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How The Little Mermaid Cued the Disney Animation Renaissance

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Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) has a cushy job: mermaid princess of her father Triton’s underwater kingdom. But she’s also a teenager, restless with wanderlust and fascinated by the “gizmos and gadgets” that have fallen from her sky — the water’s surface. She dreams of joining the magical creatures up on land and, this being a Disney animated feature, she dreams in song. In the Howard Ashman lyric put to Alan Menken’s tune, she sings: “Up where they walk, up where they run, / Up where they stay all day in the sun, / Wanderin’ free. Wish I could be / Part of that world.”

At an early screening of The Little Mermaid, the young audience got restless during that opening ballad — some kids actually started fighting — and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney Animation, considered dropping it. Writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements had to remind Katzenberg that the very first Disney feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, began with a similar “I want” song, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and that the bosses at MGM had wanted to drop “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz until smarter heads prevailed. Both of those numbers served their stories and became enduring hits. Why not stick with “Part of Your World”?

So the song stayed in, as a declaration of its heroine’s hopes. And The Little Mermaid, which opened 25 years ago, on Nov. 17, 1989, realized its makers’ dream: recapturing the magic of classic Disney as destination entertainment to enthrall generations of moviegoers. More than two decades after Walt Disney’s death, and following a series of less-than-fabulous cartoon features, this was the picture that launched the Disney Renaissance that soared with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

As I wrote in my most enthusi-woozy-astic tone in the Nov. 20, 1989, issue of TIME:

[F]rom the first frame, Disney’s suave storytellers cue you to wonderment in their adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. … For 82 minutes, The Little Mermaid reclaims the movie house as a dream palace and the big screen as a window into enchantment. Live-action filmmakers, see this and try to top it. Go on and try.

Many live-action filmmakers did try; they turned their adventure movies into special-effects showcases indebted to cartoons and comic books. The phenomenal critical and popular success of the Disney Renaissance features also prodded rival studios (including DreamWorks, which Katzenberg cofounded after leaving Disney) to start their own animation units and rake in the cash. That they did, making animation the industry’s most reliably money-making “genre.” In 2010, five of the 10 top-grossing movies were CGI-animated: Pixar’s Toy Story 3, Universal’s Despicable Me, DreamWorks’ Shrek Forever After and How to Train Your Dragon and Disney’s Tangled. But it all began with Ariel.

Walt Disney had first considered the story in the 1930s, as one segment in a proposed omnibus feature of Andersen tales. Fifty years later, Musker and Clements freshened the idea for Disney’s first fairy-tale animated feature since the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. That meant reviving the long-dormant Disney notion of a questing young female (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty) who battles for her life and honor against an evil older woman (the Queen, the wicked stepmother, Maleficient). Much later, this conflict of young beauty vs. middle-aged sorcery stoked the drama of Rapunzel and her crone captor in Tangled.

Ariel’s subterranean nemesis, the sea witch Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll), makes mischief aplenty; but the girl’s main challenge is finding her place in a hostile environment. She’s literally a fish out of water — an undocumented alien, if you will — who must acclimate herself to the strange customs of beasts who breathe through lungs, not gills. The one constant, ain the sea or on land, is true love, which Ariel discovers with the charming Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes). You may debate whether the Disney heroines fit the feminist standard, but they don’t live in a democracy. Remember, they’re princesses.

The Little Mermaid further harkened back to the classic Disney features by mounting a full musical score with songs that explained the characters and propelled the action. The movie was basically a Broadway musical, but animated and underwater. For the job of custodians and innovators, Menken and Ashman, who had written the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors, were a perfect choice. Menken could compose sumptuous melodies with a pop lilt, and the clever Ashman worked closely with Musker and Clements on the story. He suggested, for example, that Sebastian the Crab (Samuel E. Wright) be changed from a Jeeves-type English butler to a friendly Jamaican. From this decision came the calypso-inflected revel “Under the Sea” and the sweet samba “Kiss the Girl” — two numbers that broke out of the movie to become modest hits.

One measure of a song’s mainstream success is an Academy Award. Disney had earned Best Song Oscars in 1941 for “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio and in 1947 for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South. Then nothing — until The Little Mermaid again changed the studio’s luck. In the past quarter-century, ten Disney tunes have won the Best Song Oscar: “Under the Sea,” “Beauty and the Beast” (Menkin and Ashman), “A Whole New World” (Menkin and Tim Rice) from Aladdin, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (Rice and Elton John) from The Lion King, “Colors of the Wind” (Menken and Stephen Schwartz) from Pocahontas, “You’ll Be in My Heart” (Phil Collins) from Tarzan, “If I Didn’t Have You” (Randy Newman) from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., “We Belong Together” (Newman) from Pixar’s Toy Story 3, “Man or Muppet” (Bret McKenzie) from the live-action The Muppets and the worldwide smash “Let It Go” (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) from Frozen.

In some ways, The Little Mermaid was old-fashioned. Rendered in the hand-drawn style, it was the last Disney animated feature to use cels and Xeroxing. Pixar and its CGI imitators soon made that rigorous process obsolete. The Toy Story, Shrek and Ice Age franchises taught audiences to accept movies that emphasized comedy, not romance, and to forget that a cartoon feature was supposed to sing. Not until the return of the Disney princess musical — The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen — did moviegoers re-warm to the old pleasure of leaving a theater humming as well as smiling.

But the phrase “old-fashioned” means nothing to kids treated to their first view of a Disney classic like The Little Mermaid. Its humor and heart, not to mention its verve and impeccable craft, can touch any viewer today as it did in 1989. How lucky we are that this timeless movie became part of our world.

Read TIME’s Nov. 1989 review of The Little Mermaid, here in the archives: Festive Film Fare for Thanksgiving

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