Even though The Little Mermaid was released in late 1989, it’s remembered today as the first film of Disney’s 1990s Golden Age. A charming but slight musical fairy tale, The Little Mermaid was such a surprise hit that it allowed the animation department to keep tackling bigger and bigger projects, starting with the 1991 masterpiece Beauty And The Beast. And though it’s a good movie in and of itself, The Little Mermaid is even more fascinating as a Rosetta Stone of Disney history, representing the classic animation techniques that the studio revived for this film, the cheap shortcuts that had prevailed for much of the previous two decades, and the sophisticated modern storytelling that soon became the standard. Compared to the polished Beauty And The Beast, The Little Mermaid looks flat and almost TV-like at times, with limited effects and not enough shadows. But the animators did dust off their multiplane camera for a couple of shots, and brought in actors for live-action reference, both for the first time in years. And from the moment the studio hired offbeat Broadway composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to contribute songs and ideas, The Little Mermaid and Disney’s animation department were well on their way to greatness.
The major result of bringing in Ashman and Menken was a boost in confidence. On the commentary track of the new The Little Mermaid Blu-ray (a track carried over from the previous DVD edition), Menken says Ashman saw this film both as a continuation of their collaboration on the hit musical Little Shop Of Horrors and a return to the Disney glory days of Snow White and Cinderella. They didn’t care whether the animation department had the resources or executive-level support to make new classics. They were determined that their part of the job would be as good as it could be, which in turn inspired co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker to keep pushing their bosses for more money and more time. Not everyone in the Disney corporate structure knew or understood what the animation department was sitting on with The Little Mermaid, but those who did sprang to life for the first time in years, fighting to prove that quality would sell.
As it turned out, it sold so well that nearly everything that made The Little Mermaid a success was subsequently processed into a formula that Disney and its competitors alike tried to repeat as closely as possible in the years that followed. As a result, the actual Little Mermaid can seem a little tired today, with the way it turns Hans Christian Andersen’s fairly tragic story (about a mermaid who gives up her voice and her tail for the love of a man who ultimately marries someone else) into a cutesy love story about the headstrong Princess Ariel, her lovable talking animal pals, and the boyish Prince Eric, whose heart she wins with the help of a malicious sea witch. The headstrong heroine, the good-hearted love-object, and the powerful magician who stands in the way of their eternal happiness all became staples of big-screen cartoons in the 1990s, as animators reinterpreted the old-fashioned Disney fairy tale with modern gumption.
Those broader, oft-repeated strokes of The Little Mermaid aren’t as impressive now, but what is still impressive is the moment before the opening credits when the camera plunges under water into a world that seems shimmery and weightless, and the moment just before the closing credits when “the Disney chorus” rises with a reprise of Ariel’s big ballad, “Part Of Your World.” What still works like gangbusters in The Little Mermaid is the way Menken’s score is used for mood-setting and sound effects as much as for melody, and the way Ashman’s lyrics slide easily from delirious romance to silly lines about “thingamabobs” and dead fish. The film is far from seamless, but it’s full of personal touches, and moments when all concerned are clearly reaching for something. The year before The Little Mermaid, Disney had a good-sized hit with Oliver & Company, a movie that exemplified the “good enough” ethos that was starting to become the norm at the company in the 1980s. Then Ariel cocked her head up toward the light on the surface of the ocean, and her creators started looking up with her.
The Blu-ray repeats the features from the excellent 2006 DVD edition, including deleted scenes and songs, a Clements/Musker/Menken commentary track (with a few audio snippets from an old Ashman interview), and a fun featurette about a Little Mermaid amusement-park ride that never got made, which Disney’s “imagineers” approached as passionately as the animators approached the film. The set also adds a package of new features, including two especially revealing ones: excerpts from a lecture Ashman gave to the animators about how best to integrate music into a story, and footage of The Little Mermaid video-reference sessions, where actors Sherri Stoner and Joshua Finkel ended up giving the animators ideas for Ariel and Eric’s gestures and poses. In those two features, Clements and Musker describe the mounting excitement around the department, as everyone began to see how just a little bit of thoughtful craft could make such an enormous difference.