (1989)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Music, characters, animation, and fun
Cons: No consequences for Ariel's rebellion
The Bottom Line:
Go under the sea
For a drastically changed tale
With a poor moral

"Teenagers.  You Give Them an Inch, They Swim All Over You."

Everyone with a passing knowledge of Disney history agrees that The Little Mermaid ushered in a renaissance of animation when it was released in 1989.  And if you look at the movies that had come out during the two pervious decades, it really is hard to argue.  There is much that is right with it.  And yet, there is one fatal flaw that always bugs me when I watch it.

The story is loosely (and I do mean loosely) based on a fairy tale from Hans Christian Andersen.  It tells the story of Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) a mermaid who is fascinated by the life of the humans above the waves.  She collects bits and pieces much like an archeologist would.  Her friends are Flounder (Jason Marin) and Scuttle the seagull (Buddy Hackett).  Ariel has gotten most of her knowledge of humans from Scuttle, but since he makes it up, it’s mostly not helpful.

Her interest in the humans has upset her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), who orders his court composer Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) to watch over Ariel and report back to him.

But it has also attracted the attention of Ursula (Pat Carroll), a sea witch who thinks she should be ruling the ocean instead of Triton.  When Ariel falls in love with the human Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barns), Ursula thinks this is the key to taking over the kingdom.  But will her plan to use Ariel work?

Anyone familiar with the source material will be shocked to discover just how much Disney has changed the ending.  They’ve also made some other changes along the way, like making Ursula a villain instead of just a plot devise.  All this leads to a typical happy ending to the story, which I don’t really mind.  I prefer happy endings, although it does ruin the moral of the original story.

What sets this movie apart from the rest they’d been releasing in the 80's was the music.  By hiring Broadway composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, they created songs that truly make this an animated musical worth watching.  At times, the songs in the Disney movies since Walt died had felt put in because they put songs in the film.  Here, they are an important part of the story, either by advancing the story or providing character development.  Oh, there are still a couple that are a bit pointless, but when you think of this movie, you can’t help but think of “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl.”  These songs are outstanding, and I love them to this day.

The animation is a step above the rest of the decade.  While I do enjoy the watercolor backgrounds we’d see in many films from the 70’s and 80’s, that technique pretty much died with this film.  You’ll see a couple examples of it, but for the most part, this was a new commitment to beautiful backgrounds that look more real.  A few of the shots are breathtaking, in fact.

The voice work is great as well.  Until I rewatched it recently, I hadn’t realized that Ariel is silent for almost half the film.  Yet Jodi Benson uses the time she spends as Ariel’s voice to make the character someone we want to root for.  The rest of the cast brings their characters to life with just as much intensity, which makes them much more than drawings on our TV (or the movie screen originally).

So what’s my problem with the film?  It’s the moral of the story.  For the entire film, we’ve had Ariel rebelling against her father.  For his part, Triton comes across as an ogre who is trying to control Ariel.  A scene where he destroys her grotto springs immediately to mind.  Now I realize this is an animated film, and subtlety isn’t a strength of the genre, but it would be nice to have a little nuance to the characters.  Heck, Triton is almost a villain in his own right until the last 10 minutes of the film when he more than redeems himself.  Instead, we’ve got the typical rebellious teen and hard nosed parent that are so stereotypical in pop culture.

You know what it would have taken to completely redeem the film for me?  One scene.  If Ariel had gone to her father and apologized for all the trouble she caused and he had apologized for his behavior, I would love this film and whole heartedly endorse it.  Instead, we get a film with a heroine who selfishly goes after what she wants, almost destroys her father’s kingdom in the process, and in the end gets her way without learning anything in the process.  And that’s what rankles me.

Do I like the film?  Yes.  Do I appreciate it in Disney history in ushering in a new era of great Disney films?  Absolutely.  But the flawed message of the film will always keep me from loving The Little Mermaid the way I do other Disney films.

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