When I say that, I don't mean like... “In the world”, but it did change everything. For Disney, a company on the brink of irrelevance. For me, a kid who...well... had it pretty good, so it's not like The Little Mermaid, or Disney “saved” me from anything, but it opened my eyes to an art form. That counts for something. A lot actually.
Disney, the animation company, was at an all time low in it's history. Of course, there'd been some low times before. The sagging success of most of the features post-Snow White up through the war. That was certainly bad, though those movies have all come to be considered classics. Many consider Pinocchio to be one of the greatest achievements in hand-drawn animation. Fantasia speaks for itself. Bambi. I could go on.
Even in the darkest times for Walt, his movies were spectacular. The same can not be said for the period we like to call “most of the 80s”. There were 5 animated features released by the company in the decade of the 80s and I dare you to name the first 4. They aren't BAD movies. In fact, The Fox and the Hound is pretty good. After that, though, we have 3 of the least loved animated features ever released by the Disney company. The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company.
There are people who love these movies, but none of them have the same timeless feel as it's predecessors, and really...that's what Disney banks on. They rely on the sale of DVDs and the re-releases, and the introducing of new generations to the magic of Disney. I never saw any of those movies in the theater. I never watched any of them on VHS. I was a Mary Poppins fan, sure. I was loved The Jungle Book and Peter Pan and 101 Dalmations. A whole young generation (mine) was deprived of it's own classic, and Disney was fading.
Who knew a film prominently featuring fish would turn things around?
The Little Mermaid was released on November 17, 1989 and pretty much blew everyone away. Disney'd finally returned to the formula that had made them great. Phenomenal music, humor, mind-blowing animation, and memorable characters. The movie made over 170 million dollars. More than the other 80's Disney flicks combined.
It was a return to a full musical, a tradition that had lasted for 40 years but hadn't really been pursued since the 70s.
It was the first adapted fairy tale since Sleeping BeautyIt won an Oscar for Best Original Score and had 2 songs nominated for Best Song.
The post-Little Mermaid success for Disney is well documented. The animation department went from employing 300 people in 1988 to almost 2500 by the year 2000. The years that followed provided Disney with the Academy Awards, and HUGE financial success of almost every movie they've released since then (sorry Treasure Planet and Atlantis). They've created the relationship with computer animation company Pixar. The last 20 years have been so successful that the era is known as “The Disney Renaissance”.
As for me... it's a little more mushy. The memories are more personal and the connections are more ethereal.
As I said, The Little Mermaid was the first classic for my generation. I watched that movie at sleep-overs, and at my grandparents. I sang the songs in Theater Camp (yep.. ). I acted out “Le Poissons” at my buddy Matt's house (.... yyyep.) Hell... I even made out with a girl (when I was 12) while it played in the background. (I'm...not proud). I remember reading the Audio-Book to my sister when she was barely 3 or 4. She loved it when I'd dance to “Under the Sea”. I wonder if she remembers that.
More than anything else, it made me anticipate every Disney movie since then. It made me excited, when I was 13, to be going to Disney World. I am certain that my first visit to Disney wouldn't have been as meaningful as it was, had The Little Mermaid not set me up to love the place.
Here are the 3 most important things to me about The Little Mermaid
1) My on-going joke about Prince Eric at Disney World. I've long argued that the role of Prince Eric in “Voyage of The Little Mermaid” is the greatest single role in live theater anywhere in the world. He barely says a word. He knows his show isn't going to be closing any time soon. His sole responsibility is to run out on stage, shout “Ariel!” and then kiss her. 8 times a day. Perfect gig.
2) “Kiss the Girl” is one of the 5 greatest Disney songs. There's not much to say about that. You have Sebastian being all sexy and being all “Wind. Wooords.” The soft steel drum. The effing hilarious Buddy Hackett as Scuttle. It's a classic. I want it to be the first dance at my wedding.
3) The return of the great Disney Villain. To me, Villains make the story. If there's not a good villain, there's no stakes. There's no danger. There's no conflict. I have always been mostly drawn to villains. Disney has had some great villains in it's time. Captain Hook is obviously the greatest (I'll elaborate on the next Wednesdays with Walt). After that there's a whole gaggle of other great ones... Scar, Jafar, Cruella, Hades... There are tons of them, and Ursula the Sea Witch brought it all back. She's scary. She's funny. She's got the GREAT song “Poor Unfortunate Souls”. She returned the Disney Villain to glory. I love her.
So... Watch it again. I guarantee it'll be as good you remember. That's why it's the movie that saved Disney. It's the first classic of my generation.