Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Little Mermaid (1989)

USA, 83 minutes
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Writers: John Musker, Ron Clements, Hans Christian Andersen, Howard Ashman, Gerrit Graham, Sam Graham, Chris Hubbell
Art direction: Michael Peraza Jr., Donald Towns
Music: Alan Menken
Editor: Mark A. Hester
Cast/voices of: Jodi Benson, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Buddy Hackett, Rene Auberjonois, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Paddi Edwards, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, Edie McClurg, Will Ryan, Ben Wright

The Little Mermaid is likely best known today as the picture that launched the Disney Renaissance, marking a return to form for the studio of a certain level of charm and brio. Following the deaths of co-founders Walt and Roy Disney in the '60s and '70s, the company had spent years wandering the deserts of mediocrity. After The Little Mermaid would come Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and many others through the '90s, most of them massive moneymakers. It may be tempting to locate the start of any such renaissance back one year, to the studio's collaboration with Steven Spielberg in 1988 on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In many ways, that's the picture that restored interest among mainstream audiences in feature-length animated entertainment (or semi-animated, as it mixes live action with the cartoons). But Roger Rabbit, for all its many impressive virtues, is hardly in the Disney style.

That would be the job of The Little Mermaid. No doubt there are volumes of behind-the-scenes corporate backstory to this movie, involving industry players, gutsy business calls, and various career-making and -breaking maneuvers. It's also easy enough to pick out various elements and call "formula"—yet another princess story based on yet another Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, yet another musical, and, as always, damnably cute more than 70% of the time. But in the end that's incidental to what ended up on the screen. In the watching, The Little Mermaid is one of those happy accidents where all pieces fall together and the result is something close to an ideal, achieved seemingly effortlessly.

Even for those less than dedicated followers of the studio, such as myself (herewith exposed to The Little Mermaid for the first time, which by the way is scheduled to be rereleased next year in a 3D version), the sheer professionalism of the production tends to make it go down easy. It moves from one intricate set piece to the next with a minimum of fuss, and always gracefully. It has a natural feel for the rhythms and counterpoints of both comedy and romance, playing them off each other expertly, the one always relieving the other as they periodically skirt close to excesses.

It's a musical, of course, and the one thing no one can deny is Disney's unique capability of marrying the exuberant fantasies of musicals with the natural expressiveness of animation. Several flat-out big musical production numbers are scattered along the way in the compact 83 minutes of The Little Mermaid, and they also go down easy, with sparkling variety from song to song. Ariel, the 16-year-old little mermaid of the title, is voiced by Jodi Benson, an accomplished singer and stage actress in her own right. One of the comic sidekicks of Ariel is a crab named Sebastian. He is possessed of a Jamaican patois and also holds a position as composer in the court of Ariel's father, King Triton. Sebastian leads a couple of the best numbers here, including "Under the Sea," which won an Oscar for Best Original Song (the picture also won an Oscar for Best Original Score) and comes with a decidedly calypso bent.

Another of her sidekicks, a seagull named Scuttle, is voiced by Buddy Hackett, and he's good, a familiar Disney presence, salting down the proceedings with his classic Vegas stand-up shtick, playing his usual amiable idiot. He gets some good gags right along—a phony expertise on the ways of humans, listening for a heartbeat in the sole of a foot, and so on. These bits come and go quickly in the flow of things, and they are economical about keeping the picture light and frothy.

I particularly appreciate that the filmmakers sharpen the contrasts with unsettling elements. The blundering wrath of King Triton is a fearsome sight to behold, and Ursula, a sea witch and an octopus with the style of a hammy grande dame, is genuinely malevolent, and cruel. What Ursula does to the "mer-people" she comes to own is definitely unpleasant, and so is she. But she's also bawdy, campy, and a lot of fun. In fact, she's one of the most indelible characters here. Mixing in a little darkness tends to make the white light brighter—a hallmark of Disney's stock in trade. Ursula, in that regard, is a classic creation.

I also appreciate that the filmmakers were not unmindful of the varieties of changing roles for women—princess stories had to be a lot easier to make before 1989! But they don't much duck the issues, instead attacking them head-on. Ariel is a fully empowered feminine figure, capable of a physically difficult rescue on the high seas of the drowning prince (and full-time boy scout) Eric and other feats atypical of most shy and retiring beautiful princesses. Ariel is not a bit shy and retiring, and she is clearly making her own choices every step of the way and taking responsibility for them.

In many ways the picture thus manages to have it both ways, a stunt that is probably harder than we can guess. If Ariel appears to be making conventional choices—beautiful princesses, after all, belong with handsome princes, right?—they are arguably enough radical. I mean, think about this for a second. She effectively chooses to throw over her own species, becoming human rather than remaining one of the "mer-people" she was raised as, separating herself forever from her family and loved ones, a choice that is analogous in its way to extremes of plastic surgery paired with a move to the other side of the planet. It's almost impossible to understate what a huge decision she makes here. Yet somehow the movie finds a way to gracefully elide such questions. Who wouldn't want to become human, given the chance? Becoming human is another constant in the Disney universe, here established early and often as one of Ariel's most enduring desires.

Yes, there is a vacuous Barbie and Ken aspect to the central love story here, with Ariel and the prince Eric appearing largely as anodyne, desexualized, and somewhat wooden cartoon-attractive figures of masculine and feminine regularity. But is there any other way to play it, particularly in a G-rated Disney animated musical feature? I don't think so. And the filmmakers do find ways to poke fun at the strictures they impose on themselves here even as they assiduously respect them. In one very brief scene, Ariel confronts a life-size statue of the prince. She gazes into the explicitly stone orbs under its brow, and purrs, "It has his eyes!"

The Little Mermaid marches straightway and unsurprisingly to its predictable happily-ever-after conclusion, but it loads up on effective touches large and small that make it memorable and a pleasure to return to: the genial ignorance of human ways (a fork is assumed to be a hair pick, which results in a good sight gag at a dinner table) ... the great jaw-snapping sound made by an attacking shark ... a terrific electrical storm at sea ... Eric's stone face surviving King Triton's destruction of the statue ... the neat way Ursula is given responsibility for the exposition, foreshadowing the second half of the story ... the transference of Ariel's voice to Ursula ... Sebastian's confrontations with the French chef Louis ... the way that Ariel, excited about her ride in a horse-and-buggy carriage, hangs off of it upside down to see the view from that angle—and many, many more. It is altogether a concise little marvel of storytelling with numerous pleasures at every juncture.

Original post

Round 1: Afterword
Whatever polling app was used no longer shows the results, but I won this round. I was actually more strategic than if I had been writing about it under other circumstances. In the first place, I wouldn't be writing about it. I have shunned Disney so long I just don't even know it that well, and I would more likely be looking at things like Fantasia and Pinocchio way before this. On the other hand, once I was committed to the review and looking at The Little Mermaid (for the first time in my life), I did enjoy it. My opponent, "Deems Taylor" (aka Nick Rehak of French Toast Sunday), was coming from another place: familiar with it from childhood, but now willing to call it a childish thing to put away. That alone miffed Disney partisans, which is partly what I mean about being strategic. I had a feeling stuff like that might happen. People as a class (and I am a person too, liable to this) are wary of critics and reviewers, and can tend to react weirdly when they perceive things they like being dumped on. So I approached my review as nutshell just-the-facts-ma'am history of cinema, made the most of what I liked about the movie, and skipped my own tormented take on Disney. Thus I might have got some votes of Disney partisans, but maybe I was being less than honest?

I should mention, by the way, that ultimately none of these contests drew numbers of votes that went even into three digits, and some of the less attended rounds might have even seen less than 10. So it was a very limited audience.

And as I drone along here, one more point I want to make is about length. The announced word count limit was 2,000, which is about twice as long as most of the movie reviews I write here, at least triple that of most of the other things, but more or less in line with a lot of the bloggers I read. Rightly or wrongly, I think of myself as someone who writes short, and part of my strategy was to write shorter than I anticipated my opponent would, which I figured as playing to a strength of mine. But my review was actually much longer.

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