51 Days of Disney (Day 28): the Little Mermaid

Here we are, the point in which everything changed. Up until this point, Disney was trying to keep itself afloat against the new animation titan, Don Bluth Productions. Throughout the 80’s they had colossal successes with movies like the Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, and the Land Before Time. Disney tried to take some of what was done at the rival production studio and make their films darker, but it didn’t really work out too well. All of this was changed by a little mermaid.

Ariel (Jodi Benson, who also voiced all of the Barbies in Toy Story 2 and 3 and still voices Ariel to this day, she even re-recorded Ariel’s audio for World of Color and The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure) is the 16-year-old daughter of the king of the sea, King Triton, and she is completely bored with the ocean and wants to see the world above. She is so enamoured with the human world that she collects every knick-knack and bauble that she can find from sunken ships and takes them to her secret cave, but not until her seagull friend Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) can tell her (incorrectly) what it is and what it does. Her father wants for her to have nothing to do with the world above, so he puts is court musician, Sebastian, in charge of keeping an eye on her and out of trouble.

Shortly after Sebastian finds out about Ariel’s secret hideaway, she is attracted to the surface by the sight of fireworks and finds that they are being set off as part of a birthday celebration for Prince Eric. She falls in love with the young prince at first sight, but a sudden hurricane forces her to submerge once more and Eric’s ship is caught in the storm. He saves his dog, Max, from the sinking ship but is not able to save himself before it finally goes down. Ariel rescues him and decides that she will do whatever it takes to be part of his world. This decision is spied upon by Ursula the sea-which who is out to take revenge on King Triton for her banishment.

King Triton finds out about Ariel’s hoard and destroys it, which sends Ariel fleeing into the arms of the manipulative Ursula who transforms Ariel into a human in exchange for her voice, but in order to get her voice back and stay a human, Ariel has to kiss Eric by the sunset of the third day. Ariel accepts and is forced to quickly reach the surface or else drown. When she reaches the surface, she is quickly found by Eric and invited to stay at the castle when he finds out that she is now a mute. The next day, he takes Ariel on a tour and on a boat ride that takes a turn for the romantic when Sebastian gets involved. Ursula’s moray eel stooges Flotsam and Jetsam stop them from kissing by capsizing the boat, but Ursula realizes that if she wants to make sure that her evil plan works, that she will have to take matters into her own tentacles.

Fun fact: the Little Mermaid is exactly 10 days older than I am. Just thought I would share.

The Little Mermaid has some of the best animation ever in an animated film, the animation is fluid and detailed, making us really feel like the characters are real and actually moving in front of us as viewers. Glen Keane’s work on Ariel made him one of the top names in the animation business, and for very good reason. Every little nuance to Ariel’s character can be attributed to his work. What makes his animation even better is the fact that he managed to animate her hair to a point in which you actually feel like she is underwater. Ariel’s hair actually moves like real hair.

The film was originally going to be part of a package film in the 40’s in which all of the stories were to be based off of Hans Christian Anderson stories, but due to the budget setbacks the plan was scrapped. The Little Mermaid eventually poked her head out of the water again in 1985, but Eisner passed on the idea as it sounded too similar to the sequel to the live action hit Splash that was in production at the Company during that time period. Jeffery Katzenberg greenlit it as a possibile future feature the next day along with Oliver and Company. The film was shelved for a short period in the late 80’s as so that the animators could finish the absurdly amazing animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (seriously, the animation took up the majority of the budget on that film) and Oliver and Company, but as soon as those films were completed everyone was right back to working on the Little Mermaid.

The arrival of songwriter Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken completely changed the face of the film. They wanted the movie to have a format much more similar to a Broadway musical, which is what they usually wrote. This change forced the story team to work in a very different format then they were used to as Disney had never actually made an animated musical before this, they made animated films that just so happened to have music. This change made the story take on a much different tone and pacing that really worked out well for it. They even suggested that the plans for a British butler crab character named Clarence take on a more Jamaican feel to him.

Alan Menken’s score has to go down as one of the best scores out of any Disney film. It has all of the range of the story and masterfully portrays exactly the emotion that should be felt in the scene. Menken even used different instruments to represent different characters. Ariel is represented by the flute, King Triton is the french horn, Prince Eric is the oboe, and Ursula is represented by brass instruments. The score won an Academy Award, but Alan Menken’s score was only half of the winning combination. Howard Ashman’s songs took the already astounding score and catapulted it to a higher level of acclaim. “Part of Your World” became the theme of the movie, both as a song and as the central theme of the story. “Under the Sea” is a calypso fueled wonderland of visuals and sound, with interesting sights all over the screen and one of the catchiest songs to grace a Disney film since the Jungle Book. It even won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Les Poissons” is one of the funniest parts of a film that doesn’t have a shortage of funny moments and “Kiss the Girl” is just the first in a long line of fantastic love songs, but is easily one of the most fun.

The one song I want to talk about in more detail is the best song in the film, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” This is Ursula’s song and definitely fits into my villain song theory. The song starts out subtly, but as it progresses gets larger and more furious as Ursula starts showing off more and more of her crazy side. It just gets bigger and bigger until it finally crescendos with Ursula at her absolute craziest point, with her hair flowing in every which direction and one of the most deranged looks in someones eyes that has ever been shown on screen. Ursula is just a fun villain. She’s an overweight drag queen looking woman (who was actually based off of a famous drag queen named Divine) who tries to pass herself off as being an elegant and gorgeous woman, but cannot hide the revenge-fueled monster that lives inside her half human, half octopus exterior. She ranks very highly on my list of Disney villains.

What I find so amazing about Ursula is that Pat Carroll was not the first choice for the voice of the character. Originally, Disney wanted Bea Arthur to voice the sea witch, but she turned the point down. Disney then went down the list and offered the role to a number of actresses including Roseanne Barr. They eventually settled on Elaine Stritch, but Menken felt like she didn’t have what was needed to truly bring out the lyrics he was writing for Ursula. Eventually Carroll was brought in, and I dont’ think anyone would want it any other way.

A topic that is going to keep coming up through the posts about the Disney Renaissance is the Broadway adaptation, for most of them I will make separate posts about the actual shows, but I am going to bring up the Broadway adaptation of the Little Mermaid here. This is the only one that I have not actually seen, but at the same time, I’m kind of glad that I have not seen it. The show changed around the second act of the film to a point in which it leave some major plot holes in the show and it somewhat ruins the experience. The original music for the show also is not nearly as good as the music for the other adaptations.

I said that I would mention this every time it comes up, so it has to be mentioned here. This is a Disney film where a hero/heroine actually kills the villain.

The Little Mermaid is a return to form for Walt Disney Feature Animation, it was emotional, funny, had an amazing soundtrack, and a fantastic story with lovable characters. It was the first major success the studio had since the Rescuers in 1977, the first princess film sincein 1959, and started a new golden age of  animation for Walt Disney Feature Animation.


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