by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


My continuing foray into Disney's fifty official Animated Classics. As always, don't hesitate to share your thoughts/memories/complaints in the comments section below. Links to previous entries have also been included below.

Title: The Little Mermaid (1989; based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen)

The Plot: A mermaid dreams of becoming human, but she's outwitted by an evil sea witch.

The Songs: "Fathoms Below," "Daughters Of Triton," "Part Of Your World," "Under The Sea," "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Les Poissons," "Kiss The Girl," "Vanessa's Song"

A Little History: Disney had originally planned to adapt The Little Mermaid as one of their Silly Symphonies shorts in the 1930s; Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen even drew up several story sketches for the proposed project, which would later serve as inspiration for the final film. In 1985, Ron Clements (who shared co-director credit on The Great Mouse Detective) again brought the fairy tale to Disney's attention, but Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg nixed the idea, as it was too similar to a Splash sequel in development at the studio. Katzenberg soon changed his mind and greenlit Mermaid for development, though it was placed on the backburner while they concentrated on higher-profile "boy" pictures like Oliver & Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit instead. The film finally began to pick up steam in 1987, when lyricist Howard Ashman joined the project after contributing to Oliver. It was Ashman's idea to change a side character (an English-butler crab named Clarence) to a Jamaican Rastafarian crab named Sebastian, which lent itself to greater musical possibilities. Ashman also brought in Alan Menken, co-composer on their Off-Broadway musical Little Shop Of Horrors, to write the music for the film. For the first time in years, live actors were used as reference for the animators' drawings; coincidentally, Little Mermaid marks the last time that animators painted cels by hand, as the newly-invented CAPS system rendered the practice obsolete (see below). Directors Clements and John Musker insisted that every bubble in the film be hand-drawn; such a massive undertaking required the help of a separate animation firm, Pacific Rim Productions, which was based out of China. Cameo alert: During King Triton's entrance at the start of the movie, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy can be spotted in the crowd, awaiting his arrival (likewise, the king and the duke from Cinderella appear as guests at Vanessa and Eric's wedding). The Little Mermaid grossed over $84 million in theaters, outperforming Oliver & Company by $32 million. It later won two Academy Awards, for Best Song ("Under The Sea") and Best Musical Score (Alan Menken) - Disney's first Oscar win since Bedknobs And Broomsticks (1971).

How It Broke New Ground: The first Disney film to employ the CAPS system (invented by Pixar), which painted the animators' drawings digitally and thus eliminated the need for hand-inking. (This was also the last of Disney's animated titles to feature cels painted by hand.) Eight months after its theatrical run, Disney released The Little Mermaid on VHS and laserdisc - a somewhat controversial move for the studio, as it was common practice to reissue each of their Animated Classics to theaters every seven years, and executives feared an early home video release would diminish their profits. Despite this, Mermaid went on to become the biggest seller of 1990, with over 7 million copies sold during its thirty days.

How It Holds Up Today: Irresistible. People often cite The Little Mermaid as the film that rescued Disney Animation from commercial and creative disaster, and for once, they're not exaggerating: Watch any two frames of this thing, and your eyes will pop at the obvious bump in quality over their last dozen films or so. Better yet, it looks and sounds like an actual cartoon, rather than the quasi-realistic design of anything since One Hundred And One Dalmatians. The animation is beautiful and bold, the plot is refreshingly, classically structured, and the music score is iconic – so rich and Broadway-centric, in fact, it set the standard for everything that came after it. Like Cinderella, Mermaid is fairy-tale simple in its design, with some fairly predictable beats, but it's the songs and all the lovable (and not-so-lovable) side characters that really sell it. And so what if they call it a "girls' picture"? There's enough here to captivate even the most jaded critics, from this Disney Renaissance and beyond.

Grade: B+


Hold tight, Disney fans – there's more to come. Need to play catch up? Click on the following for: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun And Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady And The Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred And One Dalmatians, The Sword In The Stone, The Jungle Book, The AristoCats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh, The Rescuers, The Fox And The Hound, The Black CauldronThe Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company. Please comment! Let me know what you think!

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