The Little Mermaid ★★★

The Little Mermaid marked the beginning of Disney’s renaissance under the stewardship of Katzenberg and proved to be the template for practically every Disney film that succeeded it in the following decade. However, with it fast approaching its 25th anniversary is it beginning to show its age? Sadly, the answer to that question is a yes, but then I’ve never been a huge fan of this particular animated adaptation.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale it tells the story of Ariel, an inquisitive and free spirited mermaid, who falls in love with a human prince. Making a bargain with an evil sea witch she is offered the chance of a new life with her two-legged love, but at what price? Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (two creative forces that helped guide Disney through one of their most successful periods) this is a diverting but frustratingly bitty retelling of a beloved story.

The film has a breezy energy and is buoyed by entertaining supporting characters but it is constantly undermined by the film’s central relationship. Whilst Ariel is an enjoyably feisty heroine in the early water-bound scenes her personality is practically wiped away when she makes her Faustian pact with Ursula the witch. From this point on the film becomes far less interesting as it goes through the familiar motions as the attractive couple instantly fall in love. Because Ariel is unable to speak during these sections she simply nods and grins her way into the prince’s heart but it hardly makes for compelling viewing.

The film is a reversal of Beauty and the Beast where the love of a good woman changed a beast into a dashing prince. Instead Ariel is willing to completely change herself and reject her family and friends in order to fit in with her man’s world and needs. It is hardly the most empowering message for its intended audience although whether that is the fault of the studio or Hans Christian Andersen’s material is up for debate. However, it is disappointing to find that her personality is completely lost in this transformation.

Thankfully the colourful supporting cast still prove entertaining. Sebastian the fusty Jamaican crab is the template for many of Disney’s most popular characters whilst the film also has a larger than life villain in the form of Ursula the manipulative sea witch. She is a giant drag queen and the sort of creation that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Waters movie, albeit without the squid legs. It is only a shame that she doesn’t feature more heavily in the story as she manipulates the plot from a distance until the film’s so-so climax.

The animation is still as vibrant as ever, even if it pales in comparison to the Disney films that followed, with excellent character design and impressive scale. Beyond the film’s most famous song and dance routines Alan Menken’s score is rather forgettable. It is only the fin-tapping delights of Under the Sea that leave any lasting impression with the majority of the other numbers being little more than show tune fillers.

Although this is a rather negative review, The Little Mermaid is still an enjoyable way to waste 90-minutes but it is a film that is now beginning to show its age, particularly in comparison to the timeless delights of Beauty and the Beast.

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