We’re introduced to two civilizations, separated in an elemental way but near enough to interact. The land folk skim along the top of the sea people’s kingdom in creaking wooden ships. They know very little about the other world. Some are skeptical that it even exists, dismissing sailors’ testimony as superstition meant to combat the fear of dark water. Then a single terrified fish brings us down into those depths, and we see the other perspective. To mer-folk, humans are known for one thing and one thing only: eating fish. It’s best to stay as far away from them as possible.
Meet Ariel — a sixteen-year-old mermaid with shockingly red hair and more youthful curiosity than her father, the king of the ocean, can handle. She’s something of an anthropophile, collecting tchotchkes from shipwrecks and consulting a daffy seagull to learn about the other world. This behavior is explicitly forbidden, but she keeps a secret stash of artifacts anyway. One night, an immense, world-changing shadow floats overhead. Colored lights dance in the sky. At last, she can see humans up close. One of them appears to have had a statue built in his honor. Suddenly he’s the only one she can see. Poseidon sends a squall — either to symbolize her new passion or to warn against it, she can’t tell. But the human has to save his stupid dog; the gunpowder explodes; he’s about to drown. She carries him all the way to shore. He awakens, and for a brief moment he sees her backlit face. More importantly, he hears her unforgettable voice.
Enter Sebastian the crab — diminutive court composer and newly appointed chaperone for Ariel. He is also bright red, but in this case the color signals “Stop!” With his delightful Caribbean accent, he serves up ocean propaganda through the gift of music. He has tremendous talent, as it turns out. Perhaps the only reason the crab’s coral fantasy “Under the Sea” fails to be as persuasive as Ariel’s own ballad “Part of Your World” is that Ariel doesn’t stick around for Sebastian’s grand finale. But she is decidedly hooked and enlists black magic to get closer to her prince. Sebastian, previously her adversary, is forced to switch sides so he can protect her from the schemes of a witch. Just like that, he’s providing a serenade for a spell-breaking courtship. If only there were a way to let the prince know what’s at stake.
Meet Prince Eric — epicurean, adventure-seeker, lonely heart. When he marries, he’ll marry for love. He cringes, out of some combination of modesty and good taste, at the enormous marble likeness made for him. When Ariel saves his life, he becomes obsessed with finding her. Unfortunately, while he has a vague impression of her face, he has a much stronger impression of her voice. When a mute girl washes ashore, chivalry dictates that he take care of her, but what happened to his rescuer? Enchantments, evidently, go way over this poor fellow’s head. He is thus quite vulnerable to bewitchment. And so, a siren with a stolen voice, passing along the beach on a foggy night like a ghost, hypnotizes him. Dulls his Disney eyes, stiffens his back. He was ready to propose to the mute girl, but here is the voice he fell in love with.
Enter Ursula — part woman, part octopus, a sea-witch bearing a longstanding grudge against Ariel’s father. A teenage girl with taboo desires may be just the fulcrum she needs for her revenge. She sends her unctuous eel henchmen to bring the girl to her lair. Via the dark arts, she gives Ariel legs in exchange for her voice. Why? Because no matter what Ursula says, she doesn’t want Ariel to live happily ever after with her prince. She knows Eric will never recognize Ariel without her voice. If he doesn’t, they won’t fall in love in the allotted time, and, as per their agreement, Ariel will become Ursula’s slave, another ghastly polyp in the witch’s “garden.” Nevertheless, between Ariel’s great beauty and Sebastian’s crooning, Eric almost falls in love with her anyway. Ursula is forced to play her trump card, disguising herself as a beautiful woman and passing Ariel’s voice off as her own. This enchanted courtship is over quickly. A wedding at sea is planned.
The Little Mermaid still bristles with energy twenty-five years after its release in part because it sits at a crossroads. As a princess musical, it nods to the era when Uncle Walt himself was overseeing the productions of his studio. Disney animation in the 1980s was at its lowest point, artistically and commercially, so going back to the basics turned out to be a smart move. At the same time, the film hints at the directions the studio would go in the coming decades. Ariel is the first example of a more assertive Disney Princess, a young woman who knows what she wants (she is also a Broadway diva, after all) and will take steps on her own to get it. Ariel’s influence can still be felt as we watch Princess Elsa build her ice palace. Not that The Little Mermaid is feminist, even a little. But I still maintain that Ariel’s interest in dinglehoppers and such is a meaningful development in the Disney canon.
On the one hand, this film is a cutesy rendition of the original Hans Christian Andersen tale. On the other, it makes Disney’s output over the last ten years look juvenile by comparison. It’s sexy and scary in ways that the company has seldom attempted since. The cel animation is a treasure — the character work is sterling, and both King Triton’s palace and Prince Eric’s seaside home are absolutely stunning. Pixar would bring a lot more texture and weight to its underwater world in Finding Nemo, of course, but there’s something special about the more fanciful approach here. And I can’t forget the songs. Howard Ashman’s lyrics and Alan Menken’s melodies burrowed their way into my heart at a young age, and there they will stay. A musical that’s specifically about the power of music to change people’s minds, to communicate what is otherwise ineffable — The Little Mermaid is for kids, but it also combines multiple art forms into something incredible. We can’t talk about love. We have to sing it.