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It might be a little too girly or sugar-sweet for some but that doesn’t change the fact that Disney’s 1989 adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is one of the most important animated films ever made. For twenty years following Walt Disney’s death the studio and the wider animated film medium had been enduring a period of creative stagnation, an era known as the Wilderness Years. Classic films were few and far between and, surrounded by less than inspired titles marred by lazy writing and underworked animation. While I firmly believe that Disney’s output in this period is actually rather underrated there’s no question that the early nineties saw a creative resurgence in the industry that has continued ever since. Disney produced hit after hit and in 1995 new kid on the block Pixar arrived announcing itself with the fantastic Toy Story. Disney started to lose the plot with the new millennium but Pixar was there to maintain the animation industry’s longest period of continued excellence, something the mouse house is getting back to doing themselves with their recent revival through films like Tangled. The years of success are commonly called the Disney Renaissance but it’s actually been a Renaissance for the entire animation industry, one that looks set never to end. All this can be traced back to The Little Mermaid, the picture that kick-started the revival.

The film is a fantasy romance, pure and simple. Sixteen-year-old mermaid Ariel has an angelic singing voice but she’s usually to busy exploring her fascination with the things that sink below the waves from the human world to remember to attend concerts. On an illicit trip to the surface she saves the life of dashing Prince Eric from a storm and promptly falls in love, etching her wondrous voice into his heart in the process. With her father forbidding her to return to the world above she pays a rebellious visit to the tentacled sea witch Ursula who agrees to turn her human for a price – her precious voice.

The film’s success are down to three key fronts, Disney’s smart return to the hits of their Golden Age by delving into romantic fairytale, an increase in the production values visible in the colourful animation and the best repertoire of songs the studio had produced in decades. The story evokes the fundamental appeal of escapism, the fantastical undersea setting, the young protagonist pining for something more, the fish-out-water comedy, literally. The tone is cheerful in extremis but the necessary tension and darkness is there provided par excellence by Ursula, one of the most deliciously fabulous baddies in Disney history.

As the light story unfolds every scene is given lift by the wonderful array of colours on show. The studio’s recent previous output like Oliver & Company and The Rescuers looks bland by comparison. The visual direction and exciting set pieces combine to give the film an epic feel that had been largely missing from the company’s films for some time. This was the way it continued in other fairytale films that followed including Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Alan Menken’s delightful music found an enthusiasm and sense of fun that was both fresh and mainstream, each crucial song from Part of Your World to Poor Unfortunate Souls memorable in its own right.

It’s also got some cracking characters. Ariel just about transcends the blandness that sometimes holds back protagonists with her wide-eyed exuberance and rebellious streak while Prince Eric is handsome and gallant but has enough personality to distinguish himself from previous Disney Princes. The aforementioned villain gets full marks as does rasta-crab Sebastian who goes down as one of the most entertaining comedy sidekicks around.

There’s no denying that the film is more for girls than boys but it’s not like there’s nothing for we of the less fair sex to enjoy, namely the cute redhead in the lead and while the cutesiness is enough to put many off I’ve lost count of the number of times my buddy Ryan and I have spontaneously broken into renditions of Under the Sea. Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin probably have the edge over the earlier picture but The Little Mermaid is still among the best Disney films and the question we connoisseurs of animation must ask is where would the industry be now without it?

Verdict

The film that started the animation Renaissance remains superb value as a fairy story, a romance and an adventure. Iconic songs, great character comedy and pretty pictures combine with timeless results.

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