The Little Mermaid changed everything.
This may seem like hyperbole, but it isn’t. There are Disney movies that I now love more than The Little Mermaid, but I absolutely revere this wonderful film, and it will always hold a special place in my heart because it was really the first. More on that later.
As detailed in Don Hahn’s wonderful and essential documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney in the 1980s was a company on life support, going through the motions and trying very hard to reclaim former greatness, but never really hitting any home runs. Under the leadership of Walt Disney himself, the company had thrived and been a bastion of creativity, always pushing the boundaries of what could be done. When Walt died, a big portion of his company died too, though it took years before to become completely apparent that the spirit was gone, though the body still lived. The Jungle Book was the last movie that Walt was actively involved with, and if you look at the movies made over the next two decades following his death, you’ll see how much the company was struggling creatively. Walt Disney Animation Studios only created seven feature films between the passing of Walt and what we now call the Disney Renaissance. Seven animated movies in 22 years. Clearly something was wrong.
But then the Little Mermaid hit theaters, and it was like an atomic bomb inside my brain. Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the two talents that had brought The Great Mouse Detective to screens five years earlier, The Little Mermaid heralded the triumphant return of Walt Disney Animation Studios and the kind of movies that Walt Disney himself had passion for creating. The Little Mermaid returns to classic storytelling by once again drawing on a fairy tale for inspiration. Audiences hadn’t seen a fairy tale in their Disney animation in an entire generation of filmmaking.
Of course, it would be criminal to talk about all the wonderful aspects of this movie and fail to mention the incredible music. In the years before The Little Mermaid, Disney had often dropped music from their animated films altogether. They’d recently dipped a toe back into the musical component of their films with Oliver and Company, which was their version of the Dickens classic Oliver Twist with positive results. That movie relied heavily on the music of Billy Joel, which was certainly timely and appealing to audiences of the day, but The Little Mermaid goes in a different direction, drawing inspiration from Broadway, not pop music. In doing this, it doesn’t become timely; it becomes timeless.
The year of 1989 (and even into 1990) was defined by Batman and The Little Mermaid, at least for me. Both movies were everywhere in ways you can’t even imagine if you weren’t there. We still have major pop culture events today, but we tend to move on within a matter of days, if not hours. We did not move on quickly from those two movies in 1989. We lived with this stuff, pored over it, went to see it again and again. All my friends had the soundtrack on cassette (no one I knew had a CD player in 1989) and we all wore the tape out. And remember, I wasn’t four or five years old; I was going into middle school when appearances are everything. We just didn’t care! We loved it, and we all knew that there was something special about this Disney movie. It felt different. It felt electric. I even had the original movie poster on the back of my bedroom door, complete with the phalluses that the disgruntled Disney artists had hidden in plain sight.
Frozen and Zootopia, but the current success of Disney’s animation division all these years later still owes a huge debt of gratitude to a wonderful, restless girl named Ariel and the risks taken by the talented people who helped tell her story.