In 1937, Disney graduated from shorts to features with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. By the laws of critical consensus, first=best, but rewatching it as an adult, I was struck by how much it shows Disney’s difficulty transitioning into a new form. It often feels like a bunch of shorts stuck together, padded out to feature length with dwarfs and cute animals getting into slapstick shenanigans. The original fairy tale is short enough to already pose challenges to adapting it into a feature, but the Disney crew speed through what little plot it has, leaving a lot of space for padding.
After Walt’s death and the studio’s years in the wilderness where it considered shutting down altogether, The Little Mermaid marks another transition point. Just like Snow White, that’s made it a beloved classic. And just like Snow White, that means ignoring all the gear-grinding that goes on in it. It’s a very good movie, even if it’s just short of great. But millions of words have been written on all the things it does well, and the ways it falls short are just so much more interesting.
The official history likes to hold up The Little Mermaid as the beginning of the so-called Animation Renaissance that would continue through the next decade-plus, elevating cartoons from cheap cash-ins to their rightful place as a major industry and legitimate art form. Of course, that simplified history ignores the breakthroughs made by The Simpsons the same year and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a year earlier.
But history is written by the winners, i.e. the Walt Disney Corporation, and they have every reason to promote a movie they wholly own and continue to profit from over Roger Rabbit, an Amblin coproduction that’s caused them all kinds of legal headaches.
And it may also be in their best interest to elevate their own achievements over Richard Williams’, who animated Roger Rabbit and used the clout it gained him to finally finish his decades-long passion project The Thief and the Cobbler until Disney swooped in and beat him to market with Aladdin. The time crunch got Williams booted off his own movie, and it was still too late not to be dismissed as a ripoff of its own ripoff — not helped at all by Disney plundering Williams’ concept art and the theatrical Thief adding elements of the Disney formula.
Where were we? Right, The Little Mermaid. It opens with a clear “We’re back, baby!” statement — a gorgeous scene most live-action epics would struggle to match, the camera sweeping through beautifully lifelike clouds as seagulls gracefully glide down. But then they spoil the effect by flying too close to the camera, revealing their goofy, bug-eyed designs.
That’s going to be a running theme for the rest of the movie. Disney may have upped their game in story, music, and animation, but they still cut corners on character design. The leads are all well-rendered, of course — it’s hard to imagine anyone improving on Ursula. But the edges of the story are populated with much less careful designs. Most of them seem like they’d be more at home in a less Disney ripoff or one of the studio’s contemporary TV projects than their later movies — you could hide Scuttle the seagull in a DuckTales crowd scene without anyone noticing. Just compare the crowd of generic extras from the “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea” sequences to the individualized animals of The Lion King, whether in the stunningly lifelike “Circle of Life” on the one hand or the psychedelically stylized “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” on the other.
The French chef who menaces Sebastian looks less like the work of the most talented artists in Hollywood and more like they traced him from a takeout box, and the bottled critters Ursula pulse ut other cabinet are practically doodles.
Cartoons are Disney’s business, but they’d become less cartoony as the studio matured over the next decade. A lot of cartoon conventions from Disney’s down period carry over here before they’re dropped for future projects — eyes that glow in the dark, suddenly grow and lose irises and concentric rings, for instance, plus some wild takes that could have come straight from Disney’s old-time competitors at Warner Bros.
It’s also missing the lushness that’s the trademark of ‘90s Disney. It’s difficult to pinpoint just what’s missing, but the linework seems to have a lot to do with it. Nearly every line’s the same thickness, making the characters look flat and stiff no matter how detailed they are. Maybe that’s because this was Disney’s last project with the pencil-scan Xerox process they’d used since the ‘60s. Starting with the next year’s Rescuers Down Under, Disney went digital with the CAPS system, and already with that minor work, you can see the depth of line and color it allowed them.
Disney’s deeply invested in promoting its movies as timeless classics from the moment they premiere. But in many ways, The Little Mermaid is very of its time. The eye-bleeding neon pink-and-purple-and-aqua-green color palette could not be more ‘80s. (How did all those brightly colored tropical fish get into this European kingdom anyway?) Neither could the synth-and-backup-vocals-heavy recordings of “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea.”
And that last gasp of analog animation dates it in more interesting ways. It owes a lot to Disney’s biggest threat at the time, ex-Disney animator Don Bluth. The director of The Secret of NIMH and The Land Before Time had poached the studio’s best talent a few years earlier after getting fed up with their corner-cutting to make more elaborate animation of his own. And he succeeded with the decade’s most atmospheric and dark animated movies — not just thematically, but visually, with heavy, realistic shadows. The light was more realistic than Disney’s too, often because he used real light, shone through the animated drawings.
Once again, Disney didn’t achieve its success with The Little Mermaid on their own. They incorporated all those techniques, and if you told me Bluth and not Disney had made it, I’d believe you. It works well for them, even if the heavy shadows interact really weirdly with all those neon colors.
For all its flaws, the visuals are still leaps and bounds ahead of most of Disney’s ‘70s/’80s movies. So is the storytelling, especially on the musical side. Disney hadn’t made a full-on musical since Robin Hood in 1973, and they went for bona fide Broadway talent to reenter the field with Little Shop of Horrors composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The investment paid off. The old Disney musicals were old school — the songs added more to the narrative than, say, Dames, but they still existed outside the narrative and each other, the better to sell them as individual singles.
Coming from the stage, Ashman and Menken took a more holistic approach. The expected showstoppers are there, but bits and pieces of them weave in and out of the narrative after they’re done along with short bits of accent music that don’t need to stand on their own because they add up to a greater whole. The opener “Fathoms Below” is too short to make a good single, but it’s essential to setting the mood and moving Disney from the kiddie table to a point where it can stand alongside “serious” musicals, drawing from the same tradition as “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” or Les Miserables’ “Look Down.”
On the non-musical end, Disney’s innovations weren’t necessarily for the better. The Little Mermaid solidified their formula to an almost checklist-like level that they and their imitators would follow for decades. That meant mangling everything from pulp adventure stories to American history to a gothic doorstopper by Victor Hugo to fit, but their first try might have been the most awkward of all.
By now, enough internet wise guys have pointed out “Actually, the little Mermaid dies at the end!” and enough people have answered “Well, duh, it’s Disney!” that it’s not really news to anyone. But the assumption behind the second statement’s still worth unpacking, because Disney’s Little Mermaid is a fundamentally different story than its source. The project had been in development ever since Walt was alive. Maybe he let it fall by the wayside because he knew he could never reconcile it with his sanitized storytelling.
Hans Christian Andersen’s short story is incredibly dark, but it’s still been beloved by generations of children. This is, after all, a man whose heartwarming Christmas stories ended with the protagonists burning and freezing to death, respectively. And as good as Disney’s Little Mermaid can be, Andersen’s is something else altogether. It’s a work of beautiful, powerful bittersweetness that little in adult literature, let alone children’s, can match. His nameless mermaid’s yearning is more than just a fairy tale love story. She doesn’t just want the prince, she wants life itself, both in terms of experience and immortality — the Disney version leaves out that she doesn’t just want the prince’s love, but wants it as a means to earn an immortal soul.
Except for a few moments — mostly thanks to Menken and Ashman’s “Part of Your World” and Jodi Benson’s performance of it — the Disney Little Mermaid never conveys that depth of longing. Ariel’s longing for the surface is reduced from spiritual to consumerist terms — “Look at this stuff/Isn’t it neat?” Disney’s obviously not going to convey any sexual dimension to Ariel and Eric’s relationship, but it’s disappointingly flat emotionally too. Andersen’s story is one of the most heartbreaking pictures of unrequited love I’ve ever read.
Where Disney added depth to their source material a few movies later with Beauty and the Beast, they remove it here. In their version, the woman who takes Eric away from Ariel is actually the evil sea witch in disguise and he marries her against his will. In Andersen, she’s just another woman who doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, but who the prince loves more, because that’s just how life is sometimes. By the time we get to a silly scene of cartoon sea critters disrupting the wedding and Ursula turning into a bug-eyed harridan, Andersen must have been turning his grave into a wind tunnetl. And knowing that his story comes from a personal place of Andersen’s closeted longing for his male friend, turning it into a simple Hollywood romance seems something close to criminal.
That’s not to say we’re looking at a case of straightwashing. Ashman was a veteran of New York’s gay underground, and I can’t blame him for wanting to give this story a happy ending at the height of the AIDS panic, to the extent we can consider him one of the auteurs behind it. I know he’s responsible for the wonderfully camp drag-queen character of Ursula.
And as Lindsay Ellis and others have pointed out, the story of a girl who escapes her overbearing father and her own body to find love in a world he’s told her is evil is just as ripe for queer readings as the short story.
And as much as I’ve nitpicked the animation, it’s not hard to see why it signaled Disney’s return to the top of the heap in 1989. Yes, Ariel’s facial features float all over her head when she rescues Eric from the shipwreck, and yes, Ursula only has six tentacles because eight was too hard to draw. But just look at them all move. The underwater setting means nothing can stop moving, and even if the animators cheat on the hair a little (it never stands straight up like it would in real life), they’re painstakingly faithful to their own invented laws of physics. For the first time in decades, Disney was paying attention to these small details. Even the most insignificant of all, the thousands of bubbles that trail the characters wherever they go, are mesmerizing to watch. So are the hundreds of water droplets that fall off Ariel’s face when she surfaces, or the hairs on Eric’s big, shaggy dog. Just compare the hand-painted fireworks to The Rescuers, where they just plonked some live-action ones on top of the painted backdrop. Disney still had a long way to go to reach the heights of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, but The Little Mermaid showed it was well on its way there.