Look for Disney to be awash in a sea of green thanks to this gloriously animated blend of classic fairy-tale elements and broad humor. Borrowing liberally from the studio’s classics, “The Little Mermaid” may represent its best animated feature since “Jungle Book” in 1967 and, based on recent returns on lesser films, seems destined to swim into the sunset leaving boxoffice records for the genre in its wake.
This should come as no surprise to admirers of “The Great Mouse Detective,” writer-director collaborators John Musker and Ron Clements’ exceptionally appealing 1986 animated feature that helped salvage the art form at the studio after it had nearly sunk into “The Black Cauldron.”
Once again, Clements and Musker have anchored the film with a wonderfully camp villain, Ursula the seawitch, who provides menace and a terrifically droll flair, a la “Mouse Detective’s” Ratigan, thanks to the vocal wizardry of Pat Carroll.
The other key, equally consistent with the genre, is marvelously realized: film is clearly positioned as an animated musical using songs (hummable, lilting, and in one instance piercingly beautiful on the order of “Les Miserables”) to carry and advance the story.
The source material is a Hans Christian Andersen tale that’s been tailored to the conventions of the animated feature, which may rob the original story of some of its emotional wallop but nonetheless provides a fertile seabed for the wild imaginations of the animators.
The mermaid princess Ariel lives in her sea-lord father Triton’s undersea kingdom but yearns for a life above, made all the more haunting to her when she rescues a handsome young prince from the sea.
Disobeying her father, she makes a pact with the seawitch 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.
Adults and children who’ve devoured the Disney classics will recognize various inspirations for the characters: “Fantasia’s” mythology sequence for Triton, “Pinocchio” for Ariel’s crustacean conscience Sebastian and the underwater sequences, a pair of eels reminiscent of “Lady And The Tramp’s” evil Siamese cats and “Sleeping Beauty’s” diabolical Maleficent.
Still, those parts, as assembled, produce an utterly satisfying whole — one that’s romantic, suspenseful and at times extremely funny.
The character design helps immensely, as animals of the cartoonishly cute variety counterbalance the classical approach to the human (and humanlike) leads. 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. An early action sequence featuring a shark may not be one of the more innovative designs but provides enough thrills that it would likely have served as the finale of one of the studio’s other recent features.
It’s also hard to say enough about the contribution of lyricist Howard Ashman (who coproduced with Musker) and composer Alan Menken, whose songs frequently begin slowly but build in cleverness and intensity.
Menken’s score is outstanding and the film’s sprightly “Under The Sea” number (voiced by the Jamaican-accented Samuel E. Wright in another bravura turn) emerges as an instant classic. Newcomer Jodi Benson (Ariel) also exhibits a show-stopping set of pipes on the ballad “Part Of Your World,” a “Les Miz” ringer.
Most technical aspects are superb, though the filmmakers succumb to the annoying MTV-influenced convention of some too-quick cuts (why not let viewers look at some of these scenes?) and jarringly awkward edits, as if overly concerned with rushing the story along.
No need to hurry, except perhaps to the bank as “The Little Mermaid” shows off its legs.
Sebastian….Samuel E. Wright
Eric….Christopher Daniel Barnes
A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation in association with Silver Screen Partners IV. Produced by Howard Ashman, John Musker. Writen and directed by Musker, Ron Clements; based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen; directing animators, Mark Henn, Glen Keane, Duncan Marjoribanks, Ruben Aquino, Andreas Deja, Matthew O’Callaghan; music, Alan Menken; songs, Ashman, Menken; art direction, Michael A. Peraza Jr., Donald A. Towns; supervising editor, John Carnochan; visual effects supervisor, Mark Dindal; layout supervisor, Towns; computer animation, Tina Price, Andrew Schmidt; supervising sound editors, Richard C. Franklin Jr., Louis L. Edemann; animation camera supervisor, John Cunningham; assistant director, Michael Serrian; associate producer Maureen Donley; casting, Mary V. Buck, Susan Edelman. Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, Nov. 1, 1989. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 82 min.