Saturday, March 8, 2014

Film Review: The Little Mermaid

"The Little Mermaid"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Watching "The Little Mermaid" (1989) we remember the joy and artistry of hand drawn animation, especially in our world of CGI animated films from the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks.

"The Little Mermaid" rejuvenated the Disney animated feature film, after falling on hard times during the late 70s and into the 80s with features such as "The Black Cauldron" (1985) and "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986). Those movies may have their defenders (I actually like "The Great Mouse Detective") but neither was a box-office success. Disney was not able to capitalize on these films and /or turn these characters into the same money making machine they have with "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "Aladdin" (1992).

"The Little Mermaid" is often credited as the beginning of what is known as the "Disney Renaissance" a period of time between 1989-1999 when Disney was releasing successful animated films which garnered critical and commercial acclaim.

There is no way to deny "The Little Mermaid" is a visual knockout. It is so vivid and colorful. There was so much attention given to creating the kingdom under the sea. Look at all the fishes, the bubbles, the weeds, the king's throne. All of it is something to behold. "The Little Mermaid" compares with the very best hand drawn Disney animated films and I would even put it up against anything Pixar or Dreamworks has given us in the last 15 years or so. This movie is that good.

I first saw "The Little Mermaid" when I was a kid in theatres. I had not watched it since. When I watched it again, I had forgotten a lot of it. I didn't remember all of the plot twist and turns. I am not ashamed to say I was caught in the story. I rooted for our hero, a mermaid named Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson). I wanted to know how this movie would end. Where would this story take us? You kind of expect a happy ending, did I mention this is a Disney movie? Happy endings are expected. Unless you are old yeller. But that's another story.

In "The Little Mermaid" we follow Ariel. She wants to become human. At first because she finds life on land to be fascinating. She collects any human artifact she can find. Objects which have made it to the bottom of the ocean such as forks, necklaces and pipes. Ariel looks at these object with great wonderment. What do humans do with these things? Luckily, she knows a "wise" seagull, Scuttle (voiced by Buddy Hackett) who is very familiar with the ways of humans and tells Ariel what are the objects are which she finds. Naturally Scuttle has no clue what he is talking about and seems to make up things as he goes. For example when Ariel shows him a fork Scuttle tells her humans use it to comb their hair.

Soon though Ariel finds another reason for wanting to become human. She sees Eric (voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes) who just so happens to be a prince. Disney heroines always seem to find a prince. But this is forbidden. Merfolk are not to mix with humans, who are seen as barbarians, always catching fish and killing them. Ariel's father King Triton (Kenneth Mars) will not allow his daughter to interact with humans. His daughter must learn her place in the world, among her own kind.

In order to keep an eye on Ariel's doings, Triton appoints Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), a faithful crab servant, to follow Ariel and her friend, Flounder (Jason Marin) a fish, and prevent them from going near the humans.

But Ariel cannot give into her desire to be human and meets the witch of the sea, Ursula (Pat Carroll) an octopus. Ursula makes a bargain with Ariel. She will turn Ariel into a human, for three days. If, Eric does not fall in love with her and kiss her, Ariel will belong to Ursula. If that is not enough, in order to grant Ariel her wish, Ariel must trade Ursula her voice, rendering Ariel speechless. Against Sebastian and Flounder's protest, Ariel agrees.

And there who have the basic set-up to this Hans Christian Andersen adaptation directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, both of whom would go on to direct "Aladdin", featuring a musical score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.

The songs in the movie are also stars. The score is full of beautiful, catchy songs. There is a beautiful ballad, "Part of Your World", which Ariel sings expressing her desire to join the humans. Next there is the Oscar nominated "Kiss the Girl", as Sebastian and his underwater friends, try to create a romantic mood to inspire Eric to well, kiss the girl, Ariel. Ursula has a show stopping number, "Poor Unfortunate Souls", maybe my favorite in the movie. Disney usually had one very good musical number for their villain character. I'm also thinking of the song "Be Prepared" in "The Lion King" (1994) sung by the Scar character. And finally there is the Oscar winning song "Under the Sea", as Sebastian explains to Ariel how much better life is in the ocean as compared to life with humans.

As with most animated movies there is a theme lurking arond here - follow your heart. Don't "accept your place in the world". Ariel wants adventure. She doesn't want to live her whole life in the ocean and live under her father's rule. Which leads to another theme - parents must let their children grow up and make their own decisions. The parents won't like that one but the kids sure will. In fact the song "Under the Sea" is a direct warning against this, advising Ariel not to think the grass is always greener on the other side. Just from a practical experience, my own life lessons have taught me this is true.

You can compare "The Little Mermaid" to Disney's next film "Beauty and the Beast". Both stories deal with characters that want to become human. You have the Beast, who was human at one time but had a curse put on him and of course Ariel is a mermaid. In order for both characters to become human they must experience true love's kiss. Both are put under a time constraint. Ariel has three days, the Beast has until his 21 birthday. Both Ariel and Belle don't like their place in the world. Belle doesn't fit in the small French town she lives in and seeks adventure in all the books she reads while Ariel doesn't fit in the world under the sea and seeks adventure by learning about humans.

Watching "Beauty and the Beast" I said I wasn't drawn into the romance between Belle and the Beast. I said I expected more heart. I wasn't actively rooting for them, although everything else about the movie is wonderful. But "The Little Mermaid" is different. I was rooting for her. I did care if she becomes human.

However if there is one thing about "The Little Mermaid" I don't like it is the running time. It is roughly 80 minutes. I felt the story was rushed a bit, particularly near the end. Events aren't given enough time to play out. Ursula's plans could have used more time. Create more conflict, more friction between herself and Ariel as they both fight for Eric. All it needed was about ten more minutes. I think children would have been able to endure that.

Despite that "The Little Mermaid" is a great Disney animated film. One of my all-time favorites.