25 May 2010

Review: "The Little Mermaid"

I am not sure what prompted me, but I have decided to revisit some of the old Disney VHS tapes that are hidden in my house. The Little Mermaid has always had a very special place in my heart. The 1989 film is my favourite from the Disney Renaissance period, the ten year period that started with The Little Mermaid and lasted until 1999 with the release of Tarzan. What did The Little Mermaid have that previous films did not? Great characters and great music. The soundtrack for the film is one of Disney's best, at least in my opinion. With songs like Daughters of Triton, Under the Sea, Poor Unfortunate Souls and Kiss the Girl, The Little Mermaid went far beyond any Disney title released up to that point. The music was composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman. The Little Mermaid is considered the film that brought Broadway to animation. The Little Mermaid is an inventive film that changed animation for the 1990s with great characters and fantastic animation. Roger Ebert said it best in his review when he critiqued the animation: "There is a lightness and a freedom about the settings [...] The colours are bright, the water sparkles with reflected light, and there is the sense that not a single frame has been compromised because of the cost of animation."

Ariel, the youngest daughter of King Triton, is a mermaid whose increasing curiosity of the human world has made her dissatisfied with life under the sea. She searches the sea with her best friend, a fish named Flounder, and discovers human artifacts that she brings to Scuttle, a seagull, who unknowingly misidentifies each object. Triton believes that contact with the human world is dangerous and when Ariel misses a concert performance he assigns his servant, Sebastian the crab, to watch over her. One evening Ariel and Flounder travel to the ocean surface and spy on a birthday celebration for Prince Eric. Ariel falls in love at first sight. When a storm hits and Ariel ends up bringing him to shore and singing to him. When Eric wakes up he vaguely remembers being saved by a girl with a beautiful voice. Ariel, wanting to be with Eric, makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula. Ursula will transform Ariel into a human and give her three days to receive the kiss of true love from Eric. If she is unsuccessful she will become a mermaid and belong to Ursula. The only problem is that Ursula takes away Ariel's voice. Ariel tries with all her might to prove to Eric that she is the girl who saved him but he is frustrated by her inability to speak. Eventually Ursula reveals her ultimate plans and puts Ariel's life, and her father's, in danger.

The Little Mermaid creates a beautiful and magical world with amazing animated cinematography. Conversely, the scenes involving Ursula are dark and frightening. Ariel is different from many of the other Disney princesses. She is a multidimensional character with hopes, dreams and true faults. Ursula, while she is a contrast to Ariel, is evil enough to be likened to Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Cruella de Vil in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Disney is often faulted for the lack of visible ethnic minorities in its films, but instead of looking for what its films do not include, let's focus on the positive messages. The Little Mermaid encourages us to follow our dreams and, while there should be limits to how far we should go, we should not feel forced to follow the dreams of our parents. Beauty and the Beast may have been the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1992, I believe that The Little Mermaid should have been included in 1990 in a group that included Born on the Fourth of July and Field of Dreams. When The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, when I was 5 years old, it ignited my love of animation. While I may be more cynical about animated films today, The Little Mermaid is an iconic film that deserves a special place in film history.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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