Sebastian: The human world is a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
The Disney Renaissance was a prosperous time for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Their movies were well animated, their stories were well told, and their characters were well defined. And this was the movie that started it all. Is it a good movie? Absolutely. Is it flawless? Well let’s take a look.
Our main character Ariel is a 16 year old mermaid living with her six sisters and her father King Triton; the sea king of Atlantica. She finds herself fascinated with the human world and wants to become human herself despite her father prohibiting it. She saves the life of a human prince named Eric from a shipwreck and decides she wants to be with him. Thus she goes to Ursula the sea witch who turns her human in exchange for her voice. However, because she does not have her voice, she cannot tell Eric who she is and has to start from the beginning to win his heart. Meanwhile, Ursula hatches her evil scheme to take over Atlantica.
As is with most Disney Renaissance films, this movie takes place between two environments: the land and the sea. Both environments are beautifully shown and the movie takes full advantage of what they have to offer while still spending the appropriate time on both of them.
Despite the fact that the romance is simply over a period of three days and that they did (technically) meet before, it is good that the two do have to start from scratch. Even though the romance is not perfect, it is still developed.
The animation in this movie is beautiful. All the characters are amazingly drawn and the camera angles, colors, and backgrounds in every scene are a sight to behold even to this day. This was the last Disney film to use watercolors and they truly took advantage of it in showing just how beautiful the environment our characters are living with are in.
Ariel is one of the more controversial leads in Disney history. On the one hand, her passion and drive to be a part of the human world is certainly a unique quality. When she’s in the village her curiosity about the human world is in full bloom. She’s very adventurous and it leads to a lot of enjoyable and funny moments. She’s very determined and is willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. However she doesn’t go through any potential story arc. The problems she faces along the way don’t lend their way to much character development and in spite of how much trouble she brings upon herself and others, she still gets what she wants at the end without learning anything. But to her credit once she sees how much trouble she’s caused she does admit her mistake. However the scene where she admits her wrongdoing is only a few seconds and again, at the end of it all she gets what she wants.
Prince Eric is somewhat forgettable. He’s shown as a hopeless romantic looking for true love. Upon being saved by Ariel he does feel gratitude towards her and wants to find and marry her. And to his credit, he does prove his commitment to Ariel by helping fight Ursula in the climax. The problem is, there isn’t that much to his character on his own. He’s not a bad character per se but he’s not very memorable.
Ursula is a great villain. Her design is incredible. And the form she takes later on is also well animated. All she really wants is power but the manner in which she tries to obtain it and revels in having it (in both forms) is just so delightfully fun to watch.
King Triton is one of the greatest Disney parents and isn’t just restricted to merely being a comedic side character. He has a legitimately well-shown character arc regarding his relationship with Ariel and the sacrifice he makes for this daughter is one of the more iconic moments in the film.
The songs in the movie are brilliant. Each one is different in what it’s trying to provide and contributes to the movie’s tone. They’re catchy, they’re evil, they’re romantic, and each one sticks out with both its clever lyrics and beautiful visuals.
The side characters are a lot of fun. There’s the timid but loyal fish named Flounder, the no-nonsense and worrisome crab Sebastian, an eccentric sea gull who like Ariel has his own fascination with the human world named Scuttle, a hilariously crazy chef that tries to kill him named Louis, and Ursula’s diabolical eels Flotsam and Jetsam. And these side characters aren’t used as mere foil either, they all play to the plot in their own special way.
Despite the movie having flaws in its main leads, everything else about this movie is great. It’s enjoyable to watch as a kid and even as an adult despite its flaws, it has plenty to appreciate. It has strong animation, good side characters, fun songs, and an awesome villain. And this would only be the start of what would come from Disney for the next decade.