Borrowing liberally from the studio’s classics, The Little Mermaid may represent Disney’s best animated feature since the underrated Sleeping Beauty in 1959. That should come as no surprise to admirers of The Great Mouse Detective, writer-director collaborators John Musker and Ron Clements’ 1986 animation feature that helped salvage the art form at the studio after it had nearly sunk into The Black Cauldron.
The source material is a Hans Christian Andersen tale. The mermaid princess Ariel (voiced by newcomer Jodi Benson) lives in her sea-lord father Triton’s (Kenneth Mars) undersea kingdom but yearns for a life above, made all the more haunting to her when she rescues handsome young prince Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) from the sea. Disobeying her father, she makes a pact with seawitch Ursula (Pat Carroll) enabling her to go ashore and get the prince to fall in love with her – her soul hanging in the balance, her beautiful voice as collateral.
Ursula alone proves a visual feast, a thick-jawed nightmare who swishes about on eight octopus legs in one of the film’s more inspired inventions.
The animation proves lush and fluid, augmented by the use of shadow and light as elements like fire, sun and water illuminate the characters. Key contributions are made by lyricist Howard Ashman (who co-produced with Musker) and composer Alan Menken, whose songs frequently begin slowly but build in cleverness and intensity.
1989: Best Song (‘Under the Sea’), Original Score.
Nomination: Best Song (‘Kiss the Girl’)