80s Movie Challenge Week 7: The Little Mermaid (1989)

We’re back at the other end of the decade now for more #80smc fun! This time Rebecca takes a look back at the movie which turned Disney’s fortunes around and pretty much kickstarted the Disney Princess craze.

1984: Tom Hanks rescued a blonde mermaid (Daryl Hannah) in Splash!, Alyssa Milano was the feisty daughter of Tony Danza in Who’s The Boss? and Howard Ashman was the lyricist in the musical Smile with a lady named Jodi Marie Marzorati.
Jodi had taken her husband’s surname of Benson by that time and sang a song called “Disneyland”. As Ashman heard Jodi sing, he was writing the lyrics to songs that would later win Oscars. The Mouse Kingdom had been sitting on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale since 1930, but with Walt’s demise, Don Bluth taking their animators, and a few lacklustre films they were struggling in murky waters.
Five years later, and Disney took the looks of Alyssa, the voice of Jodi, the lyrics of Ashman and turned the mermaid into a feisty young red-head called Ariel. There hadn’t been a female focussed film from Disney since Sleeping Beauty, and they wanted someone who the younger audience could identify with. Many had grown up with Samantha “Sam” Micelli played by Alyssa Milano.

Here was a princess with six older daughters & a father who doted on her; but who had no chance to get outside into the real world with her dinglehoppers.
From here, rather than the Princess waiting for a husband – Ariel breaks out, performs a Faustian deal with the “Devil” herself and tries to win the man she falls in love with. This is the Princess that fights for her man and rather than fade away into the sea-spray, takes on the horrors that the deep can hold, including her Dad’s power and anger.
Jodi Benson, who is Ariel’s voice in all things (even Wreck it Ralph 2), gives The Little Mermaid its underlying message. Ariel’s voice is her soul, and it’s what Eric falls in love with; not her pretty face or body language.
“Part Of Your World” brings a leitmotif to the struggle carrying the film from awkward teen to empowered adventurer, finishing with bride-to-be, despite Jeffrey Katzenberg threatening to remove it when it tested poorly with school kids. What do they know?
Mention also has to be made for Samuel Wright as the lyrical Sebastian, who matches Ariel’s pathos with a calypso cheer. Originally, Sebastian was to be posh English but was rewritten as a Rastafari Jamaican. Samuel found his impression lacking, so turned the crab to his native Trinidadian – and made “Under The Sea” into an Oscar Winner.

That’s not to say we can forget Star Trek’s Odo as the mad French Chef, faithful Flounder, the creepy eels Flotsam and Jetsam, or the Sea Witch herself, Ursula. Magnificently realised by Pat Carroll, she ensnares Ariel’s Father and the Undersea Kingdom by performing the pact with Ariel herself. Despite having a few too many fish dinners, she still has the curves to swing around those poor unfortunate souls.
The final battle between the all-powerful Ursula, the avenging Ariel and enraged Eric is truly nerve-wracking; as is watching Triton punished for protecting his daughter.

Ursula’s death is particularly gruesome, reminiscent of Lieutenant Ripley finishing off the Alien Queen. As she falls into the waves with Ariel dragging Eric away, there’s a moment – just a moment – where this time he might not make it. This is Disney though, and we know our tears will be of joy later.
It still feels as wonderful as when I first saw it, 30 years ago – and carries me through those times when the world above is just a little too much of a mess, because life Under The Sea is much better, down where it’s wetter.
(Music Geeks: Most of the score is in G Major apart from Ursula’s scene’s, which are G minor.)
The Little Mermaid took home 12 awards for its music (though none for Jodi/Ariel ☹) and paved the way, for not just the Disney Renaissance, but the Princesses themselves to have their own… what’s that word again?…films.
Sadly, Princess Ariel wasn’t allowed into the Disney Princesses until 2000 – but as Melody (her daughter) is yet to join, she still has time to be the first of the Disney Queens.

Hint. Hint.

Join us next week as Paul Childs takes us not only way back to 1980 but also back to work with 9 To 5.

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