The Little Mermaid (1989)
Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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After Ariel, a young mermaid who happens to be the daughter of Triton, the king of the oceans, sees and falls in love with a human being, Prince Eric, she makes a deal with the evil witch Ursula that allows her to become human herself, although without her beautiful voice and with the condition that, if she fails to win Eric's heart within three days, she will become Ursula's slave.

While Ron Clements and John Musker's animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's short children's story The Little Mermaid completely omits the poignant melancholy that pervades the literary work, it is sufficiently well made and engaging to charm the viewer.

The tone of the film is, in fact, significantly different than that of its source, even though the narrative still concerns a young mermaid's love for a mortal man. Not only does the movie include numerous humorous touches, but it is also enlivened with a youthful vigor combining a rebellious but innocent love of life with an eager adventurousness. Unlike the fairy tale, there is little that is tragic in the film, though Ariel and those she loves do at times face terrible dangers and difficult, painful choices. These individuals are never daunted by their fears, however, and are always thrilled by the marvels with which the world presents them.

Generally, this approach works well, even if it is not true to Andersen's tale. Regrettably, this lightheartedness is on occasion taken too far. Being a Disney movie, The Little Mermaid is, for example, filled with a plethora of adorable characters and saccharine moments. The excessively cute mannerisms and darling, childlike face or voice of one or another of these characters can be particularly grating. Fortunately, these are rarely so distracting that they prevent the film from being enjoyable.

Actually, the movie's sweetness constitutes a large part of its appeal. Ariel, in particular, is always pleasant and endearing. She is headstrong in an entirely ingenuous sort of way, wonderfully vivacious, and burning with excitement. Even though her companions, Sebastian, a good-hearted, frequently vexed crab with a Caribbean accent who was sent by the king of the sea to watch over his daughter, and Flounder, a chubby, juvenile fish who is the heroine's best friend, can be a little irritating, Ariel herself generally makes up for their shortcomings.

Visually, The Little Mermaid is never stunning and is unlikely to impress many persons with its beauty, but it is usually attractive to look at. Some of the characters are unduly cute, but, more often than not, the animation is nicely realized. The directors' depictions of the merfolk's undersea world is especially nicely done, being filled with fascinating but dangerous wrecked ships, a fabulous palace, and Ursula's gloomy, hellish lair. Even some of the sequences set outside of the waters are effective. That in which Ariel discovers her new legs is genuinely sweet, for example, and another depicting various frogs and birds singing to the former mermaid and the man she loves while they traverse the waters of a bay in a small boat is suffused with a quirky loveliness.

Lastly, I should note that even though the film's songs may not have any great artistic merit, they are all wonderfully fun to hear. What is more, a number of them have been conjoined with truly joyous routines. In one, for instance, schools of fish perform an elaborate Busby Berkeley style dance. In another, Ariel dreams of life above the waves and ponders the uses of various human artifacts she has collected, and, in a third, a French chef belts out corny lyrics about his love of seafood while Sebastian attempts to evade his swinging cleaver.

I will hardly claim that The Little Mermaid is an enduring classic, but it is a pleasant children's film that is likely to be enjoyed by a great many adults as well.

Review by Keith Allen

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