The Little Mermaid
I think most critics would name Beauty and the Beast as the best of the “Disney Renaissance” titles of the 1990s. I wouldn’t argue with them, but my personal favorite is this one. As usual I am unencumbered by any love for the source material. I had never read the Hans Christian Andersen story. I just now read a summary on Wikipedia, and gad, what an awful story! The mermaid not only can’t speak, but she walks around as if on sharp swords all the time. (I really sympathize; because I do, too.) The Prince is not enchanted by the Sea Witch, he really does fall in love with another woman who he thinks saved him from drowning, and marries her. The Little Mermaid is offered an out: If she kills the Prince, her One True Love, and drips his blood on her feet, she will become a mermaid again and be free of pain. Naturally, she doesn’t, but in a “happy ending,” she becomes a creature of the air, and can gain an eternal soul (apparently mer-critters don’t have one) and be eventually united with God. Even without the religious bullshit, it’s a terrible story. Well, you know those old fairy tales could be pretty damn grimm.
There are many reasons why this movie stands out as one of the very best, and certainly by far the best in thirty years. The animation is outstanding in every respect, from color palette to spatial relationships to characterization. Once again early CGI facilitated moves through space that would have been too expensive, difficult, or time-consuming, and they are used to good emotional and dramatic effect. The characters of Ursula and Sebastian are terrific. Ursula in particular oozes through her scenes like the octopus she is, and alternates between bitchy humor and terrifying evil. She ranks right up there with Maleficent and the great Cruella. Sebastian is voiced perfectly, and his facial expressions are wonderfully drawn. But the movie really does belong to that rebellious, wide-eyed, innocent romantic, Ariel. She sings so well that it’s a shame she is mute for half the picture. And animators have seldom made a character live so completely. Her expressions are a joy to behold. I fell in love with her, fishtail and all. And as for when she is transformed into a real girl, but one who can’t speak … this is a problem? (Kidding.)
But the biggest thing here is, of course, the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. I’ve sort of wondered how they got the job over more established songwriting teams. At the time they were known only for an off-Broadway show called Little Shop of Horrors, which is brilliant, but not all that well-known at the time. For whatever reason, they did get hired, and were influential in turning The Little Mermaid (which, I am astonished to learn, was once Walt’s choice as the next film to make after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!) into a Broadway musical. Emphasis on Broadway. Disney animated films have always had music, some of it really great, but never anything like this. All of it is great, but the stroke of genius is “Under the Sea” (Oscar for Best Song), which is a production number. That is, a moment when the whole cast, all the chorus, all the dancers, all the bells and whistles available to the theatrical director are assembled on stage at once, and all the stops are pulled out. It set the stage for “Be Our Guest” in Beauty and the Beast, and many others including half a dozen in Disney’s most recent, The Princess and the Frog. This movie and three of the next four (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin) were all retrofitted and actually became stage musicals over the next twenty years. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if The Princess and the Frog became one, too.