A deep dive: The Little Mermaid then and now

There’s something profoundly melancholy about Disney returning, in its present state of creative exhaustion and corporate decadence, to The Little Mermaid — the nucleus from which the entire Disney renaissance exploded, in a way along with everything that has followed.

The last time Disney was artistically lost to the degree that it is now was in the doldrums of the 1980s, when it was reduced to feeble, forgettable fare like The Black Cauldron and Oliver & Company. Amid this dreary landscape, the arrival of The Little Mermaid in November 1989 came like a bolt from the blue (from King Triton’s trident of power, as it were).

The return to fairytale romance and the appeal of the mermaid archetype gives The Little Mermaid an ambitious mythic scope that hadn’t been seen since Sleeping Beauty 30 years earlier. Ariel, with her fascination for artifacts of the surface world, is a more vividly drawn protagonist than any prior Disney princess, and almost any prior Disney heroine. Ursula the Sea-Witch’s decadent look (famously inspired by drag queen Devine) and larger-than-life performance by Pat Carroll, her husky voice dripping with self-amused irony, put her on a villainous par with Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. The plot, adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale with typically sweeping license and an obligatory happy ending blithely grafted on in place of Andersen’s high-minded, tragic one, is lumpy but memorable.

Most important is the film’s secret weapon, the thing that blew up the old way of making Disney cartoons: the brilliance of songwriting team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken and the showstopping Broadway energy of the sequences the animators crafted for their songs. Ariel’s iconic “I Want” song “Part of Your World,” yearningly performed by Jodi Benson, resonates deeply in part because of how Ashman works Ariel’s passion for the human world into a metaphor for adolescent longing for independence and achievement. The Caribbean rhythms and catchy melodies of “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” with the colorful razzle-dazzle of the former and the swoony, moonlit magic of the latter, remain high-water marks in American animated musical production numbers. (I remember standing up and cheering in the theater after “Under the Sea”; I was an art-school student and a serious animation fan.) Ursula’s Villain song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” is both a deliciously droll celebration of the Sea-Witch’s stylish depravity and also an insinuating sales pitch to the vulnerable, naïve Ariel. And don’t forget René Auberjonois’ unhinged, Clousseau-accented narration of the wacky slapstick of “Les Poissons”!

Pushed by Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to make the ending “more Die Hard,” writer/directors John Musker and Ron Clements wound up having Ursula use the power of the trident to grow to approximately the size of the Nakatomi Tower.

Among supporting players, Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seagull are pretty typical — but Sebastian the crab is perhaps the most engaging Disney sidekick since the days of Timothy Q. Mouse and Jiminy Cricket (not that the competition is fierce). This is partly, of course, because of his key role in two of the musical highlights, but also because of Samuel E. Wright’s performance. Sebastian’s name and position as court composer evoke the world of Western classical music, and he could easily have been a submarine counterpart to, say, The Sword in the Stone’s Archimedes the owl: a generically fusty, British stereotype with a piping voice like so many diminutive Disney sidekicks (indeed, look no further than King Triton’s seahorse herald). Instead, Wright’s melodious baritone, and his unexpected Trini accent (Ashman originally suggested a Jamaican accent, but Wright was more comfortable modeling his performance on college roommates from Trinidad), give Sebastian a unique vibe well suited to the movie’s marine milieu.

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