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, Disney’s 28th animated feature, was released in theaters—although you wouldn’t know it by visiting your local mall, international music venue, or favorite Disney theme park where
has just as strong a presence as it did almost three decades ago. It’s a film that broke ground and still persists as one of the most beloved animated films of all time. Re-watching the film, it’s easy to see why.
is an undeniably powerful story. Walt Disney attempted the story after
became a phenomenon, and the film would have been part of a live-action/animated anthology (this film would have also included the story that became
more than seven decades later). When the idea was proposed again, this time by the filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker, it was almost sidelined because the studio was also developing a sequel to their live action mermaid film
, and the studio was worried the two films would be too similar. New life was breathed into the film when the Broadway duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken joined the filmmaking team; with Ashman contributing story beats to the film (he was the one who changed the stuffy British crab into a jazzy Jamaican) and helping contribute to the movie’s brassy, Broadway style and structure.
still maintains such a place in people’s hearts: nobody had ever seen anything like it before. Sure, the studio had made musicals, and, in fact, the previous film from Walt Disney Animation Studios,
, had several songs. But this was a classically structured animated musical, with show-stopping musical numbers that helped develop the characters and advance the plot. (The last Disney animated feature with this amount of music was probably
, back in 1967.) There had never been anything attempted like this, particularly in animation, and it worked amazingly well.
It helps too that the songs by Ashman and Menken are truly unforgettable, with every song being catchier and more sing-along-able than the last. The soundtrack sold insanely well, reaching #32 on the Billboard chart, and won an Academy Award for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. (It was the first Disney animated film to earn an Academy Award nomination since
in 1977). It’s no surprise that both Disney California Adventure and Magic Kingdom attractions inspired by the ride feature whole set pieces centered around the songs, and that a musical version of the film has toured the world. The songs are
was lush and gorgeous, and looking at the credits, the film is a veritable who’s who of Disney Animation talent. Of course, everyone knows that the legendary animators Glen Keane supervised Ariel, and Andreas Deja was in charge of King Triton, but looking closer at the credits, you’ll see animators that would craft the shape of the medium in the decade to come. Rob Minkoff, who would go on to co-direct
, was an assistant animator, while Mark Henn was working on the film from the satellite facility in Florida (in Disney-MGM Studios, which had yet to open). Roger Allers, the other co-director of
, was a storyboard artist, as was Brenda Chapman, who would win an Oscar for her work on
, was a visual effects supervisor. For their part, after getting their big break on
was filled with extremely talented artists and it shows.
packs just as much of a punch as it did oh, so long ago is because it’s so relatable. It’s a story that featured cutting-edge narrative, combining both classical approaches to storytelling with painterly animation, but whose biggest special effect was its enormous heart. Ariel (voiced by Jodi Benson) is a headstrong teenager, who yearns for something more than what her overbearing father has provided for her. She follows her heart. Even though her plight is specific, it still resonates today. Even if you’ve never been in her situation, you know what it feels like to be young and frustrated, craving independence and autonomy.
still resonating with people in the endless supply of fresh merchandise that floods stores like Hot Topic, in the lengthy lines for the attraction at both the Magic Kingdom and Disney California Adventure, and in the way that adults still dress as the characters. Even though things are way different than they were in 1989, we can’t help but still feel like we’re part of her world.
Tagged as: Jodi Benson, John Musker, Ron Clements, The Little Mermaid (1989)
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