After some lackluster years, Disney came back into the top rank of animated features with this superbly entertaining musical, based loosely on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (but with a happier ending).
Ariel was the first in a series of refreshingly plucky Disney heroines. Instead of dreaming about the day her prince will come, or waiting for a fairy godmother or a Prince’s kiss, Ariel is a spirited and curious mermaid who is willing to take action in order to meet Prince Eric, the man of her dreams, though she is gullible and impetuous in agreeing to the terms demanded by the seawitch in exchange for making it possible for her to go on land.
She goes to the seawitch (Pat Carroll, first rate as Ursula the octopus) to ask her to turn her tail into legs. But Ursula has two conditions. Ariel has to give up her voice. And if Eric does not kiss her within three days, Ariel will become Ursula’s slave forever. She agrees, and has to find a way to persuade Eric to fall in love with her without using her voice, despite Ursula’s crafty plans to prevent it.
NOTE: In addition to the “normal” scariness of the sea witch, some children may find the casual bloodthirstiness of the French chef upsetting, especially in the musical number in which he tries to turn Sebastian into crabmeat.
The wonderful voice characterizations in this film include Buddy Hackett (“The Music Man”) as Scuttle the scavanging seagull and Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, the calypso-singing crab. The first-class musical score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who worked together on the off-Broadway hit, “Little Shop of Horrors”) ranks with the best of Broadway and won Oscars for Best Score and Best Song (“Under the Sea”). Some viewers criticize the movie for providing yet another wasp-waisted Disney heroine whose whole world revolves around a man. But Ariel is adventuresome, rebellious, and brave. It is true that she makes the mistake of giving up her voice to the sea witch (a very strong female character, to say the least), which provides a good opportunity for family discussion.
A straight to video sequel about Ariel’s daughter called The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea is exceptionally good, with first-class animation and a lot of heart and humor.