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In the late 1980s, there was a legitimate chance that the Walt Disney Company could have stopped producing animated films. Following 1981's The Fox and The Hound, the studio produced disappointing flop after flop. Way too much money was poured into The Black Cauldron and when the film finally hit theaters in 1985, it was a complete disaster. The low-budget The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company were also duds, although they have earned a cult status among fans years later. A cult status is all well and good now, but at the time, the executives had to seriously consider if this was a venture that they wanted to continue.
Even as those films failed, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who also helmed Great Mouse Detective) continued to work on their new project, a movie based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. A year after Oliver & Company left theaters, The Little Mermaid hit theaters and changed the course of the studio and the history of animation. (It also helped that another movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, revived interest in animation.)
The Little Mermaid, like many of the best Disney films, is free of a convoluted plot. It's simple: Ariel, a mermaid, wants more from her life under the sea and falls in love with the human Prince Eric. Her father, King Triton; friends and everyone else in the underwater kingdom tell her to get the prince out of her mind. But when she ultimately finds a way to be with Eric, she takes it. Unfortunately, it's a deal with the devil, or Ursula the Sea Witch. Ariel has to give up her voice and can only get it back if, in just three days, she can get Eric to fall in love with her. If not, Ariel will be a mermaid forever and be Ursula's slave.
The Little Mermaid means so much to Disney fans, as it really lays the foundation for the early 1990s Disney Renaissance. It introduces animation as the dominant medium for musicals. Before The Little Mermaid, Disney was stuck in a period of non-musicals and although it began to creep back in with Oliver, this is the studio finally embracing it again. The Golden Age Disney films and the classics of the 1950s all relied heavily on memorable music and Howard Ashman and Alan Menken proved to be the heirs of those great composers. They brought Broadway to Disney successfully, writing an array of incredible, whimsical songs like “Under The Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and, of course, “Part of Your World.”
Aside from the music, The Little Mermaid was also Disney's most technically impressive film in decades. The character animation may not be as perfect as in later films in the Renaissance period, but the effects animators take complete control with some stunning underwater sequences. The “Part Of Your World” sequence, which mixed the best of Glen Keane's work on Ariel with effects, has to be one of the Top 10 best animated scenes in Disney history.
Jodi Benson leads a spectacular voice cast as well, starring as Ariel. Samuel E. Wright is great as Sebastian and you can even hear Buddy Hackett as Scuttle the seagull. Then there's Pat Caroll clearly relishing her moment as Ursula, joining the list of great Disney villains.
On Home Video: The Little Mermaid finally hit Blu-ray this month, bringing along with it the bonus material from the 2006 DVD. There's also a group of new material (including a fantastic look at a lecture Ashman gave at the Disney studio) and it features a stunning transfer. It's probably the best you'll ever see The Little Mermaid at home. If you've been clutching that 20-year-old, worn-out VHS tape (I must have mine somewhere...), you can't miss this edition.
Having never known a time without The Little Mermaid, I have to admit that it's way too hard to look at it impartially. When it comes to the films from the Disney Renaissance, I can't look at them like a film geek. I look at them through the eyes of a kid who wore out my family's VHS tapes on sick days from school or on a rainy weekend. The Little Mermaid breathed life into a dying institution, and for that we should be happy. It's the foundation that another generation of Disney classics was built on.