The Little Mermaid (1989) – A sparkling pearl under the sea

By Jose Anguiano

May 24th, 2023

With “The Little Mermaid” remake due in theaters, it makes sense to lookback on the 1989 phenomenon that launched Disney back into the spotlight.


In the early 1980’s, Disney’s nine old men passed the baton to a new generation of animators, and yet the department was in danger of closing down following the box-office failure of “The Black Cauldron”.

However, films like “The Great Mouse Detective”, “Oliver and Company” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” pushed the medium with new innovations as executives held a gong show for the team to pitch new story ideas.

“The Little Mermaid” was initially rejected for being too similar to the Tom Hanks vehicle “Splash”, but it eventually entered production with director’s Ron Clements and John Musker.

Codirectors Ron Clements (Left) and John Musker (Right)

Song writing team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were brought in to write the songs following the success of “Little Shop of Horrors”.

Ashman also salvaged Jodi Benson from his failed stage adaptation of “Smile” to play the leading mermaid.

They held meetings with the animators on the history of theater which played a huge part in the music.

In fact, Ashman was so influential during production that he received a producer credit.

His contributions outside the music and lyrics included changing Sebastian the crab from an upper crust British servant to the Jamaican musician we know today.

Lyricist Howard Ashman (Left) and composer Alan Menken (Right)

That did not stop Jeffrey Katzenberg from nearly cutting “Part of Your World” after an early test screening with storyboards failed to excite kids.

Clements, Musker, Ashman and animator Glen Keane successfully advocated to keep the song in the finished feature.

“Not only did it stay in the movie, but it’s one of the more memorable moments in the film,” Katzenberg commented in the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty”.


Like a lot of Disney animated films, it’s pointless to compare this to the original story since, spoiler alert, the main character doesn’t die.

Everything else about Hans Christian Anderson’s tale about a Mermaid going to the surface benefits from the Disney brand from the villain to the music to the setting to the animation.

This is one of the most tightly paced films in the company’s catalog, which is saying a lot since they are celebrating 100 years of cinematic magic.

All the characters from Scuttle to Sebastian to King Triton and even Eric’s dog Max are incredibly memorable to the point of overshadowing the main couple since they go through more compelling arcs than she does.

Then of course, there is Ursula who steals the show with her diabolical plan to rule the ocean.

The late Pat Caroll gives her most iconic performance as one of the best villains in Disney’s rogues gallery, especially compared to the twist villain fetish from the 2010’s.

She has enough smarts to be her own lawyer aided by her loyal eels, Flotsam and Jetsom, who she sees more than just as sidekicks when they bite the dust.

Her sassy personality defined an entire generation in how she conveys her excitement, annoyance and plotting nature while possibly being more relatable than the main lead.

Alot of people gave credit to Menken for the musical score even when he cited Ashman as the driving force behind a lot of creative choices. But together, the music and lyrics bring out the best in the story by conveying the characters wants and desires like “Part of Your World”:

The song “Under the Sea” is the most iconic as Sebastian turns a pitch into an all-out jam to convince Ariel that life underwater is better than on land:

Caroll solidified herself as a musical legend thanks to her big villain number “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, and Melissa McCarthy has some big tentacles to fill.

But the standout number is the comedically dark “Les Poissons” as Sebastian navigates a kitchen run by a passionate chef:

As the last Disney film to utilize traditionally hand painted cells before switching to the Computer Animated Production System (CAPS), this is one of the most beautifully animated films from the company, right down to the last air bubble.

The fluidity in every frame adds to the immersion of being underwater without a scuba diving suit.

The attention to under water physics rivals the best computer animation today.

The dynamic lighting in scenes like the storm, the grotto destruction and the final battle give it an edge over all the bronze age movies when budgets were constrained, and animation was recycled despite taking longer to complete.

Even the computer animated sequences that popped up more often in future films are outfitted to stand alongside the hand drawn environments.

This brings us to the one element people are split on to this day.

Defending Ariel

Since its release, the internet and celebrities has mocked how much of a simp Ariel is with her desire to go to the surface because of a man, a detail that the remake will likely go out of its way to course correct.

Films like “Enchanted” and “Frozen” proved how much feminism has progressed since the 1990s while films like “Ralph Breaks the Internet” poked fun of this trope without taking in the context of the film.

In this case, Ariel is not a completely dated stereotype.

In fact, she is more memorable than 2020’s Mulan or 2019’s Captain Marvel despite all the effort that went into writing said characters.

In the case of Mulan, many of her interesting qualities were spayed in the 2020 remake compared to her 1998 counterpart.

While both 2020’s Mulan and Captain Marvel work as symbols, they do not work as characters because they do not have any interesting traits outside of being strong women.

Not that strong women are bad, but there has to be something more to them than just being strong.

Ariel is nice yet can be pushed to her limits like when her father destroys her grotto. She is an explorer that will go out of her way to follow her passions even when everyone pushes against them. Her voice is so strong that it can travel for miles on land and sea. She likes seeking out new experiences and knowledge about her passions like the human world.

This is shown and told through both the writing and the animation when she communicates with and without her voice.

What people don’t realize is that her motivation for exploring the surface was already conveyed in the song “Part of Your World”, with lyrics like:

Betcha on land
They understand
That they don't reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
Ready to stand

Keane’s animation also gives her so much personality and a variety of expressions as she swims in the ocean and walks on land.

Sure, the reprise puts more emphasis on Eric because romance is a part of the human experience, but when she gets to the surface her curiosity is in full force, particularly when they explore the town.

Plus, if going by nitpick logic, Ariel saves Eric as much as he saves her:

So, to label her as passive when she displays a lot of initiative is not critical thinking because it dishes out accusations without delving beneath the surface.

Admittedly, the story does shift more focus on her romance than her as a person, even when Eric is more interested in getting to know her during the “Kiss the Girl” segment.

But even if the romance lasts for only three days before the wedding ceremony at the end, they still show a lot of chemistry and want to get to know each other based on interests and personality.

She might not be a perfect representation given that teens are likely to make some mistakes, but characters like Anna and Elsa wouldn’t exist without Ariel paving the way.

Despite what the internet says, “The Little Mermaid” remains one of the shining pearls in Disney history. Because the animation department was on the line, everyone went out of their way to make this as amazing as it could be. Even if some elements don’t hold up today, the music, songs, villain, and story are some of the best ingredients for a rich narrative from this studio. One wonder what would’ve happened if this tanked and how different Disney would be without the animation that started as Walt’s bread and butter. Either way, it’s a shining pearl under the sea that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Pros: Memorable songs, Oscar worthy music, iconic villain, outgoing lead, tightly paced story, fun side characters

Cons: Dated fairy tale material, overshadowed leads



Upon its release, “The Little Mermaid” impressed both critics and audiences, the first time since “The Jungle Book” in 1967.

Siskel and Ebert’s review

It grossed $211 million on a budget of $40 million.

Its success solidified animated musicals as a mainstay during the decade as several studios tried to capitalize on its success like “Quest for Camelot” from Warner Bros., Don Bluth’s “Anastasia” from 20th Century Fox and “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” from Paramount, the latter two of which were the only financially successful Disney clones.

Menken and Ashman won Golden Globes, Grammy Awards and Oscars for musical score and original song “Under the Sea”, beating out competition like John Williams.

According to several animators, the film’s success saved the animation department from permanent closure, although some controversy still ensued.

During the VHS release, parents claimed the film had intances of phalic imagery, particularly with the castle design and a scene with a priest at a wedding.

Artists claimed that the castle design was a latent dysfunction from the impending deadlines to finish the art.

This cover was recalled, and Disney created a new cover for futrue releases.

Several video games adapted the movie like the 1991 NES game by Capcom.

A prequel series ran on the Disney Afternoon in 1992 for three seasons, and yes one episode featured and African American mermaid as a supporting character, much to the surprise of the internet.

In 2008, a Broadway adaptation was brought the life with several cut storylines restored such as Triton and Ursula being siblings, making Ariel her niece.

It also received a dark ride in 2011 and 2012 at Disney’s California Adventure and Walt Disney World titled “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure”.

The world became a frequent destination in the “Kingdom Hearts” series, though people pointed out the flaws in its approach to water levels.

While Sebastian was voiced by numerous actors in related media like Kevin Michael Richardson, Keith Furgeson and Phillip Lawrence, his original voice actor, Samuel E. Wright, passed away on May 24th, 2021.

In 2022, Benson released her autobiography “Part of My World: What I’ve Learned from The Little Mermaid about Love, Faith, and Finding my Voice”.

Caroll continued voicing Ursula in all related projects until her passing on Jul. 30th, 2022.

In that same year, “The Little Mermaid” was added to the National Film Registry alongside 2008’s “Iron Man” for being culturally significant.

And of course, it also kickstarted one of the most memorable periods in the company’s history – the Disney Renaissance.

This is the Cinematic Bandicoot and “The Little Mermaid” is still a treasure that was crucial to making Disney the powerhouse it was in the 1990’s. Future films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen” improved in both story and feminism, but “The Little Mermaid” walked so “Frozen” could run. With the remake on the horizon and audiences burned out from “Mulan”, “Pinocchio” and “Peter Pan and Wendy”, there’s still a chance this interpretation can bring something different to the table after some much internet discourse. Then again, that could be said for all the live action remakes before release.


Works Cited


Wasilak, Sarah. “Mindy Kaling Will Make You Think Twice Before Watching The Little Mermaid With Your Daughter.” Pop Sugar, 13 Jun. 2023.


Anderson, Hans C. The Little Mermaid. Copenhagen, C. A. Reitzel, 1873.

Beck, Jerry. The Animated Movie GuideChicago Review Press, 2005.

Benson, Jodi. Part of My World: What I’ve Learned from The Little Mermaid About Love, Faith, and Finding My VoiceTyndale Momentum, 2022.

Bluth, Don. Somewhere Out There: My Animated LifeSmart Pop, 2022.

Davis, Amy M. Good Girls and Wicked Witches: Changing Representations of Women in Disney’s Feature Animation, 1937-2001John Libbey Publishing, 2007.

Dundes, Lauren. The Psychological Implications of Disney MoviesMultidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 2019.

Sito, Tom. Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart SimpsonUniversity Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Stewart, James B. DisneyWarSimon & Schuster, 2005.

Weisser, Susan O. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love StoriesRutgers University Press, 2013.


Howard. Directed by Don Hahn, Stone Circle Pictures, 2018.

Waking Sleeping Beauty. Directed by Don Hahn, Stone Circle Pictures, 2010.

Journal Articles

Sebring, Jennifer H., and Pauline Greenhill. “The Body Binary: Compulsory Able-bodiedness and Desirably Disabled Futures in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea.” Marvels and Tales, vol. 34, no. 2, 2020, pp. 256-276, Accessed 24 May 2023.


Captain Marvel. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019.

Enchanted. Directed by Kevin Lima, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2007.

Frozen. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Walt Disney Feature Animation, 2013.

Mulan. Directed by Niki Caro, Walt Disney Pictures, 2020.

Ralph Breaks the Internet. Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2018.

The Little Mermaid. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1989.


“‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Iron Man’ Added to National Film Registry.” The Walt Disney Company, 14 Dec. 2022, Accessed 24 Apr. 2023.

YouTube Videos

“10 BIGGEST Disney Controversies | LIST KING.” YouTube, uploaded by Fact Central, 12 Mar. 2016,

“Disney Censorship / Myth Comparison: The Priest’s Erection in The Little Mermaid (1989).” YouTube, uploaded by Chuck Penn 3, 14 Feb. 2023,

“How Part Of Your World Works | Dreamsounds.” YouTube, uploaded by Dreamsounds, 30 Apr. 2023,

“How to Write a Compelling Romance.” YouTube, uploaded by Mr. Coat, 13 May 2023,

“In Defense of Ariel – How Disney’s The Little Mermaid Is Misunderstood.” YouTube, uploaded by Calxiyn, 30 Jun. 2021,

“Reevaluating The Little Mermaid Before Disney Horks up Another Live Action Remake.” YouTube, uploaded by Lindsay Ellis, 16 Jun. 2021,

“The History of Walt Disney Animation Studios + (7/16) – Animation Lookback.” YouTube, uploaded by ElectricDragon505, 15 May 2020,

“The Little Mermaid Wins Original Score: 1990 Oscars.” YouTube, uploaded by Oscars, 1 Feb. 2014,

“The Unique Queerness of Howard Ashman’s Songs | Dreamsounds.” YouTube, uploaded by Dreamsounds, 1 Mar. 2019,

“Top Five Worst Water Levels in Video Games – Rabbidluigi.” YouTube, uploaded by RabbidLuigi, 22 May 2020,

“‘Under The Sea’ Wins Original Song: 1990 Oscars.” YouTube, uploaded by Oscars, 4 Sept. 2014,

“Which Is Better? “The Little Mermaid” or “Luca”? (Patreon Question).” YouTube, uploaded by Mr. Coat, 2 Feb. 2022,


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