The Little Mermaid (1989)


“Love has no boundaries.”

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Starring Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes and Pat Carroll

Ariel (Benson), the youngest daughter of King Triton (Kenneth Mars) of the Merfolk, dreams of the wonders of the surface world. When she saves the life of an adventurous prince (Barnes) and falls in love with him, she makes an ill-advised deal with the sea-witch Ursula (Carroll). Ursula transforms Ariel into a human for three days. If she can get the prince to kiss her, she will be human forever; if not, she will belong to Ursula. The cost of the deal is her voice, which ironically is the thing the prince has fallen in love with.

Aided by her friends – a seagull, a crab and a fish – Ariel mutely pursues her prince with incredible success, given that she’s a speechless random who washed up on the beach and combs her hair with a fork. Honestly, it seems as if the royal court – both of them – are anxious for their prince to hook up with pretty much anything with a womb. Before she can seal the deal, however, Ursula turns up using Ariel’s voice to enchant the prince, all as part of her plan to usurp Triton’s throne and steal his trident of extreme zappiness.

What’s wrong with it?

Man, old animation; what’s up with that? The Little Mermaid was a landmark piece of animation, but by modern standards the facial expressions are so weird and distorted.

The ending is screwed up. I like the downer ending of the book, which actually provides something of a counterpoint to the shallow aesthetic of the conventional fairy story narrative. My daughter, on the other hand, finds the ending of the film a total downer as Ariel is dragged off by some flippy-haired lunk and cruelly separated from her fish.

The apocalyptic subplot has the potential to dovetail neatly with the story’s overall theme of ‘be wary of blindly pursuing your dreams’, but in the end the theme of the film is ‘follow your dreams, and shove a six inch spar through the heart of any fucker who gets in your way. It’ll all be golden.’

What’s right with it?

It’s a jolly enough film with some catchy songs, at least until it suddenly goes to darkness and violence and summary execution.

How bad is it really?

Although widely regarded as a classic, I’ve always been skeptical of a Little Mermaid with a happy ending and this is in fact the first time I’ve ever seen it. Compared to modern Disney, it’s incredibly old-fashioned and simplistic, and in particular its very basic trajectory of naive and frankly spoiled child single-mindedly pursues the desire of a moment as if it were destiny and it all ends well (through violence!) is not good teaching in television.

Best bit (if such there is)?

There are some good songs, I’ll give them that. I was particularly struck by how much ‘Under the Sea’ clearly inspired both the music and the choreography of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’.

What’s up with…?

  • How come Ariel doesn’t know what a fork is? I mean, maybe she wouldn’t recognise tableware (although she totally does, filing the fork alongside a spoon and a knife,) but her father’s signature accessory is a trident. At the least she should be asking ‘what’s this tiny trident for?’
  • Can humans hear the singing fish? Is it like a subliminal thing?
  • How desperate are the royal court if ‘cute beach waif’ is looking like just what the genealogist ordered? Also, where the fuck are his parents? Is this a sovereign principality?
  • Triton’s surrender in the face of Ursula’s indestructible contract? We clearly see that murdering her would have been an option, but he doesn’t even try!


Production values – At the time, it was pretty sharp, but the animation has aged badly. The sound is still pretty good, however. 6
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is okay, but as ever with Disney the voice acting is top drawer. Unfortunately, there is a systemic problem in that Ariel is an eminently spoiled and slappable little madame with less spine than a jellyfish. 7
Plot and execution – I really, really don’t like the story this film has left once it lifts out the original ending and inserts a dastardly plot. I don’t think it gives a very positive message, even by fairy tale standards. 14
Randomness – The plot proceeds on convenience and goodwill, with absolutely no-one except Ursula standing in the way of Ariel and Eric’s romance and that obstacle removed by violence. 8
Waste of potential – I love the original downer ending, and clearly what we’re left with isn’t an up ending. 8

Overall 45%


2 thoughts on “The Little Mermaid (1989)”

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