Ranking the Disney Canon – 12: The Little Mermaid

“Your Majesty. This will be the finest concert I have ever conducted. Your daughters, they will be spectacular!” – Sebastian

OK, time to finally make it back to the list! The films have been watched and analyzed, the final order has been decided, and the Disney canon is finally ready to be ranked!

And what better way to start off our return than with one of the most important films in the history of the Disney Animation Studio?

The Little Mermaid may not technically be on that list of “Films that Saved the Disney Studio,” but as a good friend of mine says, It might as well be. Whereas The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company, and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit, were all important to reviving Disney Animation after the rough patches in the early 70s and late 80s, The Little Mermaid exploded onto the scene in 1989 and announced the true return of the classic Disney Animated musical. When you really look at it, the effects of The Little Mermaid can still be felt today. The Little Mermaid showed the blockbuster potential for the Animated Genre, and how animated films are treated today, in my opinion, can be traced directly back to The Little Mermaid’s monstrous success.

The Little Mermaid stars our little mermaid, Ariel, as she dreams of finding a way to be part of the human world that lies above her. She continually searches for artifacts from the human world with her best friend, Flounder, and gets “explanations” of their uses from Scuttle, here seagull eye in the human sky. One night, while watching a celebration on a human ship, Ariel saves a human, Prince Eric, from a storm, and falls in love with him.  Her father, King Triton, disapproves of this, and after a heated argument with him, Ariel swims off and makes a deal with the Sea Witch, Ursula, to make her human. Ariel must now receive help from Flounder, Scuttle, and her father’s #1 assistant, Sebastian, to make Prince Eric “Kiss the Girl” before the entire kingdom sinks under Ursula’s dream takeover.

STRENGTHS

Since we have talked so much about character throughout this entire list, especially the Top 20, I wanted to start with something else. Seriously, I keep feeling like Characters are the strongest part of any Disney film, and that is because they are! But I did intend to switch it up with this post, as I felt I wanted to switch it up from starting with character over and over and over again. However, I cannot escape it. Ariel is just too strong of a character for me to start with anything else.

I’m come right out and say it: Ariel is my personal favorite Disney Princess, though Rapunzel really gives her a close run for her money. Or shells. Or whatever Merpeople use as currency. Anyways, I just love the innocence in Ariel’s character. Her pure joy and sense of adventure in terms of her interactions with the human world are extremely wonderful. From the opening moments with her, when she is escaping a shark after exploring a sunken human ship, we understand her simple awe at the unknown, her curiosity for the human world she knows so little about, and it is amazingly written.

I think what makes Ariel (and also Rapunzel, in my opinion) so fun to watch is their childlike sense of wonder. Because they know so little about the world around them, they feel like the people we used to be, the child that just wanted to learn about every single little thing they could. That childlike wonder creates magic. Disney magic, you could even say. Ariel and Rapunzel just burst through the screen with so much happiness and joy that you can’t help but to smile. I think the two of them, as characters, define what makes Disney so wonderful for me.

Man, I just talked a little bit about a character that wouldn’t exist for another 20 years, didn’t I? To move it back to Ariel proper, I love her naivety. In fact, I think her reactions for all of the human things around her are some of the funniest bits of Renaissance era Disney Animation. Even in the weakest part of the film, when Ariel and Prince Eric are going around the town before the “Kiss the Girl” sequence, Ariel’s over abundant reaction to EVERYTHING makes it go from a potentially weak sequence to one that is so much fun to watch. That is what makes Ariel amazing. She makes the weakest things better.

And all of this is before we get to Ariel’s signature song. First, I must mention the wonderful voice and singing performance of Jodi Benson. The voice for Ariel is extremely important, not just because it will define Ariel’s character, but it is also an extremely important plot point. And Jodi Benson was the perfect choice for the role. Jodi brings the absolute PERFECT amount of youthfulness and wonder to the character of Ariel, and creating one of the great voice performances of the Second Golden Age. Jodi Benson perfectly captures all of the emotions throughout Ariel’s journey, and adds so much to the joy that surrounds Ariel.

And where this emotion is seen most is in “Part of Your World,” the definitive Ariel moment. In fact, I think that “Part of Your World” is also the definitive “I Want” song of this era of Disney Animation. Of course, the “I Want” song is the song in which that character sings about their inner most desires. Songs of this type are scattered throughout Disney, and musical, history, and can be important to defining the character and the film. I think “Part of Your World” does that to perfection, through Jodi Benson’s performance, through the Animation, and through the wonderful music in lyrics by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

This would be as good a transition as any to move away from me crushing on Ariel, as I’ve gone 1000 words just talking about her. But I do want to mention two last things. One, the character animation and design of Ariel is perfect, especially when she turns silent and you can still see the joy bursting through her. Great credit to the animators who put in the work to make her as amazing as she is. Second, got to love that red hair. Just got to shout it out.

Ariel is over and out, now to move to the amazing music, the second idea that defines this film. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were an amazing duo, and this film has an amazing soundtrack. The film’s first true song is, in fact, “Part of Your World” and it really is an impressive song. Ashman’s lyrics really show Ariel’s desires, as well as being expertly crafted to be creative and flowing. And the reprise of “Part of Your World,” after Ariel saves Eric from the storm, feels so triumphant, and contends to be among the best reprises in Disney Animation History. It really is a beautiful song, and marked the beginning of the return to great Disney Soundtracks.

It is the next song, “Under the Sea,” that truly marked the comeback of Disney Music. This song is just so much fun and so upbeat and so catchy and so memorable. “Under the Sea” is exactly what you want in any Disney song. The Animation is as bright and energetic as the song, the music is unique and yet makes sense within the context of the film, it is driven by both Sebastian’s character and Ariel’s character, the song is filled to the brim with so many memorable lines and memorable visuals, and it is a song you just love to play over and over and over again. I can’t even think of anything else to say. It is almost perfection and shows the true talent of the Ashman-Menken team.

Sebastian also has “Kiss the Girl” in his repertoire, which is the film’s only true love song. And what I love about that song is that, while it is not the most traditional love song, it works extremely well for the film. Sebastian, and his voice actor Samuel E. Wright, is a wonderful crooner, and brings the right romantic sense to the song. What’s truly amazing about “Kiss the Girl” is that it is a song about trying to get two people to fall in love, rather than about two people already in love. And it works. It may not be the strongest love some ever, but again, it is a song that shows the complete strength of Ashman’s lyrics and Menken’s music.

The final song worth going into detail about is the film’s villain song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” While I wouldn’t call it stronger than the two songs that come before it, it still is a wonderful song for Pat Carroll to sing and the animators to animate. I think that the most amazing part of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is that it is able to simultaneously build Ursula as a sneaky, manipulative villain as well as someone who Ariel could potentially trust. Too often the villain is so overly manipulative that you wonder why the protagonist believes him or her. But Ursula is written well, so it seems like Ariel could se her as trustworthy, especially in this part of her life.

I want to talk about Ursula, and other characters, a little bit more, but I’d like to finish speaking about the soundtrack. I love the use of the smaller songs “Fathoms Below” (which was originally much longer), and “Tritons Daughters” as they both feel like sections of a broadway musical, those smaller songs that surround the crowd pleasers. I do think that they add just a little bit extra to the film. And even though “Les Poisson” is a weird and random aside that really does nothing to the greater whole of the film, it is a a really fun and hilarious weird and random aside.

Now, Ursula. Ursula is a really fun villain, perfectly voiced by Pat Carroll. Ursula’s character design is absolutely fantastic, and her Vanessa counterpart is equally well designed and entertaining. What makes Ursula a great villain, however, is how smart she is. Her plan to take Ariel’s soul and use it as a hostage against Triton is well planned and smartly adjusted when Ariel makes more advances in her relationship with Eric than she planned. And even though the plan gets discovered, it still works. All of this is shown through Ursula’s large and funny personality, and it really works for the best. Mostly.

Ariel’s friends are also very fun and very strong on the character front. Flounder is a perfect companion to Ariel, and his even more childlike persona is perfect for Ariel to play off of. Also, another wonderful design, but not I just feel like I am repeating myself. So, moving on to Scuttle, I think Scuttle brings some of the best humor in the film. I mentioned before that I love Ariel’s naivety, and Scuttle is a big part of that. His explanations of Dinglehoppers and What Nots lead to some of the biggest smiles in the film. You also got to love his attempts to get into the “Kiss the Girl” number. Awesome.

Sebastian, however, is my favorite of Ariel’s companions, and also my second favorite character in the film. A large part of this is his reluctance to help Ariel. Sebastian, in my opinion, is the funniest character in the film due to how nervous he can get regarding all of the mistakes he can possibly make. The scene where he has to hide the fact that Ariel is in love with a human from Triton is just wonderful humor, and Samuel E. Wright brings an absolutely perfect humor to his performance.

And then, of course, it is wonderful to see Sebastian almost forced to come around and help Ariel in the end. I love the idea that, for all the trouble that she has caused him, he still cares so much about her. Sebastian is just wonderful to watch in the human world, especially all panicky in that weird and random aside. Just his scream alone makes the character amazing.

And finally, there is the relationship between Triton and Ariel. I truly do think this is a relationship that makes the film. Triton’s protection of his daughter makes complete sense, and never seems like conflict for the sake of conflict. I think that his care for her, and his fatherly appearance and demeanor, is apparent throughout the entire film, and makes his sacrifice for Ariel at the end even more heartfelt. Triton himself has a wonderful arc, and I think it is a key component of making the film as good as it is.

If I were to complain about the film I have two small ones that do not warrant a full section of weakness, since we got rid of that section already! One, Prince Eric isn’t necessarily weak, and is designed and written fine, but he is not the strongest Disney Prince. Two, The film’s finale is really fun, but does feel a bit more gimmicky than other finales surrounding it. It surely has the biggest (literally) gambit of the Disney 90s, and it works, it just isn’t as good.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

Since I’m not uploading videos anymore, I’ll just quickly mention my favorite parts of the film.

With The Little Mermaid, the Best Moment and Best Song are one and the same. “Under The Sea” runs away with it. I described it above, but it is as perfect as any Disney Moment can be.

CLOSING COMMENTS

The Little Mermaid is truly a hilarious movie, and a great one too. Ariel and the characters that surround her bring so much liveliness to the screen that was missing from most of the dark ages of Disney Animation. The Soundtrack works alongside the characters to bring you the great awes that Disney animated films before it and after it would bring as well. The Little Mermaid was the perfect film to bring Disney Animation back, and to bring Disney and Beyond back. In both cases, the best still lies ahead.