On November 17, 1989, The Little Mermaid was released in theaters and changed Disney forever. Not only was the film a huge success, but it also changed the direction that Disney would go for the next decade and began what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.
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The Disney Renaissance is the unofficial name for the 1990s period of Disney. During these years, the studio harkened back to the storytelling of old, adapting the formula slightly to follow the format of the Broadway musical. These films were showy, featuring lots of songs, big dance numbers, and breathtaking animation. This is true of The Little Mermaid as well as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, all of which later, unsurprisingly, made their way to the Broadway stage. However, The Little Mermaid was the one that started this trend and is usually credited for beginning this movement. To learn more about the history of this time period, I would highly suggest checking out two documentaries from filmmaker Don Hahn: Waking Sleeping Beauty and Howard. Both of these tell personal and informative accounts of the early days of the Disney Renaissance and the people who helped make them so successful. They are both available to stream on Disney+. You can check out my review of Howard here. But, I digress.
The film itself tells the story of Ariel, a young mermaid, who longs for all things human. When she falls in love with the human prince Eric, she makes a bargain with an evil sea-witch to try and win him over.
Over the years, much has been said about The Little Mermaid and its impact on The Walt Disney Company, and the animation industry as a whole. As I said before, it kicked off what would become a standard for Disney animated movies throughout the 90s. Therefore, it is hard to divorce the legacy and importance of the film from the film itself.
Looking at it with a critical eye, it is indeed an excellent movie, animated or otherwise. Most of its success can be attributed to two things: the music and the vocal performances. Disney brought in Broadway duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for this project. At that point, they were best known for Little Shop of Horrors, which had been both a stage show and a subsequent film. With Menken writing music and Ashman on lyrics, the two of them were the perfect people to usher in this new stage of Disney animation. Ashman in particular fundamentally understood the Broadway musical structure and educated the studio on how these methods would improve and enhance their storytelling. With The Little Mermaid, both Menken and Ashman were able to showcase their abilities to tell story through the use of song and this comes through beautifully in the final product.
The other highlight of the film is its voice cast. The studio cast relative newcomer Jodi Benson in the role of Ariel, a choice that brought the film from something that could have been merely good, to great. Benson IS Ariel, and in her performance is an innocence, a charm, and a nuance that is irreplaceable. Other amazing performances come from Samuel E. Wright as the uptight crab Sebastian, Buddy Hackett as the hilarious Scuttle, and the unmistakable Pat Carroll as the sea-witch Ursula, who makes the character one of the most unforgettable villains in the entire Disney canon.
With this music and this cast, The Little Mermaid is a true Disney classic, in every sense of the word and is worth revisiting time and time again.
Live-action remake: There is an upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid which will be directed by Rob Marshall. The film will feature the original music by Alan Menken in addition to new songs co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The cast includes Halle Bailey as Ariel, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, and Javier Bardem as King Triton. No release date for the film has been announced.
The Little Mermaid in the theme parks: Various characters are present and can be seen walking around in most of the parks. The most prevalent Little Mermaid related attraction in the theme parks is The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, located in Disney’s California Adventure as well as in Walt Disney World. It is a dark ride that takes you through the story of The Little Mermaid. For an in-depth guide to the attraction, check out Shawn Williams discussion here. Also once featured in California Adventure was King Triton’s Carousel of the Sea. However, it was closed in 2018 because of the creation of Pixar Pier.
Spin-off/Sequels: In 1992, an animated spin-off series premiered on CBS. Also titled The Little Mermaid, the series followed Ariel as she went on adventures that took place before the events of the first film. Most of the voice actors returned to their roles, including Jodi Benson as Ariel, Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, Kenneth Mars as Triton, and Pat Carroll as Ursula.
In 2000, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea was released. This direct-to-video sequel follows Ariel’s daughter who loves the sea as much as her mother but, because she is in danger due to Ursula’s sister Morgana, is forbidden from entering the water at all. However, possessing her mother’s rebellious spirit, she goes into the water anyway and meets Morgana herself. You can find my more in-depth discussion of the film here.
The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning is the third film entry in The Little Mermaid franchise. Released in 2008, it introduces characters and provides context for the story that we see in the original 1989 film. For my in-depth discussion for this film, click here.
The Little Mermaid on stage: Following several other successes on Broadway, Disney opened The Little Mermaid on the Broadway stage in early 2008. Starring Sierra Boggess as Ariel, the production featured the original music from the film as well as newly written songs by Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Unfortunately, the production was not a success and closed after only 685 performances. It has since been revised and is available for licensing to regional and community theatres. A filmed concert version featuring the original songs and some of the new ones aired on ABC in 2019. My review of The Little Mermaid Live! is available here.
In April of 2020, I conducted an interview with Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel. In it, we talked about her career beginnings, working with Howard Ashman, and her other projects. Check it out here!
The Little Mermaid along with its spin-offs and sequels are all available to stream on Disney+.
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