Ushering in the Disney Renaissance: The Little Mermaid

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Paul: The 1980’s were arguably the worst decade for Disney animation. The 70’s weren’t great either; the company seemed to lose its spark after Walt’s death in 1966. Some of the eight feature-length animated films that Disney produced from 1970-1988 are pretty good, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say none of them is a masterpiece. They survive because the name Disney is attached to them. Things got particularly bad in the 80’s, though, when Don Bluth left the company and started making his own animated films. Those films (The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time) made Bluth the first serious rival to Disney in the feature animation business, both commercially and critically. Now, of course I approach this history as someone who knows how it all turns out. In fact, I’m not old enough to remember a time before the so-called “Disney Renaissance,” so I can’t really say what it felt like when The Little Mermaid arrived and brought Disney back. Disney is so huge today that it’s hard to imagine a time when it needed to make a comeback. But today, the films of that Renaissance, especially from Mermaid to The Lion King, are generally held to be as good or better than anything Disney has made since at least the 1950’s. The Disney Renaissance was the last great movement for “traditional” animation pre-Pixar, and it also coincided with my formative years. So, upfront, I can admit a great deal of personal attachment to these films.
Considering all that, a possible place to start with a discussion of The Little Mermaid would be the question of historical importance. I myself tend to place historical importance in a different category from the quality of a film. It’s interesting, but if I can’t praise a film for anything other than the fact it was the “first” to do something, then I don’t see the point of praising it for that either. How do you view the historical importance of The Little Mermaid, and does this tie into how you feel about the movie itself at all?

Daniel: Disney animation, in the years before The Little Mermaid was dying. Commercial and critical success was lower than live action movies, and the animation department became an afterthought as a result. Without getting into all the details (all of which can be seen in the documentary film Waking Sleeping Beauty) the right people were placed in the animation department at the right time and basically started crafting masterpieces. The animation in The Little Mermaid remains stunning even after more than twenty years. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who at the time of his placement with the department had no prior experience with animated films, endeavored to change the way the studio treated the development of animated films. A huge number of factors came together to make this movie as great as it was. The music being the strongest factor. With the guidance of Alan Menken, the music became inseparable from the characters. This was a trait that, through Broadway-style numbers, carried on throughout the Disney Renaissance. The music numbers became more than just a time filler, they became the story, describing emotions and situations far more efficiently than simple dialogue could capture in animation. Just as Animation is an exaggeration of life, musical numbers are an exaggeration of conversation. The melodies, the lyrics and the score define this masterpiece and the characters within it. Were there any aspects of the movie that you found particularly well done?

Paul: The animation, as you said, is very well done. There’s a kind of warmth and familiarity to this type of animation when compared to most CGI films. I assume that computers were used in some capacity on The Little Mermaid, but I can’t think of a particular sequence that obviously used CGI like I can for Beauty and the Beast (the ballroom) or Aladdin (the Cave of Wonders). This lends the movie a nice consistency. And then there’s the music. I’m not sure I can be objective about how good the music is, because I’ve always loved it. The melodies take me back to my childhood. I agree that they do what songs in a musical need to do: they move the story forward quickly. Howard Ashman’s lyrics are maybe not quite as clever as his lyrics for Beauty and the Beast, but that’s not saying much.
The comic sidekick characters are often a highlight of a Disney movie, and this one has some of the best. Sebastian has to be my favorite, not only because he’s hilarious, but also because his motivations and actions display actual growth.  He’s definitely not Ariel’s sidekick to begin with, but he learns to sympathize with and help her. At the same time, while we in the audience might not like his opposition of Ariel early in the film, his scene with the psychotic chef should win pretty much anyone over to the little guy. What characters from the film do you especially like, or dislike?

Daniel: Ursula is my all time favorite Disney Villain. She’s undeniably evil and selfish, just as any self respecting villain should be, while simultaneously personable. Ursula is the type of person that could be your aunt or distant friend of the family. She preys upon Ariel’s weaknesses and kind nature. Her song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” demonstrates both her power and evil all while displaying herself as the victim of circumstance. The artists did a great job with her character. Her bulbous size and half octopus body was perfect with her voice, She was quite literally the opposite of our heroine. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there were characters that I didn’t like, but I would say the weakest prominent character was Flounder. As far as a sidekick character goes he did next to nothing and added only minor laughs in comparison to the others. Conversely, Ursula’s sidekicks Flotsam and Jetsam were like Scuttle’s sinister and more useful counterparts. I remember them being the scariest part of the movie for me growing up.

Paul: Flounder’s cute, but it’s true that removing him from the movie wouldn’t harm anything. Eric, actually, is another character I appreciate. As I’ve gone through the Disney films in order, it’s been easy to see a progression of character development, especially in the princes, from Snow White to Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid and finally to Beauty and the Beast. This might not be completely fair. For Snow White or Cinderella, the (unnamed) prince is more of a symbol than a person, a sign that the heroine has completed her ordeal — a trophy husband, you might say. But Eric shows real bravery, passion, and a sense of humor. So he’s not just a real character in the story, but an interesting character as well, I think. What do you think of the romance in this film?

Daniel: If there is one thing Disney does right, it’s hurried romances. Love at first sight has always been a big theme, and The Little Mermaid is no exception. Ariel sees Eric and falls in love to the point that she gambles her life and the fate of the entire ocean on the chance that she can convince this man to fall in love with her in three days. The premise and timeline would cause any logically thinking person to second guess the premise of the entire film. however, through the use of musical numbers and montages it seems like the two protagonists have been love interests for years. Logically I want to hate the love story. It’s about a sixteen year old that runs away from home and endangers all those around her. Fortunately, I tend to let logic and reasoning sit on the sidelines while watching this movie. It’s a sweet story about a naive girl falling in love with someone that’s from a different world than her own. While formulaic, I was made to care about the characters, as were most viewing audiences. As you mentioned, Eric displayed far more characteristics than most other Disney Princes, he is just as much a major character as Ariel, to the extent that we meet Eric before we do Ariel. Having two separate lives introduced exclusively and then intertwined by fate is not new, but it helped me feel like I knew both characters better.

Paul: Ariel’s age really is important. For one thing, we can understand how teenagers overdramatize everything, especially a first crush. It’s easy to think, This is the person I’m supposed to marry, way too soon. So, perhaps Ariel creates a lot of unnecessary trouble, but she’s carrying on the Romeo and Juliet tradition. Those kids rushed things too, and they weren’t so lucky. But I can give Ariel a little bit of credit, too. Belle in Beauty and the Beast is often mentioned as a big step for Disney in the company’s treatment of female characters. She’s intelligent and in charge of her own life, and even though she does end up with a man at the end like all the rest, at the beginning what she’s looking for is adventure, not some prince. I think there’s a hint of that in Ariel as well. Just look at her impressive “collection” of objects from sunken ships. It’s not just that she finds one particular human to be cute; she’s clearly fascinated with the human race in general, to the extent that she ends up becoming one of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if James Cameron took some inspiration from this when he made Avatar. Maybe it’s all just a metaphor for falling in love with someone from another culture, but taking things literally, it’s a pretty huge decision to want to become a different species. I don’t even want to think about her coming to regret the decision ten or fifteen years down the road. But then, that’s what “happily ever after” is for. And it doesn’t get much happier than, well, the end of Romeo and Juliet, with the two sides (human and merpeople) making peace, but with a wedding instead of the two lovers dying. Small detail.

Daniel: No one has mastered “Happily Ever After” better than Disney. Despite all the horrors that the characters may have endured there is always a happy ending; a trait that many hold against Disney. The Little Mermaid certainly had that patented ending, but it was just as magical as anything else that was produced by the animation departments history. The crescendo of the musical score just before the credits roll seemed to usher in the resurgence of classic Disney Animation. Using nautical-themed music, beautiful animation and a level of quality that rivals most competitors, even today, The Little Mermaid continues to absorb viewers into the detail-rich world that became known as the Disney Renaissance.

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2 Responses to “Ushering in the Disney Renaissance: The Little Mermaid”

  1. Disney Animation Roundup: My Ten Favorites | Infinite Crescendo Says:

    […] (See also the discussion of the film between Daniel Robison and myself on our “Gaffer MacGuffi… […]

  2. The Little Mermaid is on Blu-Ray! » Popcorn and Peril Says:

    […] redirect you to a discussion on the beloved film by Paul Boyne and myself on our joint blog “Gaffer Macguffin’s Movie House”. Recently, Paul watched every single Disney Animation film made, which gave us the chance to talk […]

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