A Study in Disney: ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989)

| January 6, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

the Little Mermaid': Unique and Cool Things to Know

As the end of the 1980s approached, Disney had not had a solid hit among its animated features since The Rescuers in 1977 and, in the face of withering returns, tried time and again to pull itself out of its generation-long slump by returning to the pre-World War II glory days of Snow White, Fantasia and Bambi.  In 1985 this effort resulted in a $44,000,000 flop named The Black Cauldron that forced/inspired the Disney brass to put their shoulders to the wheel, and get things moving again.  A change in Disney’s upper management and a risky decision to press out one animated feature every single year (previously they had been released every five to seven years) was the intended formula to help put the slumbering giant back on its feet.

The Little Mermaid turned out to be the most profitable do-over in film history and it was a surprise to a great many people who had, more or less, given up on Disney animation.  What they got in return was not only a profitable film, but a ripple effect that was felt within the Disney company and, in fact, within the industry itself that is still felt to this day.  The Little Mermaid was a colorful and joyous musical adventure that returned Disney to its former glory and ushered in the most splendiferous age of creative thinking since Walt’s tenure in the 1950s.  Beget: The Disney Renaissance. 

The Little Mermaid won Disney’s long-standing uphill battle to capture Walt’s standard for an animated feature.  Yet, even further, it was lauded for being progressive.  The most abundant praise was laid on the music and on the heroine to whom most critics felt was, at last, a Disney heroine with her own mind and her own personal trajectory – much unlike Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty whose aim was to land a handsome prince.  Ariel’s goal was to see the vastness of the world, and to measure it with her feet (well, fins).  And yet, decades on, the movie seems to have rendered a mass reevaluation in the age of the internet that seems to take the luster off of a seemingly flawless work of art.

Those who carp complain that the film is stridently amoral, a commercial exercise with lots of color and music that is selling a generation of young girls a bill of goods; that it leads us to cheer for a protagonist who is self-involved, makes mistakes, and gets what she wants while learning nothing.  What are the objections?  Well, according to most analysis the central issue is that Ariel’s ultimate destiny seems a little shallow, that she wants something and puts others in danger to get it.  Her focus is on a man that she hardly knows, and she makes a terrible decision to make it happen.  Worse, she gets it without the benefit of really learning anything.  The only person in the movie who really learns anything is King Triton who forbade his daughter from exploring the world but later learns to let his daughter live her own life.

Perhaps the criticism is unfounded, perhaps not.  What is Ariel really yearning for?  Like any 16-year-old, she wants to go out and discover the world (the surface) and ultimately build a life for herself with Eric.  She’s curious.  She looks at the world perhaps with rose-colored glasses but that would be normal given her age.  She looks at the surface world much like a girl might look at going to college.  A girl at this age discovers new things that perhaps frighten her parents particularly her father and none of his fears are unfounded.  What frightens the parent of a teenaged girl?  Boys, Sex, Peer Pressure, physical changes, attitude changes, temptations, growing up and moving on.

Of these things and perhaps much more, The King sees the world as any parent would, as a cold dark place that is ready to chew you up and spit you out – and given that his kingdom is made up of sea-life which is routinely consumed by humans, that’s understandable.  The fundamental issues with the story work even if there is no “lesson” placed upon the heroine.

Then, of course, there are logical issues.  Ursula puts term limits on Ariel that she could easily get around.  Without her voice, Ariel can’t talk but has to get Eric to kiss her.  Logic might suggest that she could simply write it all down on a piece of paper, or maybe pucker up so he’ll kiss her.  She makes a grave oversight in ignoring Ursula’s suggestion that she not overestimate boooody language!

But, like any Disney film, The Little Mermaid is not a film that you analyze for logic.  Much like Snow White, you have to take the story as it is presented.  We’re not supposed to look for solid logic, we are supposed to focus on how we felt when the movie was over.  Like the Disney fairy tales that came before it The Little Mermaid is a sponge-cleaned adaptation that is all about emotional investment.

The complaints about The Little Mermaid are, again, probably valid.  You could spend all day writing essays about the things that are wrong with this film, but ultimately the product that Disney turned out was one of the most joyous examples of their work since Walt Disney died.  The ripple effect of this one film is crucial not just to the Disney company but to the entire craft of animation.  For Disney, it meant a renewed interest in their animated features, a new push in the areas of computer animation.  It touched off the most important era of creativity for Disney since World War II.

For the industry at large, it meant a renewed interest in animation itself, both in film and on television as other studios tried to capture what Disney had put into motion.  It helped Disney’s faltering animation division not only revitalize its animation department but ultimately led to it becoming a multi-billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut, eventually acquiring 20th Century Fox, Marvel, Star Wars, ESPN, A&E, National Geographic and the streaming service Hulu.  Whatever you think of The Little Mermaid, you cannot ignore the radical changes that it helped to bring about.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.