This was my very favorite Disney movie as a kid. The very first thing I ever wrote was a Little Mermaid fanfic when I was about six. I think I still have it, somewhere. The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, marks the opening of the Golden Age of Disney animation.
The movie opens with a brief introduction of Prince Eric, then we go under the sea where King Triton is attending a concert that’s supposed to be his youngest daughter Ariel’s musical debut.
Ariel isn’t there. She’s off exploring a shipwreck with her best friend, Flounder. Flounder is worried about sharks, and Ariel teases him. She’s remarkably self-absorbed (she’s a teenager, and she acts like one) and obsessed with humans. When a shark does show up, the two just barely escape with their lives, but Ariel is still unconcerned. Then they go off to the surface to visit Ariel’s seagull friend, Scuttle, who reminds her of the concert. They hurry back, where Flounder lets the fact that they went to the surface slip. The king assigns Sebastian, his court composer, to monitor Ariel.
Ariel darts back to the surface to investigate a passing ship, where she sees Prince Eric. He is handsome and kind to animals. It’s his birthday, and when his mentor/advisor, Grimsby, presents him with a larger-than-life statue of himself, he’s obviously not impressed, but still manages to act grateful.
In short, Eric makes a good showing, and Ariel, already obsessed with humans, falls hard. Then a hurricane strikes. Eric is thrown off the ship, but he goes back to rescue his dog. The ship explodes, but Ariel saves Eric from drowning. She drags him back to the shore, where he gets one backlit view of her and hears her singing.
King Triton discovers Ariel’s infatuation and destroys all of her human trinkets. He’s presented as harsh, but understandable. He’s just trying to protect her.
Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, the sea witch, a powerful sorceress who hates her father. Ursula is one of my favorite villains. Her voice is awesome, and I love the fact that she’s fat and sinister and sexy. Plus, unlike many other Disney villains, she’s competent. Even her henchmen (hencheels?) are good at their jobs. It’s refreshing.
Ariel trades her voice for three days as a human. If she can get Prince Eric to give her a kiss of true love before her time runs out, she’ll be a human. If not, Ursula will turn her into a creepy little slug thing. It’s not a good deal, but Ursula is impressively charismatic and Ariel’s impulsive and upset.
Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle decide to help her win Eric’s heart. Eric finds her on the beach, but doesn’t recognize her without her voice. This is a pretty low point for Eric. She can’t possibly be the one. She can’t talk. Obviously if she can’t talk now, she never could have talked ever. Hurrr. Anyway, he is kind enough to take her in.
King Triton is worried and feeling pretty guilty for blowing up when Ariel and Sebastian vanish.
On Ariel’s first full day, Prince Eric takes her on a tour. They have a lot of fun, and Ariel is wordlessly charming and enthusiastic about the human world. They go on a romantic boat ride, and with some atmospheric help from Sebastian almost kiss. Their moment is ruined by Ursula’s creepy eel servants, Flotsam and Jetsam, who tip their boat. Eric helps Ariel back up, but doesn’t kiss her. Seriously, dude. Seriously. Now you’re both wet. She needs warmed up, you know?
But Ursula, seeing the close call, transforms herself into a beautiful woman and uses Ariel’s voice to bewitch Eric. He instantly arranges a wedding.
Scuttle comes in, excited at their success, and Ariel’s sharply disappointed when she sees another woman in her place. Eric’s obviously under some kind of mind control, but since he was already so obsessed with the woman with the voice, no one is surprised by his insistence on a quick wedding.
Ariel’s not invited. She’s distraught and unsure of what to do, until Scuttle comes back and tells her that Eric’s fiancée is the sea witch in disguise.
Sebastian comes up with a plan. Scuttle is going to stall the wedding until Ariel and Flounder can swim to the wedding ship to crash the ceremony. Sebastian himself goes to the sea king.
Scuttle leads an army of birds and other sea life to disrupt the wedding. Eric doesn’t even blink until Ariel’s voice is released from the seashell that Ursula had been storing it in. They’re about to kiss, but the sun sets, and Ariel turns back into a mermaid.
Ursula drags Ariel back into the water to confine her forever. King Triton can’t break their deal, but he agrees to go in Ariel’s place. Ariel is released, but the king is turned into a slug.
Not a good idea. Ursula seizes control of the ocean with Triton’s crown and trident. She’s about to kill Eric, but Ariel upsets her aim and she kills Flotsam and Jetsam instead. Now, she’s really mad. She grows to incredible size and stirs the ocean destroy her enemies. Eric impales her on a ship while her attention is on Ariel. After she dies, all of the merpeople that she’d imprisoned are freed.
King Triton decides to let Ariel go back to Prince Eric. He transforms her into a human and gives her a really awesome sparkly dress. They get married and live happily ever after. At least until the two sequels. Oh, Disney. Stop doing crappy sequels. Can you do that, for me?
Rewatching the movie, I’m more impressed by the relationship between Ariel and her father than the one between her and Eric. The moment at the end when her eyes are shining and he comes up to the deck to hug her goodbye choked me up a little.
Really, Ariel and Eric are two of the most static characters in the movie. King Triton learns that not all humans are bad, and he lets go of his control over his daughter’s life. Sebastian’s views about letting Ariel live her own life change. Even Flounder learns to be more self-reliant.
For me, the things that make this movie are the musical numbers. They’re just so pretty, both the music and the visuals that go along with them.
The Little Mermaid isn’t the same experience now that it was when I was five, but it’s still a pleasure to watch.